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Disc Versus Drum Brakes: Which Is Best For Your Trailer?

Drum vs Disc BrakesWhen you’re hauling a trailer around Michigan, you want to be sure you have enough braking power. While most small trailers rely on the braking power of the tow vehicle, larger trailers should have a braking system of their own.

But what kind of brakes should you look for on a trailer? Unfortunately, it is not a simple one-size-fits-all answer, but is dependent on what you are hauling. Consider the following to determine what will be the best option for your utility trailer.

 

What Trailers Need Brakes?

First, consider that not all trailers require brakes, regardless of the size. Rather, the legal test for integrated brakes is the gross weight of the trailer. Every trailer should be labeled with the gross vehicular weight rating, which includes both the trailer and the cargo.

The weight limit for a trailer without an independent braking system is 3,000 lbs. Once you hit 3,001 lbs, you are now required to have brakes installed.

A good rule of thumb is to know the GVWR for your trailer, including the gross unloaded weight. If the GVWR exceeds the limit, consider opting for the braking system. This is better than being pulled over by the MSP, and finding out you should have had brakes.

So if you know your trailer will need brakes, the question is what kind. There are disc and drum options available, but what is better for a trailer?

 

Disc Brakes

Disc brakes are what are used on most modern passenger vehicles. There is a rotor that sits inside your wheel, and a caliper that fits over a portion of that rotor. When you apply the brakes, the caliper pushes the pads together on the rotor, causing it to slow down.

On your trailer will also need to be an actuator that connects to the brake controller on your tow vehicle. This actuator is what activates the brakes on your trailer when it receives the signal to brake.

The benefit of the disc system is that it generally provides the most reliable and most powerful braking. This is in part because it is well ventilated, so the braking power maintains even as more pressure is applied.

Disc systems are more costly to install than the drum cousins. However, they generally have lower maintenance and last longer than do drums.

 

Drum Brakes

With drum systems, you have a metal bowl, or drum, that fits over the braking mechanism. Inside the drum are shoes that press out against the drum when the brake is activated. These systems have both an electric and hydraulic option, each with their own preferred applications.

 

Electric Drums

Electric drum breaks do not rely on hydraulic fluid to activate the brakes. Rather, an electric signal energizes a magnet inside the drum. Once energized, it activates the braking mechanism.

This is by far the least expensive option for a braking system on a trailer. There are no brake lines to run, no surge actuators or fluid storage required. This alone makes them very attractive when working on a tight budget.

There is also a lot of control offered over the braking experience. Inside the cab of the tow vehicle is a manual override of the braking system. This allows you to use small bits of braking to help reduce sway while traveling, or to add some braking while traveling down a steep decline.

The challenge with electric drums is they are more sensitive to corrosion. If you are travels will expose the brakes to possibly submerging in waster, you will reduce the life of your brakes. This also makes them more susceptible to corrosion due to the salt on the roads around Michigan in the winter.

 

Hydraulic Drums

Beyond the electric option, you can also opt for a hydraulic drum system. This uses a hydraulic fluid to activate the brakes, much like the disc system. This system is less costly to install than disc systems, but certainly more than the electric drums.

For hydraulic drums, you have to have an actuator, a master cylinder, and the brake lines to the brakes themselves. All of these individual components add to the installation expense.

However, they are much less sensitive to corrosion than their electric counterpart. If you know you will be submerging the wheels frequently and want a drum system, this is the option to install.

 

Which System Is Right For You?

So how do you know which system is best for your particular hauling needs? Some of it is going to be a bit of personal preference, combined with application and budget.

Road Conditions: If you are going to be traveling around Michigan during the winter, you almost certainly want to opt for disc brakes. These respond the best to the harsh salts used to keep the roadways safe.

Braking Control: If more control is what you are after, you either want to opt for an electric drum system, or an electric over hydraulic brake. Both will give you the extra control independent of your tow vehicle’s brakes.

Large Trailers: If you are towing a with a gooseneck or fifth wheel configuration, electric drum brakes tend to be the most popular. The lack of a standard coupler makes it impossible to install a surge actuator for a hydraulic system.

Budget Conscious: Drum brakes are definitely the best option for the more budget conscious. Electric drums will be less expensive to install, but may not be appropriate depending on your application. Hydraulic drums will continue to be less expensive than discs.

Tow Vehicle Compatibility: If you are concerned about your trailer’s brake system being compatible with different vehicles, the hydraulic drum is the best option. These are universally compatible with any vehicle equipped to tow.