A look at the wide array of products designed for stopping vehicles towed behind a motorhome and enhancing driving safety.
By K. Stephen Busick, F45180
If interest in supplemental braking systems can be judged by the number of calls, letters, and e-mails received at the FMCA national office, this topic is on many motorhomers’ minds. Often folks simply ask, “What is the best system?” But, like the question “How big is a fish?”, there is no simple answer. Even if Family Motor Coaching magazine had facilities for testing the various braking systems under controlled conditions, there still would not be a simple answer. Motorhomes, towed vehicles, personal preferences, and even financial considerations all enter into the final decision.
Although it has been said many times, it bears repeating that the laws of physics apply no matter what state or country you are in. When it comes to stopping a coach towing 3,000 pounds, it makes no difference whether those 3,000 pounds are a towed vehicle or a trailer loaded with bricks. Surprisingly, many motorhomers would not tow that load of bricks without brakes on the trailer but still flat tow a car without a supplemental braking system. Saying that supplemental braking systems are not needed because they may not be required nationwide ignores the safety aspect and also defies logic.
For those unacquainted with supplemental braking systems, a very basic definition could be “a device that applies the brakes of the towed vehicle to help slow and/or stop the combination of a coach and towed vehicle.” An emergency breakaway system is designed to apply the brakes of the towed vehicle automatically if it should separate from the coach. While everyone hopes that this never happens, equipment does fail occasionally, and mistakes that cause this to occur can be made when hooking up.
At one time the need for supplemental braking was not widely recognized. Today, however, the need is well known, and it is not uncommon to see comments such as the following statement that appears in Ford literature. “Important: The towing vehicle’s brake system is rated for operation at the GVWR “” NOT GCWR. Separate functional brake systems should be used for safe control of towed vehicles and for trailers weighing more than 1,500 lbs. when loaded.” Ford’s RV & Trailer Towing Guide further states: “For your safety, Ford Motor Company recommends that a separate functional brake system be used on any towed vehicle, including those dolly-towed or towbar-towed.” Coach manufacturers are including similar statements in their literature. Occasionally, we hear someone say that they would be willing to pay extra for a chassis that has brakes big enough to render a supplemental braking system unnecessary. Once again the laws of physics come into play here; even if it were economically feasible, there simply is not enough room inside the wheels on most chassis for brakes that large.
It is obvious that we as owners and operators of our motorhomes must take responsibility for their safe operation. Yes, a supplemental braking system will cost several dollars, but good tires, windshield wipers, and many other items that help to increase safety also cost several dollars. And while no piece of equipment can guarantee that we will never have an accident with our motorhome, the price of a supplemental braking system will indeed seem a pittance compared to the emotional, physical, and financial costs of an accident, or even a “near accident.”
Following is a brief description of 20 supplemental braking systems. Although all supplemental braking systems are designed to do the same job, they perform it in a variety of ways. The systems featured here were not tested, and no attempt has been made to rank their performance.
We thank the manufacturers for their assistance and cooperation in providing the product information for this endeavor. They all were very willing to offer assistance, and they look forward to talking with members and answering questions. Their addresses, telephone numbers, and other contact information are listed for your convenience.
We invite the manufacturers of supplemental braking systems that are not listed here to contact us. As we become aware of these systems, and as new systems come into the marketplace, we will continue to present timely information about them in Family Motor Coaching magazine.
Blue Ox offers four supplemental braking systems: Apollo, AutoStop, BrakeSafe, and ToadStop II.
The Apollo is a self-contained system that uses a digitally enhanced accelerometer to sense the need to apply the brakes. Air pressure from the self-contained compressor is then routed to an air cylinder that presses the brake pedal in the towed vehicle. This pressure can be adjusted to suit the driver and towed vehicle. The system includes a logic feature designed to recognize driving terrain and adjust automatically. Eight sensitivity positions allow the system to conform to your driving environment and preferences.
Initial installation time and the hookup and disconnect time are all listed as requiring approximately three minutes each. A $25 optional emergency breakaway system takes about 30 minutes to install. An optional wireless remote dash light indicator senses actual current flow to the brake lights of the towed vehicle and transmits a digital signal to the receiver in the coach. This $160 option requires about 15 minutes to install and shows that the brakes are applied. The Apollo carries a suggested retail price of $995 and is covered by a five-year limited material and workmanship warranty.
