Trailer Brakes FAQs

When stopping is as simple as moving your foot, it can be easy to take your brakes for granted. However, when you are hauling 4000 pounds of boat behind you, it is important to be cognizant of what your brakes are doing, and how they are doing. In particular, it is important to pay attention to your trailer brakes, because they operate differently that your tow vehicle’s brakes and are more exposed to the elements. Below you will find answers to some frequently asked questions about trailer brakes.

How do trailer brakes work?

Trailer Braking SystemTrailer brakes can use three different systems: hydraulic, electric, and electric over hydraulic (EOH). Hydraulic trailer brakes use what is called a surge actuator/coupler. When your tow vehicle stops, the surge actuator releases fluid into the brake which triggers the mechanism in the brake itself to activate. Surge brakes are an entirely self-contained system and need no hookups to the towing vehicle. However, there is a split second delay between wherein the trailer load pushes the tow vehicle and activate the surge actuator. This does require a longer distance to stop your rig so make sure to be wary of this while driving.

Electric brakes immediately call up a lot of questions because of the concern of electricity and water. They are not used for boat trailers because of this and are primarily for utility trailers. However, electric over hydraulic (EOH), is a combination of the two. They contain an electrical brake component and a hydraulic component which work in tandem to allow heavy duty boat trailers to stop safely and without damaging the braking system. The electrical part is in the front (ie. standard coupler, emergency brake kit, in cab electric brake controller). You purchase an EOH controller which acts as the brake coupler. The driver can control the output of the electric brakes and the signal goes into the EOH controller that converts that into a hydraulic output that sends the brake fluid back to the calipers or drums. This is typically used on heavy duty boat trailers (30-42 feet) as well as for drivers that going over hills or through the mountains. EOH are preferable in these scenarios because when you are going down hills with the standard hydraulic brakes, the coupler compresses which activates the brakes and will cause the brakes to burn up. With the EOH there is no coupler so the brakes will not activate until the brake pedal is pressed.

How do I know if they’re working?

Because you cannot physically feel your trailer brakes engaging, it can be hard to tell if they are actually working, especially if you suspect damage. The simplest way to check is to lift one side of the trailer and spin the wheels while someone applies the surge brakes at the actuator. For a more thorough check, remove the wheels and drums and activate the brakes to check that the wheel cylinders and brake assemblies are properly functioning.

What are the different types of brakes?

Trailer BrakesTrailer brakes come in two varieties: disc and drum. Disc brakes are easier to maintain than drum brakes and more effective with heavier boats. They work with a disc and hydraulically operated caliper. The caliper squeezes the brake pads on either side of the disc when hydraulic pressure is applied. In comparison to drum brakes, disc brakes offer better resistance to fade when descending a mountain pass or stop-and-go traffic, are self-adjusting, have greater stopping power, and are easy to visually inspect. While it may seem that disc brakes are the obvious choice, drum brakes can be more effective with lighter boats. Drum brakes give better braking torque at a lower hydraulic pressure. They operate by pushing brake shoes outward against the inside of the brake drum via a small hydraulic cylinder. Drum brakes are inexpensive, but hard at access and need to be adjusted annually or every 3000-5000 miles.

How do I maintain my brakes?

Your trailer brakes regularly come close contact with water (fresh or salt). Even if you have hydraulic brakes, they are still susceptible to rust and corrosion. You should check your brake components on an annual basis. Remove the wheels and hubs and check all parts for rust, corrosion, and wear. Brake fluid levels should be checked monthly. Also note that drum brakes need more upkeep than disc brakes—they require a fresh water wash-down kit to clean the hub drums after being used.

Can I brake in reverse?

This is a tricky question because it brings up a common concern of trailer owners. Your actuator engages when it bumps against your tow vehicle; however, when you reverse it is easy to accidentally bump the actuator thereby unintentionally engaging the trailer brakes. There are several solutions to this problem. The most common method brake manufacturers include is called “Free Backing” which when activated on the axle allows the brakes to disengage only in reverse. This method can only be used by trailers with drum brakes. The second most common method is to use an electric solenoid valve which allows brake fluid to bypass back in to the reservoir while in reverse. These can be purchased for trailers with disc brakes. To answer the initial question, you can brake in reverse, but you probably do not want to.

What is the emergency breakaway system?

If your trailer detaches from your tow vehicle a system automatically engages the brakes. This safety precaution is required by the federal government in all trailers with brakes. In hydraulic brake systems, a mechanical cable or chain is connected to the tow vehicle and engages the master cylinder. Electric brake systems use a battery-operated activator that energizes the electromagnets in the wheels.

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