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01 brake controller lead photo

Brake Controller Tech

What to Look for in a Brake Controller

Photography by Harry Wagner and courtesy of the manufacturers

One of the things we like so much about 4×4 trucks is their versatility.  You can use them for a daily driver, off-road toy, a tow rig, and more.  If you are towing with your 4×4 though, you will definitely want an electric brake controller.  The same logic applies whether you have a dedicated trail rig that you tow to the trail or are pulling a camp trailer or utility trailer. But how do you know what to look for in a brake controller?  Keep reading and we will break down all of the factors you need to consider when shopping for your next brake controller.

02 brake controller curt triflex

The Curt TriFlex proportion-based brake controller features a compact size, a digital display and the ability to manage up to eight brakes at a time. The feature that sets the TriFlex apart from many others though is its triple-axis motion-sensing accelerometer. This integrated circuit component allows the TriFlex to detect every motion of your vehicle and trailer with exact precision and to then apply the perfect amount of braking power for every situation.

Timed or Proportional?

There are two main types of brake controllers to choose from: time-delayed and proportional brake controllers. Time-delayed controllers use predetermined braking capacity that is set by the user and based on the weight of the trailer and cargo. The amount of braking force and timing can be adjusted with a sync switch. When the pedal of the tow vehicle is compressed, a predetermined amount of braking capacity that the user sets based on anticipated load weight is sent back to the trailer. If the sync is set too low, the tow vehicle will do the majority of the braking. Conversely, if the sync is set too high, the trailer will provide the majority of the braking power. This is the most affordable option and suitable for occasional towing, but it is less responsive and has less features than a proportional brake controller.

The more expensive of the two options, proportional brake controllers trigger the pressure of the trailer brakes at the same ratio as the tow vehicle. The main benefit to this control system is that it provides the least amount of wear and tear on both the towing vehicle’s brakes and the trailer’s brakes. Proportional brake controllers are the fastest and most responsive system that you can install and for this reason, also the safest. A timed brake controller is fine if you only occasionally tow smaller trailers, but a proportional trailer brake controller is the better choice if you tow regularly or tow heavy trailers.

03 brake controller redarc tow pro elite

The Redarc Tow-Pro Elite V3 Electric Brake Controller allows you to choose between proportional or user-controlled trailer braking force. And if you want the most versatility and customization, user-controlled braking allows you to adjust and change settings based on the roads you encounter, the terrain conditions, your vehicle type, or simply your personal preferences. 

Brake Controller Features

Trailer brake controllers vary in the number of brakes they can power and other features, such as the ability to control electric or electric/hydraulic brakes (or both) and whether they are 12 volt or 24 volt.  Some other features you might be interested in include LED displays with various color choices, the ability to store preferences, a boost feature to add more initial trailer braking, and more. High end brake controllers offer benefits such as a manual brake slider button, adjustable toggle, and adjustable ramp time that can be helpful to fine tune the braking of your trailer. A quality brake controller will work with any trailer and is compatible with features on your vehicle such as cruise control, electronic stability programs, and anti-lock brakes.

04 brake controller tekonsha p3

It’s hard to beat all of the features available on the Tekonsha P3 Electronic Brake Control. This device allows you to see vital vehicle information while you’re on the road and can alert you to potential problems. With a clear LCD display, multiple screen color choices, and three languages, the P3 lets you check output current, battery, brakes, output voltage, and any warning alerts. 

Brake Controller Prices

You may have noticed that brake controller prices vary wildly.  Most trailer-brake controllers are priced below $250. Many of the top products even fall below $100 total. If you’re shopping on a budget, you can find simple and straightforward trailer-brake controllers for $25 to $50, though these product picks tend to have limited extras and are pretty streamlined in their features. Time-delayed units are the cheapest, they don’t require calibration and can be installed anywhere. Proportional brake controllers are more expensive, but even amongst them there is a wide variety of price points that are dependent on the features mentioned above.  If you don’t need to control eight axles or a digital display, there is no need to pay extra for those features. Regardless of your budget, look for a brake controller from a reputable brand like Curt, Redarc, or Tekonsha that is backed by a warrant, includes detailed instructions, and offers a mounting harness for your vehicle.

05 brake controller tekonsha harness

Most brake controllers come with a generic wiring harness you can splice into your vehicle with the included instructions, but plug-and-play harnesses are also available for most popular vehicles.  We bought this harness (PN 3040) to plug our Tekonsha Prodigy P3 into our 2006 Toyota Tundra.  The plug attached to factory wiring located in the driver side kick panel.

Brake Controller Installation

We installed a Tekonsha Prodigy P3 in our 2006 Toyota Tundra, and the entire process took under an hour.  In addition to the brake controller, we picked up a wiring harness from 4WheelParts specific to our Toyota (PN 3040) that plugged into the factory wiring located in the driver side kick panel.  The ground wire was connected to a bolt on the firewall, and the other end of the harness plugs into the back of the Prodigy P3.  We located the brake controller under the dash where it is level, this is critical to ensure that the controller can accurately sense changes in direction from your vehicle when towing.  We wanted the controller out of our way so we don’t smash our knee into it, and also needed to take into account the location of the OBD2 port to ensure that it is still accessible.  The included screws were used to fasten the bracket to the dash, that was all that was necessary to complete the installation.

06 brake controller tekonsha mounting

A brake controller should be mounted somewhere on the dash of your vehicle, and we recommend putting it below the steering wheel, either on the right or left side of the steering column. This way the control will not block your view when driving, but it will remain accessible and visible when adjustment is needed.

Products we used in this article