Surge Brakes vs Electric Brakes: Difference and What Is Better

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One thing is for sure. You do not want electric brakes on a trailer if you are putting a boat in the water. Electricity and water do not work well together especially if the brakes get submerged. Surge brakes are the way to go when you have to deal with a lot of water a one time

The biggest difference is in operation design. The surge brakes need a mechanical chain that is connected to the tow vehicle. The electric brakes need a battery, emergency switch, and brake controller to work correctly. More part, more opportunity for failure.

These are mechanical brakes that slow a trailer down when you place your foot on the tow vehicle’s brake pedal. The surge brake system depends on the trailer’s momentum to activate the brakes.

When you slow the tow vehicle, the trailer pushes against the hitch which then presses a hydraulic cylinder. The more pressure on the tow vehicle’s brakes the more pressure is placed on the trailer’s brakes.

The trailer slows down accordingly and does not over-run your tow vehicle. However, the surge brakes need to be adjusted correctly to make sure the operation goes smoothly. It is an easy system to work with as it is not a sophisticated braking system.

The drawback is that if the trailer starts to sway, you may not be able to get the surge brakes to function correctly. Nor can you get them to actuate separately when it is swaying. But if there is enough weight on the tongue, you should not have any sway issues to worry about.

Many tow dollies come with self-contained braking systems. This system is designed to relieve stress and wear on the RV’s braking system. When adjusted properly, the surge brakes are very efficient and smoothly slow to a stop.

The braking system is also called a Hydraulic Actuator and this system absorbs the inertia or momentum when you step on the brake in your RV, SUV, or truck. There are no auxiliary controllers and the brake fluid is transferred to the drums when the braking process begins.

That is the simple explanation for how this braking system works. You should not have any problem with sway depending on how the brakes are adjusted and the type of vehicle you are towing using the dolly.

There is what is called a ‘surge actuator’ installed near the hitch to facilitate the braking process. It makes sure the brake fluid gets to the drums without hassle. It is not a hard system to adjust. The good thing is you do not have to worry about connecting wires to a controller.

Yes, they are quite good and do a wonderful job in slowing a trailer down. It does have its advantages over the electric braking system. One advantage is that it is simple to use, easy to implement, and does not take a lot of wiring to set up.

Also, surge brakes are best used when you are trying to put a boat into the water. The fact that they do not need electricity to run is not a drawback. It is something that many RV owners who tow a lot would welcome because it saves them a lot of hassle and money.

The advantage that electric brakes have over surge braking systems is that they have a break-away feature. This break-away feature slows and stops a trailer when it is disconnected from the hitch as you drive.

You may not be able to use surge brakes in many states, as those states require electric brakes for this very reason. But this does not mean the surge brakes are not any good. It is just that they do not have emergency components that kick in at the right time.

Yes, they are very reliable. The reason they are is that they work on a hydraulic principle and have fewer parts that can go bad. Plus, the operation is very simple and straight forward. There is little that can go wrong with this braking system.

On the other hand, the electric brakes have more parts and components that can go bad. For some owners, they never work right and you can have a problem just connecting the wires.

Yes, the electric brake does have the break-away system but that one positive does not overshadow all the negatives that can go wrong. The surge brakes work very easily and all you have to do is touch your brake pedal for them to engage. No electricity or extra wires are needed.

The surge brakes may not be perfect but they are ideal in many tow situations unless you are going down hill. Then the surge brakes may not be the ideal option. They can cause your tow vehicle’s brakes to overheat by constantly pressing up against your car and slowing the trailer down.

The biggest difference is in the electricity aspect of braking. Electric brakes need a battery to operate. If the battery goes dead, you are not going to brake very well. They also need an emergency switch and a controller to function.

The surge brakes do not need any of those parts. With that lack, there are fewer problems and fewer components that can break. The mechanical devices in the surge brakes are not hard to maintain and you do not need any wires to make them work. You just need a lack of momentum in your tow vehicle.

Electric brakes are a complicated piece of safety equipment but that sophistication allows for more safety features to be installed. That is another difference, the surge brakes do not really have a lot of safety features s except for what you put on at the hitch.

Also, the electric brakes can be complicated to set up with your tow vehicle. You need the right controller and pin count to make sure all the wires line up and work. If there is a problem with the connection, you won’t be going anywhere very soon.

Repairing the electric braking system can take time and be costly.

This is a situation where it is 6 of one and a half dozen of another. There are situations where the surge brakes are better and situations where electric brakes are best. Going downhill, the electric brakes will shine but going into the water the surge brakes will be the best option.

Both systems will not totally stop sway but with the extra safety features on electric brakes, you may have a safer trip than with surge brakes. The trailers that have the surge braking system are some caravans, horse trailers, and boat trailers. There may be more but it will depend on who made the trailer and which system you will get.

Surge brakes are a very efficient system to use but just not in all cases. There will be times when electric brakes will be the best option and if you do not have them, you just have to drive more carefully.

