Safety equipment that no motorhome and towed vehicle combination should be operated without.
By Mark Quasius, F333630
Without a doubt, the use of supplemental braking systems is one of the most-discussed topics among motorhome owners. Visit any RV forum and you are sure to find someone requesting information about whether a supplemental braking system is needed. The answer should be a resounding “Yes.”
Just because a motorhome is equipped with a trailer hitch doesn’t mean it is capable of towing anything down the road with little concern. Perhaps the biggest area of confusion about towing is what the various weight ratings for your motorhome mean and how they relate to your towing situation.
Every motorhome has a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), which is the maximum weight the motorhome should carry when fully loaded. It also has a gross combination weight rating (GCWR). This number will be higher than the GVWR and indicates the maximum total weight of the fully loaded motorhome and the towed vehicle or trailer combination. The GCWR takes into account the ability of the motorhome’s engine and transmission to pull the total load, but the weight rating does not take into account the motorhome’s braking capability for the entire combination. A motorhome’s brakes are designed to stop only the GVWR. The assumption with the GCWR is that the trailer has brakes or that a supplemental braking system is being used on the towed vehicle.
Another area of confusion centers around laws regarding brakes on towed vehicles. Most of that stems from the fact the each state and province sets its own laws, which can be very hard to decipher. Some treat a towed vehicle as a trailer, while others define it differently. Regardless of the legal requirements pertaining to supplemental braking systems, it’s just common sense to use one from a safety standpoint.
A supplemental braking system can make the difference between avoiding a collision and making a trip to the repair shop. A study by Roadmaster Inc. showed a 34-foot Type A motorhome’s stopping distance from 50 miles per hour to be 132 feet. With the motorhome towing a medium-size car, the stopping distance increased to 209 feet. By adding a supplemental braking system to the towed vehicle, the stopping distance was reduced to 137 feet.
A secondary concern is the possibility of the towed vehicle breaking away from the motorhome. Should your tow bar fail or your towed vehicle become disconnected from the RV, it could turn into a runaway missile with the potential for serious damage, bodily injury, or worse should it travel into the path of oncoming traffic. When the 5/8-inch hitch pin failed on my motorhome’s towing assembly and the entire tow bar pulled out of the hitch, I felt a large bang as the Jeep reached the end of the safety cables. A quick glance in the rearview monitor showed the Jeep following about 10 feet behind the motorhome, being pulled along by the safety cables. The breakaway plug on my M&G supplemental braking system was pulled, so the braking system applied the Jeep’s brakes, allowing me to safely pull off the road. Had I not had that breakaway feature, the Jeep would have bounced off the back of the coach, causing damage to both vehicles.
Types Of Systems
Supplemental braking systems are available in a number of basic types. Each type has advantages and disadvantages, so you need to choose the one that best suits your particular application.
One common style is a portable system. These units sit on the floor directly in front of the driver’s seat. A mechanical arm reaches forward to connect to the brake pedal and extends as needed to apply the brakes. These systems require the seat to be stationary to prevent the unit from moving rearward as the brakes are applied. A plug-in connection to a 12-volt-DC dash receptacle provides power to the unit. Many of these units incorporate an internal decelerometer to sense the coach’s deceleration and determine when supplemental braking is needed. An optional breakaway switch also should be connected, but the switch will need to be mounted and wiring run to the driver’s compartment in order to connect it to the supplemental braking system.
The advantage of a portable system is that it easily can be removed when you arrive at a destination, and it can be used in another vehicle. The only installation tasks involved are to mount the breakaway switch and run the wires to the driver’s compartment. The drawbacks to these systems are that they have to be set up and calibrated each time the vehicle is towed, and they must be removed and stored when the towed vehicle is used. Most of these systems work on inertia, so traveling on a steep downgrade may apply the towed vehicle’s brakes whether you want to or not.
A second type is a permanent installation on the tow bar. This surge-type brake senses the towed vehicle’s push on the tow bar when the motorhome’s brakes are applied. A steel cable runs through the engine compartment to the brake pedal area to actuate the brake pedal as the cable tightens.