The AutoStop is a mechanical system activated by the momentum of the towed vehicle pushing into the hitch. The system comes with a tube assembly that pins into the receiver of the coach. As the motorhome slows, the AutoStop retracts a cable and proportionally applies the brakes; the more force applied, the tighter the cable. A hardwired indicator light mounts on the dash of the motorhome to let the driver know when the brakes are applied in the towed vehicle.
Initial installation time is listed as three hours. Approximate hookup and disconnect times are each about a minute.
Options include the BrakeLock emergency breakaway system for $295, and a wireless remote indicator light to take the place of the hardwired light. A five-year limited material and workmanship warranty covers the AutoStop, which carries a suggested retail price of $445.
The BrakeSafe from Blue Ox is designed only for motorhomes with air brakes. A pull-style air cylinder is mounted behind the brake pedal of the towed vehicle and does not need to be removed when driving the vehicle. The BrakeSafe also is available with a push-style cylinder that can be mounted in front of the brake pedal; it does not need to be removed while driving the towed car. Because the BrakeSafe system uses the service air of the motorhome, the brake pedal of the towed vehicle is applied as hard or as gently as the brake pedal of the motorhome. A hose for air from the motorhome’s reservoir and a self-coiling hose for connecting the two vehicles are included. Also included are fittings for threading into the brake relay of the coach, and a hardwired indicator light for installation in the coach to show when the brakes are being applied in the towed vehicle.
Initial installation time is approximately three hours, while about a minute is needed to connect or disconnect the system. An emergency breakaway system is available for $265. An optional wireless indicator light to replace the hardwired light is also available. The BrakeSafe is covered by a five-year limited warranty on materials and workmanship and is available for $895 (push cylinder) and $995 (pull cylinder).
The ToadStop II is a box-unit vacuum braking system that is activated by the motorhome’s brake switch. The electric current then activates the system, and then a cable pulled by the vacuum activator inside the ToadStop II unit applies the towed vehicle’s brakes. The unit comes with a vacuum reservoir, a 15-foot cable assembly, and enough hose to mount the vacuum box in the back seat or the trunk of the towed vehicle so that it does not interfere with driving the vehicle.
Initial installation time is three to five hours, while hookup and disconnect times are about two minutes each. Included with the $1,395 unit are an emergency breakaway system and a hardwired indicator light to let the driver know that the unit is operating properly. A remote indicator light that replaces the hardwired light is an available option. The ToadStop II has a built-in antitheft feature, as well as a self-testing feature that can be used not only to test the unit, but also to stop the vehicle in emergencies while the towed car is being driven. This unit will work with both gasoline- and diesel-powered coaches; however, the towed vehicle must have vacuum-assisted brakes. A five-year limited material and workmanship warranty covers the unit.
Blue Ox, C2903
P.O. Box P
Pender, NE 68047
Fax: (402) 385-3360
The 14-pound Jack Brake power brake unit sits on the floor of the towed vehicle and is attached to the brake pedal. The unit houses a 12-volt air compressor, an air tank, associated controls, and a 1-1/2-inch air cylinder. The control head of the system, with its mercury surge switch, is mounted near the driver in the motorhome. A pilot light on the control head shows that it is communicating with the Jack Brake and brightens when the brake is applied. An alarm sounds if the car breaks away or if the systems are not communicating. Manual operation of the system, apart from the motorhome brakes, is possible through the control head.
Initial installation requires about three hours in the coach and two hours in the towed vehicle. Included in this installation time is running one wire from the dash of the coach to the braking unit. Often this wire can be run through the spare wire found on many tow bars. Once installed, the Jack Brake can be hooked up or disconnected in a matter of seconds. Both sensitivity and the amount of braking can be adjusted with this system. Included in the $895 price is an emergency breakaway protection system. Setting up a second vehicle to use the system costs approximately $50. If, however, you are trading vehicles, some parts may be reusable, resulting in less expense to you. The complete system, including parts and labor, is guaranteed to be free of defects for two years. In addition, the Jack Brake can be returned within 30 days of purchase for a full refund, minus costs for shipping and for any parts not returned in a resalable condition.
