Braking while towing should be a seamless, comfortable, confident and safe experience, no matter whether that’s general driving, or emergency situations.
First, do you have a proportional controller, and if so – is it set to proportional mode?
Proportional controllers brake your van harder when the vehicle brakes harder. Non-proportional controllers just have a constant output irrespective of the situation. There is little point having a non-proportional controller these days and they can be quite unsafe. However, we see it in customer vehicles all the time – usually because the owner is not aware of what they have installed, and haven’t experienced the huge benefits of a modern high-quality controller
Older brake controllers are non-proportional, newer ones can be either, and some modern ones can be switched between the two. Different brands normally offer multiple versions. E.g. a “RedArc” brake controller could be either, same with a “Tekonsha”. Non-proportional controllers are cheaper, and are often fitted in “package deals” or as a budget option if you don’t specify anything else. So, it can be difficult to know. Get out the manual to find the model and specs.
What other features?
Once you know the model and specs, you should be able to work out what features your controller has. And they vary! All controllers have a “Gain” adjustment. (Higher = More Braking), and also a “Manual Activation” – which allows you to activate the van brakes independent of the vehicle. This is good for testing your van brakes, and also for emergency situations.
Some controllers also have a “Pendulum” adjustment. This adjusts how aggressive the brakes come on.
If your controllers can be switched between proportional and non-proportional, check to ensure it is on proportional mode.
What features does your have? Do you know where the adjustments/buttons are? Can you adjust them without looking at the unit – ie keeping your eyes on the road?
When to Adjust?
You have to be confident adjusting the settings on your brake controller. If you’ve left your controller on just one setting for the last few years, its likely set wrong. Things like weight, speed, and the condition of both your van and vehicle brakes affect what you should have your controller set to. Even things like whether your tanks are empty or full should trigger a slight adjustment in the brake controller.
If you have had your van serviced, the brakes are adjusted and cleaned as part of that service, and will have a serious impact on your brake controller. If any brake components have been replaced this has a big impact too. You will need to find new settings on your brake controller for both these situations.
Often I see owners setup their brake controller so the van brakes early, before the vehicle. The idea is that this is safer, because it stretches the rig out keeping it straight. The principle is sound, but its not required. All that you’ll do is burn through van brakes quickly and cause yourself extra service costs. And potentially you’ll lock up your van brakes in emergency situations, which is exactly what you don’t want.
The safest recommendation is to have the vehicle brake the vehicle, and the van brake the van. And you get achieve this with the right controller, and the right settings.
To prevent dangerous jack knifing situations, it is recommended you have an electronic stability control system fitted like the Dexter DSC, or ALKO ESC units.
Brake controllers need to be installed in the right orientation – so they know which way is forward. Some are also sensitive to being mounted horizontally. Having an incorrect installation can lead to incorrect braking outputs.
Some brake controllers have “remote heads” where just a dial is mounted on the dashboard. Others have the entire unit mounted in one location. Sometimes these combined units end up in the way of your legs/knees – especially in manual vehicles.
Time to Upgrade?
Upgrading to a modern proportional brake controller is relatively easy, and will give you a big step up in safety and braking performance. All brake controllers tend to have the same wires, so upgrading is normally just a matter of changing the actual unit over – which requires cutting and joining the wires. If you are not 100% confident with your van brakes in ALL situations, it is something worth considering.