Newbie here looking for a little free education...
What are brake controllers (prodigy and the like)? Are they "required equipment" necessary to tow? Or are they "optional/preferred" to tow safer or more conveniently?
In reading the TL's online glossary, it appears that the trailers brake systems are, by default, linked to and actuated by the braking of the tow vehicle. But then there appears to be an ability to "manually" activate the trailer brakes with a separate brake controller (perhaps separate from the tow vehicle brakes). Is this to address some sort of emergency sway condition?
A little explanation would be much appreciated. Or if there is an online resource where I could learn more, that "link" would also be appreciated.
Brake controllers are necessary if you have a trailer with electric brakes. The controller is what sends the electrical signal to the trailer activating the magnets in the brake drums. Without a controller, you would have no brakes.
There are three basic designs of brake controllers. Timed, Inertia, and Proportional. Timed controllers are the worst, and cheapest. These are the ones RV dealers and auto-parts stores like to sell. They simply watch for your brake light wire to become energized, and then begin applying trailer brakes. The trailer brakes will continue to ramp up in power until you take your foot off the brake pedal. There are two main problems with this controller. First, in a panic stop, you won't have 100% trailer brakes until the ramp reaches full power, which could be as long as 10 seconds after you apply the brakes. The second problem is that if you adjust the ramp to be steeper, so your brakes are safer in a panic stop, then it is impossible to brake smoothly under normal driving conditions, as the trailer brakes are always jerking you around. I personally feel ramp/timer controllers should be pulled from the market and/or made illegal. I have never met someone who had one and liked it once they figured out how it worked.
The second controller, Inertia based, uses some form of sensor to detect vehicle deceleration. It tries to match the trailer braking with the rate of deceleration of the truck. This is much smoother and safer. It too has one downfall however, if the tow vehicle for whatever reason can't create enough deceleration to activate the controller, the trailer brakes won't work. Think about towing on ice, or if your truck's brakes failed. The Prodigy is on the top of this group, as it uses very advanced acellerometer technology, which does a great job of sensing vehicle braking.
The third kind, Proportional, uses either a hydraulic pressure sensor, or a cable sensor to detect braking action in the tow vehicle. Most people feel these are the best and smoothest actuators available, even though the hydraulic versions are no longer made. The hydraulic version didn't sell well after anti-lock brakes prevented their use, and some people screwed up the installation causing brake line leaks. The cable type (Of which the Jordan Ultima is the only one I know of) uses a cable to sense brake pedal motion. This controller is fail-safe in the event of total brake failure in the tow vehicle, or complete loss of traction.
The ability to manually apply the trailer brakes can be priceless in a sway condition. Applying the brakes manually via the controller will cause the trailer to pull backward on the truck, and snap back in line behind. Like if you threw an anchor out your side window, it would quickly end up right behind your truck rather than staying next to it. This only works if you don't try and slow the truck at the same time, which is a common newbie mistake often resulting in a crash.
I hope I answered your questions!
'11 Ford Expedition XL 5.4L (Primary tow vehicle)
'04 Mercury Grand Marquis 4.6L (Backup tow vehicle
'04 Ford Freestar SES 3.9L (another Backup tow vehicle)
'97 Lincoln Mark VIII 32v 4.6L (another Backup tow vehicle)