Trailering Magazine Archives - Trailering Maintenance
An Idea Showing No Signs of Stopping
At first glance, the idea of putting electric brakes on a boat trailer goes over like a lead balloon. And the reason is well founded: we are brought up with the caveat about what can happen when electricity is mixed with water. Well, that was then and this is now.
Today there are __ boat trailer companies offering electric brakes on some of their models. EZ Loader, one of the first to do so, will install electric brakes on about 20% of the trailers they'll build this year. In addition, this is the first year electric boat trailer brakes are being offered in the BoatU.S. catalog. At EZ Loader and at BoatU.S., Fulton Performance Products build the brakes.
"Electric trailer brakes have been used successfully in the recreational vehicle and horse trailer industries for many years, " says Fulton's Craig Wilson. "The main concern with using electric brakes on boat trailers was corrosion or shorting out of electrical components when submerged in the water. The electrical connections we use are resin-encased and sealed against moisture. The result is a brake that is reliable in water."
EZLoader Chief Executive Officer David Thielman says their boat trailers using electric brakes require no special accessories or hookups for operation. "All the newer tow vehicles are prewired so that the trailer needs only to be attached and plugged in for travel. And when people first use one with electric brakes, they always tell me how they feel the difference when stopping."
By far, the most common boat trailer braking system in use today is surge brakes. When the tow vehicle brakes are applied, the boat trailer pushes against an actuator located on the trailer tongue resulting in the brakes being engaged. Although surge brakes have proven themselves worthy of safe operation over the years, they are currently the center of a dispute regarding use on non-commercial utility and boat trailers. It is an issue of interpretation of a federal Department of Transportation law and whether or not surge brakes are legal. The Surge Brake Coalition, made up of utility and rental trailer companies as well as boat trailer builders has filed a petition with the USDOT asking for clarification regarding whether brakes on a non-commercial trailer are illegal if not controlled from the cab (as is the case with surge brakes). In a number of states (including Maryland), the federal view is considered the right view although no police units have been told to start making arrests.
Load-Rite Trailers President Bob Roseman sent a letter to then-Maryland Governor Parris Glendenning urging a settlement of the surge brake issue (this occurred after the state's Deputy Secretary of Transportation told BoatUS Trailering Magazine surge brakes are illegal on boat trailers but no violations will be cited). "The interpretation in Maryland would have you switch from a proven braking system for boat trailers to a system that has had very limited use..." Roseman argued in the letter.
But until this issue is resolved, many boat trailer buyers (as well as current boat trailer owners) are looking at other options in the unlikely event the Surge Brake Coalition's effort is unsuccessful.
While EZLoader sells a majority of its trailers with surge brakes, Dave Thielman understands the reason a prospective buyer would consider the electric brake. "Surge has to have the trailer push against the tow vehicle before any trailer braking can begin. This means, prior to the brakes going to work, there is always going to be some forward motion; a forward push against the tow vehicle before the trailer actually starts to brake."
And then there is the issue of salt water and electric brakes. Fulton's Craig Wilson is well aware of the concern. He says that's why the company spent years testing and fine-tuning the product. "Not only is the electrical connection well-sealed, but the brake springs are corrosion resistant stainless steel. Our Ful-Stop backing plates are coated with a product we designed for this very purpose called SharkSkin. This is a self-healing coating that has been salt spray tested up to 1,000 hours with no signs of red rust (a term used to describe the early stages of rust formation)."
Electric brakes use a lever installed in the tow vehicle that adjusts the sensitivity of the stopping action. This brake control can be changed prior to every trip depending on the weight being carried in the boat or a change in the terrain over which the boat is going to be pulled. The ability to control the intensity of the braking action provides the driver more flexibility in adapting to changing environments.
The center of the electric system is an electro-magnet that drags on the inner face of the brake drum. The more the magnet grabs on the surface of the drum, the more braking it provides. A major selling point that is made to trailer boat owners is the fact electric brakes provide full braking in reverse, which is certainly welcome when back down a steep or slippery boat ramp with a boat on a trailer.
Another safety characteristic that is part of electric braking system is the breakaway kit. "It is a battery in a box that mounts on the trailer," explains Craig Wilson, "and it contains a trickle charger so the battery is always operating at peak performance. If the trailer breaks away from the tow vehicle, a pin that is hooked to a cable or a lanyard is pulled out of the breakaway switch and the full current is applied to the trailer brakes from the battery." EZLoaders's Dave Thielman says the system has the ability in tests to hold the full weight of a trailer with a boat on an incline in place for up to ten minutes.
Electric brakes require no more maintenance than surge brakes and there is no specific upkeep for trailers using them. But flushing the brakes is an essential chore. "We do recommend installation of a freshwater flush kit," says Fulton's Wilson, "because this will extend the life of the brake components. We have a Freshwater Flush Kit that is hooked to a garden hose. Once in place, you just turn on the hose and the kit flushes salt and sand and debris away from the brakes. I think it's required stuff whether you use hydraulic or electric brakes."
breakaway. This will need routine lubrication with a small amount of marine grease once a year. But as is the case with any brake maintenance, keep the grease away from exposed brake shoes.
There are a number of boat trailer builders who want nothing to do with electric brakes---for the time being. "We're not going to touch them, until I see something that shows me they are safe," says one trailer-manufacturing president who asked his name not be used. For others, like EZLoader's Dave Thielman, there is awareness that electric brakes have an image problem in the general public. "To some degree," he says, "it's a battle to re-educate people about electricity and water. We have a product that has been tested, re-tested and used in all kinds of conditions on the road. It works extremely well. It is just going to take some time." In Canada, trailers with a gross weight of 10,000 pounds are required to have electric brakes.
One thing is sure: when it comes to electric brakes, both Dave Thielman and Craig Wilson have no plans on being stopped.