A number of units are designed for permanent installation on gasoline-powered motorhomes. These systems typically consist of a control unit that applies the brakes by actuating a cable or push rod connected to the brake pedal. The system receives a signal from the motorhomes’s brake controller via the trailer lighting umbilical cord and uses some sort of inertia-sensing apparatus to determine the level of braking desired. This design requires more installation time, but once installed the system is automatically available when the electrical wiring from the motorhome to the towed vehicle is connected. These systems do not require any additional setup or calibration.
For diesel pushers with air brakes, it’s possible to expand these systems a bit. Rather than use the electrical signal between the motorhome and towed vehicle, an air hose can connect the two. This type of system utilizes air pressure from the motorhome’s air brake system to apply the towed vehicle’s brakes. This provides true proportional braking, because the towed vehicle’s brakes work in harmony with the motorhome’s brakes rather than sensing inertia.
Regardless of the type of system you choose, the facts all add up to show that a supplemental braking system should be used whenever another vehicle is towed behind a motorhome. Legal issues and their enforcement seem to be a never-ending debate, but traveling without a supplemental braking system is not safe and can be likened to driving without insurance. The additional safety of having a supplemental braking system far outweighs the financial savings from traveling without one.
Following are brief summaries of some of the supplemental braking systems that are available:
Blue Ox offers two systems. The AutoStop is a tow-bar-mounted surge brake that doesn’t tap into your electrical or hydraulic systems. It utilizes the forward momentum of the towed vehicle to pull a cable that connects to the brake pedal, mechanically activating the towed vehicle brakes. It has a suggested retail price of $345.
The Patriot is a portable system that is placed on the floor in front of the driver’s seat and contains a push rod that clamps to the vehicle’s brake pedal. Once the clamp is attached, plug in the 12-volt-DC power cord and preinstalled breakaway switch and the system is ready to use. An internal inertia sensor recognizes deceleration and applies the brakes accordingly. A wireless remote control is placed in the motorhome’s cockpit to monitor the Patriot’s status and also can be used to apply the towed vehicle’s brakes manually if desired. The Patriot includes a built-in battery, so even if the towed vehicle’s battery should go dead, the system will have power to provide braking assistance. Installation is minimal, because the breakaway switch and wiring are the only pieces that need to be added. It is portable, so it does need to be calibrated prior to use, and it must be removed before the towed vehicle can be driven. The Patriot has a suggested retail price of $1,395.
Blue Ox, (800) 228-9289; www.blueox.com.
In 1996 BrakeBuddy introduced the portable towed car braking system. Hopkins Manufacturing Corporation now sells the Digital Classic and the Vantage Select versions, both of which offer numerous enhancements to the original BrakeBuddy.
These portable systems rest on the floor in front of the driver’s seat and connect to the brake pedal via a clamp arm. An internal decelerometer senses deceleration and applies the brakes accordingly. The breakaway switch is mounted to the front bumper and wires are run to the driver’s compartment. Both the breakaway and power cords plug into the BrakeBuddy to make it easy to set up and remove. Once these units are put in place, they need to be calibrated prior to use and must be removed before the towed vehicle can be driven.
The Vantage Select includes a wireless remote control that can be placed in the motorhome’s cockpit to monitor the unit and manually apply the brakes if desired. The remote control makes it possible to set the system to provide full braking power or proportional braking and also allows setup and calibration from the motorhome. The BrakeBuddy Digital Classic has a suggested retail price of $1,149, while the Vantage Select is priced at $1,499. Boost versions of each system are also available for use on hybrid vehicles with electric brakes. The Digital Classic Boost is priced at $1,299, while the Vantage Select Boost costs $1,649.
