Does this new Bluetooth-connected electric brake controller make towing easier?
Electric trailer brakes are fitted to most caravans and of course unless your camper or caravan is under 750kg, your tow vehicle needs an electric brake controller (EBC).
However, there’s a relatively new player on the market called Elecbrakes that may well revolutionise the whole electric brake control concept with its clever Bluetooth controlled system.
What is Elecbrakes?
Instead of an EBC that needs to be hard wired to the car battery, and have a head unit or controller screwed in place (in reach of the driver), plus a wire fed to the brake switch or brake light and another to the trailer plug at the back of the car, the Elecbrakes EBC unit is a small black box either cable-tied or screwed in place on the trailer A-frame and that plugs into the trailer plug.
The unit is powered by the vehicle-to-trailer wiring and controlled by an app on your smart phone (either Apple or Android will do). The only ‘fixture’ on the vehicle is the cradle for either the phone (or the optional Elecbrakes controller) within reach of the driver.
Setting it up
The Elecbrakes ELBC2000-PS unit comes with a waterproof Deutsch connector to which you plug in one of the two loom options: either the plug-and-play loom or a pigtail loom.
The plug-and-play loom has two trailer plugs already wired up: one that plugs straight into the vehicle’s connector and another that plugs straight into the trailer’s connector.
The pigtail loom has to be hardwired into the trailer plug, making it the choice for those who want the Elecbrakes unit fitted permanently to a trailer.
The Elecbrakes unit can be mounted at any side angle on the A-frame; it features a three-axis accelerometer, which senses which way is ‘forward’ and adjusts and sets the unit accordingly.
The unit can be mounted to the A-frame with strong plastic cable ties or more permanently with screws. The clear advantage (with the plug-and-play loom) is that you can have the electric brake controller set up and working on a new vehicle and van combo within 10 minutes. All you need is new cable ties.
The Elecbrakes control unit sources power from the brake light circuit and the park light circuit. The park light circuit provides power for the actuator and the brake light circuit for brake activation itself.
Unlike those brake controllers that activate via the brake pedal switch, with its brake light circuit activation, the Elecbrakes unit is compatible with active cruise control systems. In other words, when ACC triggers the brakes, the Elecbrakes unit is also activated to apply proportional trailer braking.
If the tow vehicle has a 12-pin plug fitted the actuator power feed can instead be wired into pin nine (using the optional 12-pin plug available with the unit at extra cost). Those running an electric over hydraulic brake system (such as used for large boat trailers) can use an Anderson plug for actuator power source.
One concern is whether the vehicle’s trailer wiring (that is, in the standard seven- or 12-pin wiring loom) is going to be of thick enough gauge — and provide enough power — to safely power electric brakes.
Elecbrakes claims that it has done testing that shows that even with a full emergency stop, a typical four-brake tandem caravan set-up will draw no more than 16 amps. That is, a 10-inch or 12-inch drum brake will draw no more than 4amps.
More tech stuff
Further to that, the Elecbrakes unit gleans ‘spare’ power from existing trailer plug circuits. It reads the excess amperage available in the tail light and brake light circuits, thousands of times each second.
According to Elecbrakes, its unit software requisitions up to 8 amps of spare electricity per circuit, forming a total of 16 amps of available current for use by the electric brake magnets.
There are three brake responses: a minimum brake response, forward brake response and reverse brake response. The minimum brake response is the initial ‘bite’ the brakes have and if set up properly this helps smooth out braking generally but also removes any brake grabbing at low speeds.
All can be changed at any time by the driver, but basically you set up the brakes how you want them — and then leave it.
Five brake modes
There are five brake programs, which allows flexibility for when running laden or unladen for the likes of horse trailer, for example.
Basically you set up each braking program according to the load and the settings are then saved to the unit on the trailer. According to Elecbrakes though, the feedback from most caravanners is that one setting is enough for them — there’s no need to set up more.
While the settings remain saved in the unit, changes to braking force can be made if desired on the fly, just like you can with a conventional controller.
Does it work?
We sampled an Elecbrakes unit with optional remote set up on a Jayco Sterling tandem axle road van weighing 3000kg. The tow vehicle was a Ford Ranger 2.0 Bi-Turbo.
The brakes were initially set up with a ‘5’ minimum response and ’25’ setting for forward braking. With those settings, trailer braking was seamless in normal braking on the freeway and in urban running.
However, if you like to feel the caravan brakes working more assertively, you can make adjustments on the controller quite easily. We dialled up forward braking to a ’30’ setting, where it became much more obvious that the van’s brakes were being applied, without being abrupt or sharp in response.
The override facility (the independent application of full trailer braking) is operated by simply pressing a large red ‘button’ on the controller screen.
The brake controller is only as smart as the brakes they operate, of course. I got the van’s brakes to lock-up briefly while braking heavily at low speed on an off-camber bend when approaching traffic lights that had just turned red.
Anti-locking brakes — let alone disc brakes — are a long way from being standard equipment on all caravans. Drum brakes need to be regularly adjusted to give adequate performance, too.
What happens if you lose Bluetooth connection, or your phone or the battery in the optional controller goes flat?
You won’t be able to change brake settings or apply full manual emergency trailer braking in those (unlikely) scenarios, but the Elecbrakes unit does remember your prior brake settings and apply the trailer brakes with the vehicle regardless of whether there is a Bluetooth connection or not.
The Elecbrakes unit will only connect with one controller; so there’s no risk of someone else with an Elecbrakes controller or using the Elecbrakes app connecting to your brakes at the same time.
The plug-and-play’s integrity is only as good as its electrical connections, and as we all know trailer plugs are not perfect. Playing devil’s advocate, you could argue you have double the amount of plug connections for pins to close up on and for connections to corrode. You’d have to keep on top of routine plug inspections.
Another potential downside is that the Elecbrakes set-up isn’t cheap compared to a fixed electric brake controller that might only cost about $350, such as the Redarc Tow Pro Elite. But then the fixed EBC has to be installed at extra cost.
Depending on the vehicle, the unit-plus-installation cost can end up being as much or more than an Elecbrakes unit. If you want to swap vehicle or van, the Elecbrakes unit is quicker, easier and much cheaper to transfer than a fixed EBC.
A portable EBC unit, which is a conventional EBC with a loom that plugs into the vehicle’s 12v auxiliary socket and the trailer plug at the back of the vehicle (similar to the Elecbrakes plug-and-play connector set-up) is another option. This is a relatively crude set-up by comparison, but only costs around $330 all up.
At the time of writing, prices started at $649 for the Elecbrakes EBC with the pigtail loom, or $699 with the plug-and-play loom. While the Elecbrakes app is free, the optional controller is a $169 extra. Warranty cover is two years.