Jack Brake, C9342
201 W. Katy St.
Scammon, KS 66773
The M&G Braking System places an air-operated cylinder between the master cylinder and the vacuum booster of the towed vehicle. Air pressure from the motorhome is applied to the M&G cylinder, which in turn pushes directly on the master cylinder to apply the brakes of the towed vehicle.
For coaches with air brakes, the air pressure to operate the system comes directly from the brake system. For coaches with hydraulic brakes, a 12-volt compressor, an air accumulator tank, and a proportioning valve are mounted on the coach. The proportioning valve senses the hydraulic pressure and controls the air pressure sent to the towed vehicle. An air line, 1/4-inch in diameter, runs between the two vehicles; a female quick-disconnect fitting on the motorhome joins with a male quick disconnect at the front of the towed vehicle. This arrangement results in hookup and disconnect times that are said to be less than 30 seconds.
Initial installation time is about two to three hours when done by an experienced professional, and four to five hours for the person doing it for the first time.
The unit has a three-year unconditional warranty, while the electrical components (breakaway switch, compressor, and pressure switch) carry a one-year warranty.
For coaches with air brakes, the M&G Braking System is priced at $570; for coaches with hydraulic brakes, it is $875. A unit for coaches with air-over-hydraulic systems is available for $700. An optional breakaway protection system is available for $195. M&G offers an exchange program for customers who trade vehicles and find that the tow brake system will not transfer to the new vehicle.
M&G Engineering, C3896
P.O. Box 1107
Athens, TX 75751
The BrakeBuddy is a 12-pound, self-contained unit that sits on the floor in front of the driver’s seat of the towed vehicle. A solid-state inertia device that reacts to the forward momentum created when the brakes on the motorhome are applied senses when to apply the brakes in the smaller vehicle. An air cylinder attached to the brake pedal of the towed vehicle applies the brakes. Power for the unit is supplied via a power outlet in the smaller vehicle.
Initial installation time is about 10 minutes. After that, hookup and disconnect times are said to be about one minute each. The included Breakaway system activates the BrakeBuddy if the towed vehicle should separate from the coach due to a hitch failure. Also included is the Alert system, a wireless transmitter and receiver that illuminates a light on the motorhome dash when the BrakeBuddy activates. The transmitter plugs into the BrakeBuddy and sits on the driver’s seat in the smaller vehicle; the receiver plugs into a power outlet in the motorhome and attaches to the dash with hook-and-loop fasteners.
The BrakeBuddy, including the Breakaway system and the Alert system, has a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $1,120. A 30-day money-back guarantee and a three-year warranty on all parts and labor cover the system.
Master Concepts Inc.
Home of the BrakeBuddy
4371 Platte Ave.
Sedalia, CO 80135
Fax: (303) 814-0977
Night Shift Auto
The Readybrake is mechanically surge-activated by the forward movement of the towed vehicle when the motorhome brakes are applied. The forward momentum of the towed vehicle causes the Readybrake to slide forward and activate the internal mechanical linkage of the system. An actuator arm then moves a conduited aircraft cable that is attached to the brake pedal of the towed vehicle to apply the brakes. An internal hydraulic shock absorber and spring work together to create enough surge resistance to prevent the brakes from dragging while descending steep grades.
Initial installation is said to take two to 2-1/2 hours. The car cable harness includes a black cable conduit and aircraft cable mounted at the front bumper of the towed vehicle and routed through the firewall to the brake pedal. It remains installed at all times. Hooking up and unhooking the brake system is accomplished by connecting or disconnecting the spring hooks on each end of the tow bar harness and is said to take less than a minute. One end is attached to the actuator arm of the Readybrake and the other is attached to the thimble loop of the car cable harness. All that is needed in order to use the Readybrake on a second vehicle is to install a car cable harness. The Readybrake is available for both ball-mounted and receiver-mounted tow bars. It carries a price of approximately $400 and comes with a five-year warranty on parts and workmanship, and a 45-day money-back guarantee. Options include the ReadyStop Breakaway system for approximately $105, an In Dash Brake Monitor for $50, and a Brake Circuit Disconnect for $35.