Repair-wise, the surge brakes would be better as you do not have to know electronics, wiring diagrams, and how to connect wires to fix the system.

It is hard to say what system would be best for your towing situation. It is something that you would have to look at from all angles. There are too many factors that come into play in this competition to say one option is the best option no matter what.

Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses.

1. Surge brakes



2. Electric brakes



There are other issues. Many owners are not experts at working with electricity or wires and they can have a problem wetting up the electric brakes. While you get some better control and other features, you need special equipment to make sure the wires are set up right and to find any shorts, etc., that may enter the system.

Yes, this can be done. The work is a bit involved as you have to remove all the hydraulic parts to make room for the electric parts as well as let the electric brakes work properly

What needs to be removed are:

– all hubs and drums

– all brake backers

– all brake lines

– all hydraulic harnesses

That is just half the project. The other half will involve installing all the electrical equipment to run the brakes. The parts needed to be installed are:

– new brake backers

– the break away

– electric harness

– new wheel seals

– original hubs and drums

Then you have to weld the hydraulic actuator solid. It cannot be moving once the electric braking system is installed. If you have any further questions, you should contact a brake specialist who knows how this work should be done.

You can also ask them how much the replacement would cost. We are not sure how much the labor and parts will be as some repair shops are faster and cheaper than others.

Almost all trailers have brakes. They can be either surge or electric. The only exception to this rule is that most states do not require brakes on trailers weighing less than 3,000 pounds. Check with your state office governing this situation and double-check to make sure you know if you need them or not.

As for travel trailers, it is up to the manufacturer which style of brakes they put on. They may be governed by state regulations and have to put electric brakes on all their trailers. This means that you may not see a lot of travel trailers with surge brakes.

It is a safety issue, not an operation issue this regulation exists. if you are not sure about your travel trailer, call your dealer and ask. They should know or if they don’t just look at your wheels. if you see a magnet, then you have electric brakes.

To confirm that identification, look under the hitch. If you see a large cylinder, you have surge brakes. We cannot speak to the quality of the brakes as they will differ depending on numerous factors.

This is a common problem and if you cannot back up your trailer because it has surge brakes, you are not alone. Many owners have experienced this issue. The good news is that it can be solved in a positive way.

There is a pin that should be attached to the hitch. This pin slides inside a little hole and stops the hydraulic cylinder from being compressed and activating the surge brakes. This pin allows you to back up your trailer.

The drawback to this system is that the pin may not stay in place on its own. You would need a lock-out part to hold it in place and keep it from falling out. Once it falls out, you won’t be able to back the trailer up.

There are also free-backing assemblies you can install. These items will keep the surge brakes from engaging. However, you have to get an assembly that is compatible with the weight of your trailer. One option costs about $75 and works with trailers weighing up to 3500 pounds.

For lockouts, you would need to know the brand of the cylinder to find one that is compatible. or you can use a 4” bolt that is roughly the same size as the pin or a little larger. For both the pin and the bolt, you need to remember to pull it back out when you are ready to tow the trailer.

Yes, you can and as we explained earlier, it is a very involved project. There are a lot of parts to remove and then install. One of the drawbacks to doing this is that you need 12-inch hubs & drums to make the change.

A 10-inch hub & drum cannot be reused and you would have to replace them with new 12-inch ones. Then you will have a lot of wiring to do as y9ou need to connect the magnet to the controller. It does not matter which wire you use for ground or hot as long as you connect it correctly to the controller.

Then you will need a new coupler and all of these parts can be found online or at your local trailer shop. There will be a lot of labor involved so make sure you are up to the task. If you are not good with your hands, hopefully, you have a friend who is.

Don’t forget you will need a controller unless your tow vehicle already has one or was built-in when it was made.

No, and that is the simplest answer we can give you. There will be times when surge brakes will be the best option but you will not be putting your travel trailer into the water any time soon.

Then you may not be allowed to have surge brakes on your travel trailer or other trailers. Different states require electric brakes for safety reasons. You will need to check with your local DMV or other government offices to find out what your state requires.

The only real requirement you have to meet is that as long as the trailer is over 3,000 pounds you will need a braking system installed. There is no getting around that rule. But that braking system can be electric or surge. You just do not need surge brakes to tow a trailer.

Braking is important and getting the right braking system on your trailer will spare you a lot of trouble. Surge brakes are good, efficient, reliable, and easy to work with. Unfortunately, you may not be able to use them if you live in the wrong state.

There is nothing wrong with either system although they are not perfect, they are the best 2 systems around for trailers. One is less complicated than the other and cheaper to repair and maintain. That system is not electric.

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I'm a writer who focuses on the outdoors and travel. I share my time between Alaska and Colorado, where, when I'm not writing, I enjoy camping, kayaking, hiking, fishing, and skiing (often with dogs in tow). My byline may also be seen in publications such as The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and others.


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