Hydraulic trailer brakes vs electric trailer brakes

Electric Trailer Brakes vs Hydraulic Trailer Brakes [Key Differences]

Electric trailer brakes and hydraulic trailer brakes are two different types of braking systems used in trailers.

Electric trailer brakes are often simpler to install and maintain, making them a popular choice for smaller trailers and recreational vehicles. Hydraulic trailer brakes are commonly used in larger trailers and heavy-duty applications, providing powerful braking performance.

Electric Trailer Brakes

An electric brake controller is used in an electric trailer brake system to engage the brakes on a trailer.

The trailer brakes engage and slow33 down the trailer when the towing vehicle’s brake pedal is depressed, thanks to the electrical signal sent from the electric brake controller to them.

Typically used on larger trailers, this system offers superior braking performance and control over surge brakes or hydraulic brakes.

How Do Electric Trailer Brakes Work?

They are a type of braking system frequently found in trailers and vehicles that are being towed. They work by converting a mechanical braking force from an electrical signal from a brake controller.

The electric brake assemblies, which are placed close to each trailer wheel, receive an electrical signal from the brake controller when the driver applies the brakes.

The brake assemblies’ internal electromagnets are energized by the signal, which moves the brake shoes toward the drum and causes friction. As a result of this friction, the wheel’s rotation is slowed or stopped.

The electrical signal is broken when the driver lets go of the brake pedal, deactivating the electromagnets and causing the brake shoes to come loose from the drum, putting an end to the braking action.

Unique Features of Electric Trailer Brakes

  • Independent Control: The ability to independently control the amount of braking force applied to each wheel is one of the electric brakes’ most notable benefits. This feature improves stability and control when braking, especially when an unbalanced load might impair the performance of the trailer.
  • Brake Controller: The towing vehicle must have a brake controller in order to operate the electric trailer brakes. The brake controller enables the driver to manually modify the brake pressure applied to the trailer. It’s important to install and set up the brake controller properly to ensure optimal braking performance.

Advantages of Electric Trailer Brakes

  • Simplicity: Electric brakes have a straightforward design with fewer components, making installation and maintenance relatively easy.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Compared to hydraulic brake systems, electric brake systems are typically less expensive up front, making them a popular option for people on a tight budget.
  • Compatibility: Electric brakes can be easily integrated into most trailers, regardless of their size or weight.

Disadvantages of Electric Trailer Brakes

  • Power Restrictions: Heavy loads or larger trailers may require more braking power from electric brakes, which could result in insufficient stopping distances.
  • Weather Sensitivity: In wet or snowy conditions, electric systems may be more vulnerable to damage or malfunction, which could have an impact on their performance.
  • Controller Requirement: Electric brakes necessitate the installation of a brake controller in the tow vehicle, which adds to the overall cost and complexity.

Hydraulic Trailer Brakes

Hydraulic trailer brakes are a type of braking system used in trailers and other towed vehicles.

They work by applying hydraulic pressure to the brake shoes, which then causes the wheels to rotate more slowly or to stop altogether. This pressure forces the brake shoes to contact the drums, resulting in effective braking.

How Do Hydraulic Trailer Brakes Work?

Hydraulic trailer brakes are typically operated by a master cylinder that is linked to the trailer’s brake system by a brake line.

When the driver applies the brakes in the tow vehicle, the brake fluid is forced through the brake line and into the hydraulic brake assemblies located near each wheel of the trailer.

The friction produced by the brake shoes pressing against the drum as a result of the pressurized fluid slows or stops the wheel’s rotation. The pressure is released when the driver lets go of the brake pedal, allowing the brake shoes to pull back from the drum and disengaging the braking action.

Unique Features of Hydraulic Trailer Brakes

  • Weather Resistance: Hydraulic brakes are typically more weather resistant. In comparison to other brake types, such as electric brakes, they are less susceptible to moisture, dirt, and extreme temperature changes. This weather resistance guarantees reliable braking performance even in difficult circumstances.
  • Reduced Fade and Heat Dissipation: Hydraulic brakes are well-known for being better at handling heat. They have better heat dissipation capabilities, which reduce brake fade during extended or vigorous braking. This feature helps to maintain consistent braking performance even in difficult circumstances.
  • Independent Braking: They function independently of the braking system on the trailer. This lessens reliance on the tow vehicle’s braking abilities and gives the operator more control over the trailer’s braking performance.
  • Potential for Integrated Trailer Brake Systems: These brakes may be incorporated into trailer brake systems that provide extra features like electronic brake force distribution (EBD) or anti-lock braking systems (ABS). These integrated systems improve the trailer’s control and stability when braking, further enhancing safety.