Night Shift Auto Inc., C8568
P.O. Box 861
129 N. Kentucky
Iola, KS 66749
Fax: (620) 365-7488
The Remco Braking System (RBS) is a hydraulic surge system that uses an external master cylinder on the receiver. When the brakes on the motorhome are applied, the continued momentum of the towed vehicle causes the RBS ball mount to slide forward and apply pressure to the RBS master cylinder. The pressure on the RBS master cylinder pushes brake fluid to the RBS actuator installed in the brake lines. Brake fluid is then directed to the brakes on the front wheels of the towed vehicle to apply them and slow the vehicle. The specially cushioned ball mount is designed to absorb the shock that otherwise could be noticed during braking, and to prevent the vehicle from riding against the RBS master cylinder and applying the brakes when the vehicles are traveling downhill.
Initial installation, which includes welding a new receiver to the hitch, usually can be accomplished in three to four hours. Connecting and disconnecting the system takes just seconds thanks to quick-disconnect fittings on each end of the hose between the coach and towed vehicle. These fittings are designed to prevent brake fluid from leaking out or air from entering the system when it is being connected or disconnected. Adapter kits are available for receiver tow bars that don’t use ball mounts. The RBS, which is now available with breakaway protection, is covered by a one-year warranty and is available for approximately $500.
Remco Mfg., C1590
P.O. Box 27998
Omaha, NE 68127
Fax: (402) 339-6552
Roadmaster Inc. offers two supplemental braking systems: BrakeMaster and BrakePro.
The BrakeMaster is described as a “truly proportional braking system,” which means that the harder you step on your motorhome’s brakes, the harder your towed vehicle’s brakes will be applied. On coaches equipped with air brakes or air-over-hydraulic brakes, an air cylinder, mounted to a bracket under the driver’s seat of the towed vehicle and attached to the brake pedal, applies the towed vehicle’s brakes when the coach brakes are applied. For coaches without air brakes, a regulator attached to the frame of the coach senses braking pressure and sends a proportionate amount of air from a small onboard compressor to the air cylinder to apply the brakes. The Brakeaway Towed Car Emergency Braking System is included with the BrakeMaster system to bring the towed vehicle to a safe, controlled stop should it separate from the coach.
Initial installation time for BrakeMaster with Brakeaway on vehicles with air brakes is approximately two to four hours. This system includes the air cylinder, anchor plate assembly, monitor light, air line and fittings, and the Brakeaway system.
For motorhomes with hydraulic brakes, the system features the air cylinder, air compressor, regulator, air line and fittings, monitor light, the Brakeaway system, and an installation time of approximately six to eight hours.
Hooking up or disconnecting an existing system is said to take two or three minutes. Optional accessories include a Brakelight Relay Kit to prevent the brake lights from overriding turn signals on the towed vehicle, and optional seat adapters for seats that do not easily accept the universal mounting bracket.
The BrakeMaster system with Brakeaway is priced at $749 for coaches with air brakes and $949 for those without. Second-towed-vehicle kits and even second-RV kits are also available. A one-year parts and labor warranty covers the system.
The BrakePro is new to the market and should be available in August 2003. It is a self-contained system that reportedly can be installed by the consumer in minutes. Like the BrakeMaster, it is marketed as a “truly proportional braking system.” It uses the same technology that electronic brake controllers use; an electronic module board senses the rate of deceleration and then applies air pressure to an air cylinder to push the brake pedal in the towed vehicle. An emergency breakaway feature and a wireless monitoring system are included with the BrakePro, which will have an approximate retail price of $1,100. The BrakePro is covered by a one-year parts and labor warranty.
Roadmaster Inc., C2952
5602 N.E. Skyport Way
Portland, OR 97218
Fax: (503) 288-8900
SMI Manufacturing Inc.
SMI Manufacturing Inc. offers four different supplemental braking systems: FourWire, PlugAndPlay, SilentPartner, and Stay-IN-Play. All four systems contain a vacuum pump to produce and maintain the same vacuum in the towed vehicle power brake booster system that is present when the engine is running. All also require a dual signal before activating the brakes of the towed vehicle; the RV’s brake lights must be on, and there must be sufficient stopping inertia. A breakaway system is standard on all SMI units, as is a vacuum cylinder to push the brake pedal down in the towed vehicle and to retract the pedal and hold it back so that the brakes don’t “drag.”
