Does your trailer have electric brakes? Wondering if hooking the brakes up to an electrical system is going to be enough to ensure that the brakes are functioning? Read on!
The Job of a Brake Controller
We are going to assume that you already know what brakes do. If you don’t, then we are pretty sure that you shouldn’t be hopping into a vehicle, let alone using one with a trailer! What many people are confused about is the idea of a brake controller.
The job of the brake controller, as the name suggests, is to control the brakes. Whenever you break in your vehicle, the brake controller sends a signal through to the electric brakes to say “hey, you should probably be breaking too”
How a brake controller functions will be dependent on the system that you have. We don’t want to get into that too much as this is not the main focus of this article. You tend to have both wired and wireless brake controllers, though.
Basically, without a brake controller, your brakes won’t be working. This leads us neatly onto the main question for this page.
Can Electric Brakes Function Without a Brake Controller?
No, Electric brakes need to have a brake controller. Without having a brake controller, there is nothing to tell them when they should be engaging.
Now, you could plug the electric brakes into the electrical system for your vehicle. The brakes will be powered, but they are never going to be engaged because nothing about your vehicle is telling them that they should be engaged.
Do You Really Need a Brake Controller with Electric Brakes?
Of course, in the world of pulling trailers, not everything is as simple as we make it seem here.
In some states, you may not even need to be using the brakes. You will need to look at the rules for your particular state. However, if your trailer is below a certain weight, then you do not need to use the electric brakes, even if you have one installed.
This means that you do not need to buy a brake controller. Obviously, it is still useful to have one, but it is not necessary.
What Happens if You Don’t Use Brakes on a Trailer?
Let’s use a metaphor!
Imagine if you had a rope tied around your waist. Now, behind you, there is a second person with a rope tied around their waist.
You run. After a while, tell them to stop. You should stop at accidentally the same time. What happens? You both stop.
Now, do the same thing.but don’t tell the person when you are going to stop. What happens? That other person will either:
- Fall over
- Collide with you
- Randomly veer off course
Now, obviously, we do not suggest that you do this little experiment. It can be quite dangerous. However, what happens to that person in our example is exactly what would happen if a trailer does not have brakes. It takes a little bit of time to catch up to the vehicle that is stopping.
If you are on an Interstate and you randomly brake and there is nothing to tell the trailer to brake too, then you are going to be dealing with a rather serious accident.
Your vehicle may be ruined, you may veer off the road, the weight of the trailer may pull you to one side.
There is literally so much that can go wrong with no having a braking system in place that we encourage it, even if you have one of the lighter trailer options. It is just safe.
How Is a Brake Controller Installed?
As we said before, there are a couple of options that you have available when it comes to brake controllers.
You have your typical wired system. This will be physically wired into your vehicle. You won’t be able to move it. There will often be a switch that you can control the sensitivity of the brakes from inside of the vehicle.
Due to the effort that is required to install a brake controller like this, you will often need to head to a mechanic to have it done. This ensures that all of the electronics are hooked up properly.
The alternative option is to use a wireless brake controller. These are starting to become more and more common. A wireless brake controller will often sync up with your phone. It will plug directly into the 7-way on your vehicle.
These are simple to install, and they will often take mere seconds. The major benefit is that you will be able to carry the brake controller from one vehicle to another.
This is great if you are using multiple vehicles to tow trailers and other towed items!
How Do You Calibrate a Brake Controller?
Most modern brake controllers will calibrate automatically. You will need to do one thing beforehand, though.
Before you head out onto the open roads of the United States, you are going to need to find a flat surface, plug the trailer into the vehicle. In fact, make sure that everything is hitched up properly.
You then need to follow the instructions for your brake controller. Most will have a button that you need to press in order to ensure that everything has been properly calibrated. Hit that button.
After a minute or two, the brake controller will know the weight of your trailer, and you are ready to roll.
If you are lucky enough, then your brake controller will adjust the settings as you drive. This is because the brake settings can change depending on road conditions.
If you don’t have a brake controller that can do that, then you will need to pay attention to whether your brakes are locking up or the trailer isn’t braking fast enough.
You can then adjust the gain of the vehicle to suit.
Can Brake Controllers Cause the Brakes to Lock Up?
If you have a brake controller, it can cause the brakes to lock up. This is often going to occur if the gain of the brakes is set too high.
As you may well know, brake gain is about how much pressure is applied to the trailer when you brake. The higher the gain, the more pressure there is.
You may think that it is good to have a high gain, but it isn’t. If you have a lighter trailer, too much gain will cause the brakes to lock up.
This can cause some serious issues. Therefore, if you find that the brakes are locking up a lot, then you will need to switch that gain down.
Can Brake Controllers Cause the Electric Brakes Not to Function?
On the other side of the spectrum, brake controllers that have the gain set too low may result in the brakes not functioning as effectively as they should be functioning.
For example, if you have a heavy trailer and a low gain, the brakes will not be able to stop the trailer quickly enough. Not enough pressure is going to be applied.
Of course, the best way for you to deal with this problem is to ensure that you switch up the gain. As we said before, this is something that your brake controller will be able to do for you.
If your vehicle’s brake controller doesn’t do any sort of auto adjustments, then you will need to look into the manual to find out exactly what you need to be doing.
It is normally quite a simple job as adjusting the gain on electric brakes is one of the more important features. All you likely need to do is press a button or two.
Where Can You Buy a Brake Controller?
Brake controllers should be dead simple to find. Any company that sells towing or RV accessories will probably have them.
If you are buying a vehicle new, then you may even be able to buy the brake controller as part of the package. If you are unsure, then talk to a vehicle dealer.
Remember, when you are tracking down a brake controller, you should always read through as many reviews as you possibly can.
This way, you will be able to get a rough idea about which brake controller is going to be the right one for your own personal situation.
👉 Purchase: I really like the CURT 51180 Echo Mobile Electric Trailer Brake Controller with Bluetooth-Enabled. It’s not terribly expensive but gets amazing reviews. Just follow the link to Amazon where you can see current pricing.
If your vehicle has electric brakes, you do still need a brake controller. If you do not have one, then your brakes are not going to work.
That being said, there are some states where you do not need to have working brakes. It will all be dependent on the weight of your trailer.
I suggest that you look into the rules for your state to know what the laws that you need to abide by are. Remember, you will also need to pay attention to the rules for any other states that you are planning to drive through.
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