Advantages of Hydraulic Trailer Brakes

  • Enhanced Braking Power: Hydraulic brakes provide superior stopping power, making them perfect for heavy loads or larger trailers.
  • Smoother Braking Experience: Hydraulic systems offer more accurate and progressive braking, which makes towing smoother and more controlled.
  • Independent Operation: Because hydraulic brakes are electrically independent, they are appropriate for circumstances in which the vehicle’s battery or electrical system may be compromised.

Disadvantages of Hydraulic Trailer Brakes

  • Complex Installation: Hydraulic systems involve additional components such as brake lines, master cylinders, and fluid reservoirs, which require professional installation and periodic maintenance.
  • Higher Initial Cost: Compared to electric systems, hydraulic brake systems are typically more expensive to install and buy.
  • Compatibility Issues: Changing a trailer’s brakes from electric to hydraulic or vice versa can be difficult, expensive, and call for significant modifications.

Differences Between Hydraulic and Electric Trailer Brakes

1. Braking Ability

1. Braking Ability

Electric trailer brakes are a useful tool for stopping smaller trailers and regular loads. Typically, they provide maximum brake power ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 Newtons (450 to 900 pounds of force) per axle, depending on the brake size and configuration.

However, they might find it difficult to provide enough stopping power for large or heavy trailers.

For larger trailers and heavy loads that require more stopping power, hydraulic trailer brakes are the best option because of their superior braking power and because they can deliver substantial brake power, often ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 Newtons (1,125 to 2,250 pounds of force) per axle, depending on the system’s design and configuration.

2. Structure

2. Structure

Electric brakes are generally lighter, ranging from 8 to 30 pounds (3.6 to 13.6 kilograms) per brake assembly, depending on the size and capacity. The hydraulic trailer brakes are typically heavier, with weights ranging from 30 to 75 pounds (13.6 to 34 kilograms) per brake assembly, depending on the size and capacity.

Considering their dimensions and sizes, electric trailer brakes come in various dimensions, with common sizes such as 10 inches, 12 inches, or 13 inches in diameter for the brake drums.

On the other hand, hydraulic trailer brakes also come in different dimensions, but they generally require additional components such as the hydraulic actuator, master cylinder, and brake lines, which can increase the overall size and complexity.

3. Maximum Load Capacity

3. Maximum Load Capacity

Electric brakes can handle a wide range of load capacities, typically ranging from 3,500 to 12,000 pounds (1,590 to 5,440 kilograms) per axle, depending on the brake size and configuration.

On the other hand, hydraulic trailer brakes have a robust load-carrying capacity, often ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 pounds (2,270 to 9,070 kilograms) per axle, depending on the system’s design and configuration.

4. Response Time

4. Response Time

Electric trailer brakes offer quick response times by activating almost immediately when the brakes are applied to the towing vehicle, typically within 100 milliseconds. This guarantees quick-stopping ability.

Hydraulic trailer brakes are less responsive due to their direct hydraulic pressure transfer. They provide delayed braking force upon application, with activation within 500 milliseconds.

5. Durability

5. Durability

In general, electric brakes are strong and capable of withstanding typical towing circumstances. However, they might be less durable or more likely to malfunction in cold or wet weather, which could shorten their lifespan.

They operate efficiently in temperatures between -40 °F and 200 °F. Hydraulic trailer brakes are renowned for their resilience and capacity to operate in a variety of climates. Extremes in temperature or moisture have less of an impact on them. They work well in temperatures between -40 and 199.4 °F.

6. Compatibility

Regardless of their size or weight, electric brakes can be easily installed in the majority of trailers. They are able to work with common electrical brake controllers in cars.

A hydraulic system with brake lines, master cylinders, and fluid reservoirs is necessary for hydraulic brakes. The process of installing hydraulic brakes on a trailer can be challenging and demanding.