The SMI FourWire system routes the brake light signal from the motorhome brake light switch to a small controller box mounted near the driver in the motorhome. When the brake light signal is received by the controller box, it looks for sufficient stopping force and, once satisfied, sends a signal to the operating unit in the towed vehicle. When this electrical signal is received, the vacuum piston extends to push the brake pedal in the towed vehicle and apply the brakes. A wire that is connected to the towed vehicle brake light switch controls a red light in the coach to let the driver know when the towed vehicle brakes have been applied and released.
Initial installation time is about four hours. Hookup and disconnect times are said to be less than a minute each. The system is covered by a five-year warranty and includes a breakaway system as standard equipment. The SMI FourWire system has a suggested retail price of $899.95
The SMI PlugAndPlay system does not require any additional wiring between the coach and the towed vehicle. Because the turn signals are also the brake lights, the required RV brake light signal is obtained from the wires already in the tow light wiring. The operating unit sits on the floor of the towed vehicle. Inside the unit is an adjustable inertia sensor. When the appropriate dual signals are received, a vacuum piston extends and presses down the vacuum-assisted brake pedal in the towed vehicle. When the brakes in the motorhome are released, the piston pulls the brake pedal in the smaller vehicle back up. A small display module that sits on the dash of the coach indicates when the PlugAndPlay is applying the brakes.
Initial installation time is approximately two hours. After that, less than a minute reportedly is needed to connect or disconnect the unit. The suggested retail price for the SMI PlugAndPlay with its standard display module and breakaway system is $949.95. A five-year warranty covers the unit.
The SMI SilentPartner is an FCC-approved FM-radio-controlled system. As with all SMI systems, the brake lights and the necessary stopping inertia both must be present for the system to be activated. The display module, which is mounted on the dash of the coach, contains a rheostat for adjusting the amount of inertia required to activate the system. The display module also contains three LEDs. One LED lights when the SilentPartner is transmitting to the towed vehicle to activate the brakes on that smaller vehicle, and the second LED lights when the tow brakes are activated. If a failure in the system should occur, the third LED lights and an alarm sounds to indicate that a breakaway has occurred and that the brakes on the towed vehicle are applied even if those in the coach are not. The display module also has a switch that allows the driver to operate in either a “real time” mode or a “latched” mode. In the real time mode the towed vehicle brakes are released when the inertia force subsides. In the latched mode, the towed vehicle brakes are “latched” onto the RV brakes and will remain applied as long as the coach brakes are applied. This is said to be especially useful in heavy traffic where additional stopping effort is often needed for a longer period of time than that needed for open-road driving.
The SilentPartner is designed for installation by the coach owner in approximately two hours. After that, hookup and disconnect times are each listed as less than a minute. The SMI SilentPartner with its standard breakaway system and display module is priced at $1,399.95 and comes with a five-year warranty.
SMI’s newest product is the Stay-IN-Play supplemental braking unit. Once the Stay-IN-Play is installed, the towed car is always ready to tow, and no setup is required before or after hooking up. The Stay-IN-Play utilizes the same dual-activation signal (brake lights and stopping inertia) as other SMI products; includes the transmitter and receiver, located in the motorhome cockpit; and uses an operating unit (mounted under the front seat, in the backseat, or in the trunk) and a brake arm-mounted vacuum cylinder to stop the towed vehicle. The Stay-IN-Play also includes a “Panic Stop Braking” circuit for times when additional braking power is required. The panic braking circuit activates when the stopping inertia of the motorhome exceeds a preset level. When this occurs, a signal is sent to the towed vehicle to proportionately increase braking power, up to three times the amount used during a normal stop, until the braking inertia of the motorhome falls below the preset level. Installation is said to take approximately two hours. The suggested retail price for the SMI Stay-IN-Play with the new Panic Stop Braking feature and breakaway system is $949.95. A five-year warranty covers the unit.
SMI Manufacturing Inc., C7996
1501 A Allen Lane
Evansville, IN 47710
ToadStop Qi offers two braking systems: ToadStop Qi and ToadStop II Box. Both use the patented ProPort Control and include a Test Trigger to match the pedal power to each vehicle during installation or routine operation while driving the towed vehicle solo. Since both systems can be activated using the Test Trigger to stop the vehicle even when it is not hooked up to the motorhome, owners know the units are operating correctly.