The newest product from BrakeBuddy is the Stealth. The Stealth is touted by the company as being versatile and easy to use and, once installed, it is operated by a dual controller mounted inside the motorhome. The product features a main unit that is installed in the towed vehicle’s trunk or under a seat. A cable is routed from the unit to a pulley system installed in front of the brake pedal, then on to a clamp that attaches to the brake pedal. The main unit provides the physical force to engage the brake. The system also includes an all-in-one flex-coil adapter that links the motorhome and towed vehicle and includes a built-in breakaway component and a battery maintainer. The Stealth has a suggested retail price of $1,099.
Hopkins Manufacturing Corporation, (800) 470-2287; www.brakebuddy.com
The M&G Car Braking System utilizes a unique module that is placed between the towed vehicle’s brake master cylinder and the vacuum booster. It utilizes air pressure from the motorhome’s air brakes to provide true proportional braking by directly activating the towed vehicle’s master cylinder. It does not interface with the brake lights, so it activates only when the motorhome’s brakes are used and not when coasting or using an engine brake to descend a grade. Its fail-safe design is such that it never affects normal vehicle braking and doesn’t intrude upon the towed vehicle’s hydraulic or ABS systems. An optional breakaway kit provides a small air reservoir, a solenoid valve, and a breakaway switch. A quick-disconnect air line connects the motorhome to the towed vehicle’s braking system.
This system is ideal for diesel motorhomes with air brakes, but an optional Power Pack is available for motorhomes with hydraulic brakes. The Power Pack consists of a 12-volt-DC air compressor, an accumulator tank, and a proportioning valve. Rather than use inertia to determine how much braking pressure to apply, the proportioning valve senses hydraulic brake pressure in the motorhome to determine the level of braking required. A tee fitting is installed in the brake system, and a steel brake line is run to the proportioning valve to operate the system. The M&G system for motorhomes with air brakes sells for $640, while the M&G system that includes the Power Pack for motorhomes with hydraulic brakes sells for $1,060. The optional breakaway kit costs $195.
M&G Engineering, (800) 817-7698 or (903) 675-2812; www.m-gengineering.com
NSA RV Products
NSA RV Products Inc. offers the ReadyBrake system. This surge brake mounts to the hitch receiver in front of the tow bar. When the motorhome’s brakes are applied and the momentum of the towed vehicle pushes forward, a spring and a shock absorber in the device actuates an arm that pulls a cable connected to the towed vehicle’s brake pedal. This system requires no electrical connection other than a remote indicator lamp that can be located on the motorhome’s dash to show when the ReadyBrake is being used. It’s a true mechanical surge brake system. The ReadyBrake has a suggested retail price of $410.20, while the optional breakaway kit sells for $100.
NSA RV Products Inc., (866) 981-5874; www.readybrake.com
Roadmaster Inc. offers a number of supplemental braking systems, including a pair of portable solutions: the Even Brake and the 9700.
The Even Brake, like other portable box-style systems, rests on the floor and connects to the brake pedal via a push rod and pedal clamp. This is a proportional system, so it automatically increases or decreases braking pressure in direct proportion to the motorhome. Plug the breakaway wiring harness and power cord into the unit, calibrate the Even Brake, and it’s ready to go. A wireless remote control in the coach cockpit provides the status of the system and can warn of a low battery condition in the towed vehicle. The Even Brake has a suggested retail price of $1,555.60.
Like the Even Brake, the 9700 rests on the floor and connects to the towed vehicle’s brake pedal. The 9700 applies a preset pressure — light, medium, or heavy — to the towed vehicle’s brakes every time the motorhome’s brake lights are illuminated. It uses the same electrical signal that activates the towed vehicle’s brake lights, so no new wiring from the motorhome to the auxiliary brake is needed. It includes a breakaway system that delivers maximum braking pressure should the vehicles become disconnected. The system also includes an LED motorhome monitor for visual reference of braking activity. The 9700 has a suggested retail price of $1,075.
