The Lowdown On Trailer Brakes

Maintaining a trailer is simple, but if you don't take care of the little things, you could be in for a big letdown.

Photo of boat trailer rear lights
Your trailer should give you years of service, but you do have to
perform periodic maintenance to keep it working properly.

Tip icon A freshwater rinse after every dunking will keep critical trailer components like brakes and springs from rusting away prematurely.

Boat trailers live in two notoriously hostile environments: on the highway and in the water. That means regular maintenance — especially of bearings, brakes, and wiring — is crucial to keep them safe and legal. Tires are a critical component, too, and should be stamped with an "ST" classification, for "special trailer." Dedicated trailer tires are more durable and resist abrasion and impact better than passenger "P" tires or light-truck "LT" tires; they also bounce less. Make sure the tire is neither overinflated nor under-inflated, and that the weight on the trailer doesn't exceed its capacity. Divide the trailer's total gross weight (measure it at a public weigh station) by the number of tires. For more on tire wear, see "How To Know When Your Tires Are Shot".

Maintaining Trailer Brakes

Closeup photo of a boat trailer disc brake
Disc brakes offer more stopping power.

Most states require brakes to be fitted on trailers with a gross weight over 3,000 pounds. Many experts recommend them on trailers rated for 1,500 pounds and above. Trailer brakes can be mechanical, electrical, or hydraulic. Hydraulic "surge brakes" are the most popular technology. The entire system is contained in the trailer itself; any number of different vehicles can tow it. Like other hydraulic systems, this one is based on the fact that liquids cannot be compressed. A master cylinder is located inside the trailer's coupler device. When the towing vehicle brakes, inertia from the decelerating trailer drives a piston inside the master cylinder, increasing the pressure of the hydraulic fluid all through the brake lines.

Tip icon Stuck trailer brakes are commonly caused by corrosion. Giving the wheel a few whacks with a small mallet will often dislodge the rust and free the brake. Another trick is to back up a few feet, brake hard, then pull forward and brake hard a couple of times. Another possible temporary fix is spraying the rotors with WD 40, to let you limp to a brake repair shop.
Photo of trailering coupling
There's a lot going on in your trailer's coupler device including a master cylinder for your brakes.

At the other end of the brake lines, this pressurized fluid drives the braking device — either calipers in the case of disc brakes or a brake cylinder in the case of drum brakes. Disc brakes consist of a rotor oriented in the axis of the wheel. During braking, a piston drives calipers that squeeze against the rotor, creating friction to stop the wheel. By contrast, drum brakes consist of a wide cylinder section. During braking, a curved shoe inside the drum presses against the drum, slowing the wheel.

Closeup photo of boat trailer drum brake
Drum brakes work better in wet conditions and are self-adjusting.

Disc brakes tend to have greater stopping power and greater fade resistance than drum brakes, and function better in wet conditions. They're also self-adjusting and easier to inspect and maintain. That said, their rotors are typically made of steel, which is prone to corrosion. Rinse metal parts thoroughly with fresh water after every launching.

Brake pads are a routine-wear item. Follow manufacturer's instructions for indications of when it's time for replacement. Brake lines are another regular-service item. Fluid levels should match the manufacturer's recommendation. If they call for, say, new "DOT 3 brake fluid," don't substitute anything else; seals and other components depend on the right blend. If brake lines need to be either replaced or bled, carefully follow manufacturer's instructions.End of story marker

Tim Murphy is the coauthor of Fundamentals of Marine Service Technology (ABYC, 2012), from which this article is adapted.

Published: Spring 2014


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