Nearly all components of the ToadStop Qi system are hidden under the hood of the towed vehicle; only a cable and pulley are in the passenger area. The ProPort Control is mounted on the tow bar and senses the towed vehicle “push” and “pull” on the receiver as the motorhome slows. It then applies the towed vehicle brakes to provide proportional stopping of both vehicles, only while the motorhome service brakes are applied. An electric solenoid and cable provide pedal control in both the “pull” and “release” directions, and a vacuum pump provides assistance to the power brakes of the towed vehicle.
Initial installation is said to take about two hours. After the initial installation, no additional time is needed to hook up or disconnect the system. An emergency breakaway protection system is included. Custom features for special applications can be incorporated into the system. The ToadStop Qi is priced at $799.99 and is covered by a money-back guarantee upon installation plus a three-year warranty on all system components except the vacuum motor, which is covered for one year.
The ToadStop II Box is a self-contained unit that can sit behind the driver’s seat in the towed vehicle. No anchors are needed to secure it, and there is no need to remove or store any part of the system to drive the towed vehicle. Installation time for the ToadStop II Box is listed as approximately two hours, and, after that initial installation, no additional time is required when hooking up and disconnecting. As with the Qi system, the ProPort Control on the tow bar senses the need to apply the brakes in the towed vehicle, only when the service brakes of the motorhome are applied. An electric solenoid and cable apply and release the brakes; a vacuum pump assists the application of the brakes in the towed vehicle. The Test Trigger is included for adjusting the braking power during installation or routine operation while driving the towed vehicle solo.
The ToadStop II Box is priced at $899.99 and includes an emergency breakaway system. A money-back guarantee upon installation plus a three-year warranty on all system components except the vacuum motor, which is covered for one year, is included.
ToadStop Qi, C7095
190 Wilson Blvd. N.
Naples, FL 34120
Fax: (309) 414-3595
Tow Brake International Ltd.
Initial installation time is approximately three to five hours. Hookup and disconnect times are less than a minute each. The VIP-Tow>
Tow Brake International Ltd., C6626
52 Old Hwy 11
Evening Shade, AR 72532
Fax: (870) 266-3741
Tow-V-Aire Braking Inc.
The Tow-V-Aire braking system is designed for owner installation. The system consists of a portable unit containing industrial-grade air components that weighs approximately 14 pounds and sits behind the driver’s seat in the towed vehicle; a stainless-steel air cylinder that is attached to the towed vehicle brake pedal when the system is in use; and an air line with a quick-disconnect fitting to connect the two. Power to the system is supplied by the coach battery and brake light circuit. During installation of the unit, an air pressure regulator is adjusted according to the weight of the towed vehicle. A small light on the dash of the coach indicates when the brakes of the towed vehicle are applied.
Owner installation usually takes between two and four hours depending, naturally, on expertise and equipment. Hookup time is less than three minutes, and about a minute is needed to disconnect the cylinder from the pedal. Shipping to anywhere in North America and an emergency breakaway system is included in the $745 cost of the Tow-V-Aire. The unit is warranted to the original owner for three years; warranties on resale units are handled on an individual basis.
Tow-V-Aire Braking Inc.
P.O. Box 1604
Lake Placid, FL 33862
U.S. Gear Corporation
The Unified Tow Brake from U.S. Gear Corporation is an all-electric system. It uses multiple-axis accelerometers in a controller located in the motorhome to provide proportional and progressive braking for the towed vehicle. An electric solenoid in the towed vehicle is connected to the brake pedal by a push-pull cable that is hidden under the carpeting, while a vacuum pump for power assist braking is installed in the engine compartment.
Because all components in the towed vehicle are permanently installed in out-of-sight locations, no assembly or disassembly is needed before or after towing. Hookup and disconnect times are said to be less than a minute each, as they involve only connecting or disconnecting a wiring harness and breakaway switch between the vehicles. Initial installation time is usually around five or six hours.
To compensate for changes in road conditions or terrain, the driver can increase or decrease the amount of braking assistance while driving.
The Unified Tow Brake is covered by a one-year product warranty that covers 100 percent of parts, labor, and freight. It also comes with a 90-day customer-satisfaction guarantee. The retail price for the Unified Tow Brake, including the standard breakaway protection system and an installation CD video, is $1,195.
U.S. Gear Corporation, C7916
9420 Stony Island Ave.
Chicago, IL 60617