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Braking 101

Mandy Johnson
Blue Ox

Do I need a braking system on my towed vehicle? This is probably the most common question asked amongst Rver's these days. I've heard it from Rver's stopping by the plant and also at rallies. Other Rver's, coach manufacturers, chassis manufacturers and even campsite rumors seem to prompt this and other questions. There is no simple all-encompassing answer; however, asking yourself, your dealer or the manufacturers some additional questions will more than likely give you the answer to your questions.  To determine whether or not you need a braking system on your towed vehicle, consider the following:

1. How concerned about safety am I?
A. I think we all would have the same answer to this - a resounding VERY concerned! - So, let's move on to the next point.
2. Does my towed vehicle weight exceed the limitations of the braking capacity of my coach chassis?
A. This might take a little research on your part and each will be a little different, but you will find that the majority of manufacturers will limit towed vehicle weight to 1,000 to 1,500 pounds (453.6 to 680.4 kilograms). Again, the question will likely answer itself knowing that even a small car weighs more than 1,500 pounds (680.4 kilograms). OK, moving along…
3. Will I be faced with any liability if I do not have a brake installed on my towed vehicle?
A. Based on the last question you are certainly leaving yourself open to possible warranty issues on your coach if you are exceeding the specifications of your chassis. After answering all these questions in your head, you are probably leaning toward getting some type of braking system and, yes, I would recommend everyone towing a vehicle have some type of supplemental braking system. Forget what your campground neighbor told you last night; forget everything you've read or heard; in fact, forget all of the manufacturers who would love to sell you a braking system and ask yourself this simple question: What is my peace-of-mind worth to me? To quote the popular TV commercials…Priceless!


I did a little research regarding braking laws , because I've heard all the rumors, too, and I found that none of the states that replied to my questions could absolutely tell me that brakes are required on a towed vehicle behind a coach. Most referred to their trailer towing laws, but stated that those are for trailers…hmmm.  A few years ago there was substantial controversy over towing vehicles in British Columbia. BC started ticketing Rver's with cars in tow that weighed more than 3,000 pounds (1,360 kilograms) if it did not have a supplemental braking system. BC's regulation now states that…Motorhomes (only) may tow motor vehicles via a tow bar without brakes hooked up on the towed motor vehicle, when the towed motor vehicle's laden weight (weight of towed vehicle and its load) is: less than 4,409 lbs (2,000-kg), and  less than 40% of the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of the motorhome towing it.  However, keep in mind that laws can and do change and that each province has its own regulations regarding brakes required on towed vehicles - check the regulations and, if you plan on traveling the country go by the most stringent regulation.

When researching brakes, or any product for that matter, the first thing to consider is the company that makes the brake. What kind of service after the sale is available and what is their reputation for quality? The next step is to decide what type of brake is best for you and your towing set up. There are five basic systems to choose from: electric, air, surge, hydraulic and vacuum. Depending on your coach and towed vehicle some of the types may be eliminated right away making your choice simpler than you think.


Dead Pedal
You have undoubtedly heard this term before when brakes are part of a conversation. I prefer "unassisted brake" because it sounds a little more positive, don't you think? "Dead" has such finality to it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using unassisted braking to stop a towed vehicle. Auto manufactures must adhere to federal guidelines for passenger vehicles that require their brakes be able to stop the vehicle without power-assist operating in the event of a power failure while using a limited amount of pedal pressure. This regulation works in the favor of supplemental braking because for one, we know the brakes are designed to operate and stop the vehicle without power; two, we know the force required to push that brake pedal is going to be consistent between differing vehicles and three, we know the force required is not huge because the regulation has limited it so that weaker drivers are able to depress an unassisted brake pedal enough to stop their vehicle in the event of a loss of power.

Currently there is one brake on the market of this type.  Electric brakes do not use pumps, tanks or air hoses.  Electric brakes utilize a linear actuator to activate a decelerometer in the brake in order to trigger the arm to extend and apply the towed vehicles brake.  While the operation sounds complicated, it’s actually one of the most simple there is.  The unit is plugged into a 12volt power source in the towed vehicle and as you brake with the RV, the brake senses you’re slowing and applies the towed vehicles brakes.  Electric box brakes require little to no installation, and are easily transferable. They work with any coach and  most towed vehicles.

Air systems will either get air from an air source on the coach or will provide their own air supply. Either way they use that air to actuate an air cylinder; which either pushes or pulls an unassisted brake pedal down. These air cylinders can either be permanently installed, removable or part of a removable box that sits in front of the driver's seat. There is also an air system that contains an air cylinder that must be installed in the master cylinder of the towed vehicle. This system is only usable if your coach has air brakes to supply air to the cylinder. Air systems that supply their own air source can be used on any coach and any towed vehicle, while those that rely on the coach's air supply obviously are only for use on coaches with air brakes.

The surge brake works based off of the forces that a towed vehicle pushes on the coach. They are mechanical in nature so there is no wiring involved except for the installation of an indicator light in the coach that tells the driver when the brakes are being applied. When the driver slows using the brakes in the coach, the towed vehicle pushes the surge brake into the receiver of the hitch. Inside the surge brake are two sets of pulleys, which act like a block-and-tackle system running at about a 5 to 1 ratio with a cable around them that is attached to the brake pedal. The harder the car pushes on the back of the coach, the more braking you receive from the surge brake. Pretty simple - huh?

These brakes also operate on the surge or inertia of the towed vehicle on the back of the coach. The difference here is that instead of a mechanical cable running back to the brake pedal it actually comes with a master cylinder of its own and taps into the brake lines of the towed vehicle. When the towed vehicle surges forward, the master cylinder pushes brake fluid directly the front brake calipers thus applying the towed vehicle's brakes. Based on this explanation you can tell that this system will also work on any coach and any towed vehicle with normal hydraulically actuated brakes.

There are several vacuum-assisted supplemental brakes on the market today. Some models require tapping a vacuum source on a gas-powered coach to supply vacuum to the towed vehicles master cylinder. While you are towing, your towed vehicle actually has a "live" pedal or, in our case for consistency, we'll call it an assisted pedal. Other brakes actually contain a vacuum pump that supplies the vacuum needed in the master cylinder. These brakes are actuated electronically and the pedal is pulled down by the use of a cable or pushed using a vacuum cylinder. These units come as self-contained units and also as individual components for those who would like a permanent installation of the brake.


OK, I've outlined the basic types of brakes, now all you have to do is match the features you want with the vehicles you have and you're set. Keep in mind that most brakes on the market are all good brakes. They all provide some degree of assistance. It's up to you to decide how elaborate or how simple you want the system. Your local dealer or the manufacturer can answer all of your technical questions. However, only you can answer the big one: "What is my peace-of-mind worth to me and my family?" You know the answer will be…priceless!