7. Performance

Electric brakes may not operate smoothly, which can make stopping feel a little jerky or abrupt, especially at low speeds. Hydraulic brakes offer smoother, more controlled stopping thanks to their precise, progressive braking.

8. Environmental conditions

Electric brakes are more prone to damage in wet or snowy conditions due to their electrical components and connections.

Water or moisture can affect their performance. Hydraulic trailer brakes are less affected by weather conditions as they rely on hydraulic pressure rather than electrical components.

9. Controller Requirement

9. Controller Requirement

Electric brakes require a brake controller installed in the trailer. The controller regulates the amount of current sent to the trailer brakes based on the driver’s input.

Hydraulic trailer brakes operate independently without the need for a brake controller, simplifying the installation process and eliminating the need for additional components.

10. Conversion

The trailer’s braking system may need to be significantly modified in order to switch from electric to hydraulic brakes, including the replacement of parts like brake lines, master cylinders, and fluid reservoirs.

In order to accommodate the different braking mechanisms, switching from hydraulic to electric brakes may necessitate replacing the entire braking system, including brake assemblies, magnets, and drums.

11. Replacement Time

11. Replacement Time

The need for the replacement of electric trailer brakes can be determined by how well the brake shoes and magnets are holding up. On average, the brake shoes may need replacement every 25,000 to 50,000 miles (40,000 to 80,000 kilometers) or as recommended by the manufacturer.

The magnets, which are responsible for engaging the brake shoes, may also require replacement if they become worn or damaged. On the other hand, compared to electric brakes, hydraulic trailer brakes typically have longer lifespans and can last 50,000–70,000 miles (80,000–112,000 kilometers) or more.

12. Cost

Compared to hydraulic brakes, electric brakes are typically less expensive. They are a less expensive option because they have fewer components, especially for smaller trailers.

The price of electric trailer brakes falls between $50 and $300. Then hydraulic brakes typically have higher costs, the price of electric trailer brakes falls between $200 and $1000.

13. Maintenance and serviceability

Electric brakes are generally easier to maintain and service. They require less maintenance because they have fewer parts and don’t need to be adjusted as frequently.

Installation and maintenance of hydraulic trailer brakes are more difficult. They need routine checks, modifications, and fluid changes that might call for expert assistance.

Hydraulic Trailer Brakes Vs Electric Trailer Brakes [Comparison Summary]

 Electric Trailer BrakeHydraulic Trailer Brake
Principle of operationActivated by electric current Activated by hydraulic pressure
InstallationSimpler installation process.Professional assistance is needed for complex installations.
Braking AbilitySuitable for regular loads           Superior braking force for heavy loads
PerformanceMay lack smoothness in operation.Provides precise and progressive braking.
Weather Sensitivity  More prone to damage in wet/snowy conditions.Less affected by weather conditions.
Compatibility      Compatible with most trailers.       Suitable for larger trailers and heavy loads.
Cost                    Usually less expensiveHigher upfront cost  
Controller RequirementRequires a brake controller in the tow vehicle.No controller is required for independent functionality.
Conversion           Making the switch from electric to hydraulic brakes might require major adjustments. The entire braking system might need to be replaced during conversion.  Making the switch from electric to hydraulic brakes might require major adjustments. The entire braking system might need to be replaced during conversion.  
MaintenanceEasier maintenance                      Requires periodic inspections and fluid changes  


It is evident from a careful evaluation of hydraulic and electric trailer brakes that each solution has advantages over the other. While hydraulic brakes offer superior braking power, smooth operation, and weather resistance, electric brakes are more convenient, easier to install, and compatible with brake controllers.

It’s crucial to take into account your specific towing requirements, the kind of trailer you have, and your budget when choosing. If you prioritize simplicity, affordability, and ease of installation, electric trailer brakes may be the right choice for you. Hydraulic trailer brakes, on the other hand, might be the best choice if you need more braking force, smoother performance, and better weather resistance.

In the end, speaking with a reputable mechanic or trailer specialist can offer insightful advice and assist you in making a decision based on your particular towing needs.

Remember that maintaining your chosen braking system at peak performance and safety requires routine maintenance, inspections, and adherence to manufacturer recommendations. Whichever option you select, put safety first and be proactive about maintaining the braking system on your trailer to ensure safe and easy towing.

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