The BrakeMaster is a direct proportional braking system that uses a removable pneumatic cylinder to actuate the towed vehicle’s brake pedal. The cylinder attaches to the floor or seat bracket with a removable pin, uses a clamp to connect to the brake pedal, and has a quick-disconnect fitting to attach to an air hose located at the driver’s seat. The breakaway system includes a small air reservoir and solenoid installed in the vehicle’s engine compartment that are connected to a front-mounted breakaway switch. This is a hybrid system in that most of the components are permanently mounted, but the air cylinder can be removed easily when not towing so as to make room for the driver’s feet. An air hose connects the towed vehicle to the motorhomes’s air brakes via a quick-disconnect fitting and provides true proportional braking. An LED monitor can be installed in the motorhome to monitor BrakeMaster activity, but this does require a hardwired connection between the coach and towed vehicle. For motorhomes equipped with hydraulic brakes, an air compressor kit can be added. The kit includes a proportioning valve that tees into a hydraulic brake line and provides proportional braking. The BrakeMaster 9160 system for motorhomes with air brakes has a suggested retail price of $883.85. The BrakeMaster 9060 for motorhomes with hydraulic brakes sells for $1,304.68.
InvisiBrake is a good choice for motorhome owners with hydraulic brakes who desire a permanently mounted system. The InvisiBrake controller is compact and can mount almost anywhere inside the towed vehicle. The controller connects into the electrical wiring harness that attaches the motorhome and towed vehicle and contains a small air compressor that actuates a small air cylinder. The air cylinder then pulls a cable that is connected to the brake pedal arm. This system uses the signal from the motorhome’s brakes to determine its braking effort. An adjustable dial and a pressure gauge on the controller are used to calibrate the unit to the towed vehicle’s weight and braking capacity. Once the device is installed, it’s ready whenever needed. The InvisiBrake has a suggested retail price of $999.99.
Roadmaster Inc., (800) 669-9690; www.roadmasterinc.com
The RVibrake2 is a portable unit that was developed by the inventor of the original BrakeBuddy, and comes with 20 years of experience in supplemental braking systems. The RVibrake2 is a compact, low-profile unit that features One-Touch Auto Positioning for ease of installation. Instead of pushing against the seat itself, the RVibrake2 pushes against the floor pan — the rise in the floor where the driver’s seat attaches. The included breakaway switch is installed in the usual manner, and the breakaway switch and power cable wires plug directly into the unit. An optional battery-direct kit is available to provide an additional outlet or for when the original outlet cannot provide consistent power.
The RVibrake2 is the second-generation brake system in the RVibrake line and features new 2.0 software and a more sleek physical design. The software also monitors the towed vehicle’s battery voltage as well as the RViBrake2’s draw on the battery. This model includes a wireless remote control that can be mounted on the motorhome’s dash. The wireless remote also features the ability to monitor tire pressures in the same unit, eliminating the need to buy a second TPMS system. The RVibrake2 has a suggested retail price of $1,325, and a set of optional tire pressure sensors sells for $325.
RVibrake, (800) 815-2159; www.rvibrake.com
Smart Brake is a relatively new name in the supplemental braking business, but the product itself has been around for some time. Designed by the inventor of the original US Gear/AP Products’ Unified Tow Brake, the Smart Brake features a number of enhancements and upgrades to the original design. The Smart Brake has a “Brain Box” that can be mounted anywhere in the towed vehicle but generally is placed in the vehicle’s engine compartment. This module operates a small vacuum pump to keep the brake system’s power brake chamber supplied with vacuum when towing. A shielded mechanical cable connects the control module to a bracket on the brake pedal. The cable self-adjusts so that the system can be used in vehicles with adjustable foot pedals without having to adjust the cable manually. The system is activated by a standard trailer brake controller mounted in the motorhome that feeds through the existing electrical harness wiring. This allows the motorhome to be switched between the Smart Brake-equipped towed vehicle or a trailer equipped with electric brakes.
