Breaking Down Brake Controllers

It may be April Fool’s Day, but brake controllers are no joke…

A trailer is a massive payload that will put additional stress on any vehicle’s braking system. Many do have a brake system of their own, but they differ from the systems in most vehicles. Some applications, such as boat trailers, may have a hydraulic system that works off inertia. But for the most part, electronic braking systems dominate this market. These systems rely on brake controllers that are equipped to the tow vehicle in order to operate. It’s important to note that picking out proper brake controllers goes deeper than just buying one off the shelf.

Pick and Choose

There are two common types of brake controllers. They can work on a time-delay system or proportionally. Understanding the differences in the two can really go a long way when picking out the right type. Curt Group gives an excellent breakdown on the characteristics of either, right on their website.

“Time-based activation means that the brake control monitors the amount of time that your foot is on the brake pedal and applies increasing pressure. In other words, the longer your foot is on the brake, the more braking power the brake control will send to the trailer brakes. … Inertia-based activation, on the other hand, works by measuring the changes in velocity in your vehicle. Inertia-based brake controls, or proportion-based brake controls, use accelerometers to turn physical forces into electrical signals. They apply a precise amount of brake pressure based on the inertia of your vehicle.”

Understand Your Needs

Either system sounds practical and like a good option. Obviously though, each comes with its own advantages. has a full article that dives in to the overall functions and differences between the two types. When it comes to choosing the right one they offer a helpful tip.

“Time-delayed controllers are for the occasional user and proportional ones are best for the heavy trailer user. They operate better under various conditions and produce less wear on tow and trailer brakes.”

Complete Trailer strengthens this opinion by explaining factors like cost differences, set-up requirements, and braking power. They state that proportional units do provide a smoother braking experience. However, they are also more costly, limited to the position they can be set in, and typically require calibration. So, the logic is that the overall investment of proportional brake controllers isn’t exactly worth it if they won’t be put to use often and are better left for heavy towing applications.

Righty or Lefty?

The design of brake controllers is meant to be as ergonomic as possible. The layout is designed, in part, to give users the ability to operate the unit with one hand. The only problem is that sometimes real-estate is pretty limited on the dashboard. Ideally, the place to mount the brake controller should be for right-handed operation, as the left hand is likely the dominant driving hand. This is why designers of RAM vehicles that come with factory brake controllers have mounted them on the right-hand-side straight from the factory.

Regardless, when installing a brake controller, users should keep in mind that they need to be comfortable operating it with only one hand. Being able to comfortably make adjustments while behind the wheel must be taken into consideration. More importantly, in a crisis situation when the user must override the system to lock up the brakes manually, having it in an awkward spot can only aid the downward spiral in that moment.

Easy Installation

Installation of these units is fairly simple. But keep in mind that modifications may have to be made in order to install them properly. Permanently mounting them to the dash and running a ground wire, for instance, might require some drilling. Additionally, the 12 volt wire has to run through the firewall in order to connect to the power source. And if no existing holes are available, one may have to be made. Otherwise, all that’s left is some minor wiring for the braking and the lighting power that will be run to the trailer.

Some steps may vary depending on the model vehicle and part number of the brake controller. But for the most part, it’s a job that can be done in under an hour. It sounds easy, and that’s the idea of the whole package: simple functions, simple design, and simple installation. It aims to get tow vehicles on the road as safely and quickly as possible.

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