Give Me A Brake

By Scott Henze

Close up photo of boat trailer brakes

If you're like most people you don't give your trailer brakes a second thought, until you have a problem. I recently took a walk through the parking lot of my local marina on a busy afternoon and was surprised by what I found. Half of all the trailers in the lot were in violation of state law by having damaged, undersized, or non-existent brakes. The laws vary from state to state, but almost all have minimum requirements, and some municipalities are cracking down. Most states begin requiring brakes on trailer weights in the 2,000-4,000 pound range; although some, like North Dakota, require all trailers to have brakes, while Massachusetts has virtually no laws governing pleasure boat trailers.

So now that you know you need them, what are your choices? Essentially, trailer brakes come in two flavors: disc and drum. Choosing the type that's right for you depends on your boat size, environment, and boating habits. We'll outline the pros and cons of each so you can decide what's best for your situation.

Drum Brakes

Drum brakes used to be the old standard. The main advantage to this style is cost. They're less expensive to install and cheaper to maintain. Also, they're somewhat easier to replace, which is nice because you'll have to do it two or three times more often than discs. The disadvantage to drums is longevity. The inherent design of a brake drum allows several inches of water to pool inside the drum after it's been submerged, and it will remain there until it eventually evaporates out. If this is salt or brackish water, the corrosive effects will be worse than if it's fresh water. Flush kits are available and recommended if you're backing your trailer into salt water, and will extend the life of your brakes. But remember that the fresh water from your garden hose will still collect and sit in the drum. Drums also require manual adjustment every 3,000-5,000 miles.

photo of boat trailer drum brakes

Disc Brakes

Disc brakes are available in a variety of materials: standard automotive, E-coating, silver cadmium, and stainless steel, and the prices vary accordingly. Stainless steel will outlast all the other materials but aren't entirely immune to corrosion. Disc brakes have only one moving part, the caliper, as opposed to nine to 12 moving parts in a drum brake. Fewer moving parts equate to fewer potential failure points and a longer overall life span. Friction pads and calipers are readily accessible for inspection, cleaning, and maintenance. Disc brakes are self-adjusting whereas drum brakes require periodic manual adjustment. The advantage of being self-adjusting other than the obvious time/maintenance factor is that they offer more even and consistent braking on each axle resulting in a smoother operation. Disc brakes are also less likely than drums to be affected by rust, dirt, or corrosion. The disadvantage to disc brakes is their relative initial cost; they can be twice as much as drum brakes to install.

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