The Smart Brake connects to the motorhome via a standard seven-pin RV-style connector socket and umbilical cord, which are included. It has breakout connections for the towed vehicle lights, so the installation time has been reduced to two hours versus six hours for the previous Unified Tow Brake. The Smart Brake is well-suited for motorhomes with either hydraulic or air brakes. Once installed, the system remains in place and no longer needs to be adjusted or removed. The suggested retail price of the UTB1000 is $1,095 and is a complete system, including a trailer brake controller. For buyers who already have a trailer brake controller, the TV1000 system is priced at $995. The UTH 1000 system is designed for hybrid cars and does not include a vacuum pump. It has a suggested retail price of $995. The TVH is the same hybrid system but does not include the trailer brake controller. It is priced at $895.
Smart Brake LLC, (951) 769-3253; www.smartbrakellc.com
SMI Manufacturing Inc. offers a pair of systems that generate vacuum to energize the towed vehicle’s brakes to assist in brake pedal operation: making the pedal soft as though the engine were running. The systems don’t technically rely on vacuum from the towed vehicle, as it does not have vacuum when not running.
The Stay-In-Play Duo utilizes a module permanently installed in the towed vehicle’s engine compartment. A vacuum pump inside the unit tees into the vehicle’s vacuum booster line to provide a fully charged brake vacuum boost when towing. An adjustable decelerometer is placed in the towed vehicle’s driver compartment to sense the level of braking required. The Stay-In-Play Duo also monitors the motorhome’s brake lights and applies immediate full braking power during a panic stop rather than trying to compute the rate of deceleration based on inertia, which eats up valuable time and braking distance. A compact actuator attaches to the brake pedal arm to operate the pedal. Interfaces with a breakaway switch and the coach lighting socket are all connected under the hood, and no wiring in the motorhome is required, except for an included LED that can be optionally installed to indicate when the towed brakes are being applied. (The LED is included and can be mounted in the towed vehicle viewable through the motorhome’s backup camera; placed in the motorhome, requiring a wire to be run the coach dashboard; or it doesn’t have to be used at all. This system requires a bit of installation, but once installed remains in place. The suggested retail price for the Stay-In-Play Duo is $1,099.95.
SMI’s Air Force One is a similar system that is designed for motorhomes with air brakes. It uses the coach’s air brake supply to connect to the towed vehicle’s main module, which is installed in the engine compartment. All components for a Department of Transportation and Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards compliant air tap-in are included with the kit. As the air brakes are applied, the air pressure creates the vacuum necessary to activate the power brakes on the towed vehicle. An actuator cylinder is mounted to the brake pedal arm and responds in relation to the motorhome’s braking level. Like the Stay-In-Play Duo, this system is designed to be installed and remain in place without further intervention. The breakaway switch connects to the main unit and will lock up the towed vehicle’s brakes should a breakaway situation occur. A hardwired feed from the vehicle’s brake light switch to an LED in the motorhome can be used to monitor actuation. Both the motorhome and the towed vehicle components are universal; allowing them to transfer easily to a new application. The Air Force One has a suggested retail price of $1,199.95.
SMI Manufacturing Inc., (800) 893-3763; www.smibrake.com
The Toad Stop Qi from Safe-Techsolutions.com is a permanent system that uses a controller and vacuum pump mounted in the towed vehicle’s engine compartment to operate an actuator that connects to the brake pedal arm via a cable. Rather than use a traditional decelerometer, the ToadStop Qi incorporates a ProPortControl that is mounted on the tow bar. This sensor detects the amount of surge, or push, during brake application and applies the towed vehicle brakes accordingly. The system also taps into the motorhome’s brake light circuit to prevent false brake application on downgrades. A dash-mounted LED indicates when the brakes are being applied, and a hand-held trigger can be used to apply the brakes manually in order to test them or if the driver becomes incapacitated. A standard breakaway switch also is included. Once the system is installed, it can remain in place and no further user interaction is required. The suggested retail price of the ToadStop Qi is $899.99.
Safe-Techsolutions.com, (800) 478-7883; www.safe-techsolutions.com
As you can see, motorhome owners have plenty of supplemental braking system options to help drivers operate their motorhome and towed vehicle combination safely.