Not All Brake Controllers are Created Equally
A comparison of three popular models used in the tiny camper and teardrop camper industry
This article was previously in the July/August 2021 issue of Cool Tears and Tiny Campers Magazine and highlights pros and cons of three popular electronic brake controllers.
When we first started camping in our teardrop, we used a high mileage Subaru Outback as the tow vehicle. This was not a problem at first because the majority of our camping trips didn’t have us stray too far from the western Great Lakes states. This part of the United States is not known to have mountains or even steep inclines. In fact, I only remember seeing a handful of the steep incline signs over the course of several years here. We always stayed well within the towing and payload capacity of the Subaru Outback and my green “Soob” performed well. In the fall of 2019, we took a trip over 2200 miles (3540 km) from Michigan to South Dakota and Nebraska before heading back home. The trusty Soob did well even though it already had over 150,000 miles (241,401km) on it. We had a great time exploring the Badlands, Custer State Park, and Mount Rushmore. If you’ve ever been to Mount Rushmore, then you know that the road from Keystone to Mount Rushmore is steep. While I was within the towing limit of my Subaru, going down that hill with a trailer was not something that I’d like to repeat because I was afraid of my brakes overheating. I could have avoided that feeling by having electric brakes on the teardrop.
Photo by Anne Cox of the trusty Soob on The Wall near The Badlands National Park.
If you have a smaller tow vehicle or larger tiny camper like a T@B or Bushwacker or you like to carry extra gear, then you should consider having electric brakes coupled with a brake controller to give you the greatest control over your vehicle. Electric brakes with a brake controller will save wear and tear on your tow vehicle brakes and when coming to a stop, it will feel like only your tow vehicle is stopping, you won’t feel the added weight of the trailer.
The rest of this article will focus on the electric brake controller since there are several in the market. We’ll focus on the Curt Echo ®, Tekonsha RF and the Autowbrake.
This wireless, portable brake controller requires zero wiring as it simply plugs into the 7-way connector on your tow vehicle. This controller requires a 7-way connector to work, which may eliminate it for some of our readers automatically. The setup of this bluetooth brake controller is quick and requires no tools. First, download the Echo ® Smart Control App from either the Apple App Store or Google Play. Second, insert the Echo in the 7-way between your tow vehicle and the trailer and lastly, configure the settings.
The Curt Echo ® is small enough to fit in your glove compartment when not in use, so it takes up very little space and it is possible to use even if you’re borrowing a trailer or renting a piece of heavy equipment that has trailer brakes. As someone who rents a Bobcat skid-steer loader occasionally, this is a nice perk. It is plug and play for any vehicle with a 7-way connector and a trailer with electric brakes.
What I don’t like about this product are three major things. First, there is no way to secure this to your vehicle. So it is possible for someone to simply walk up and steal the brake controller. I don’t relish the idea of spending roughly $250USD to have it walk off at either a campground or grocery store if I’m running in to resupply. The thought of unplugging it and securing it while I’m not near the trailer and then plugging back in when I’m ready to use, seems like wasted extra steps. The second aspect that I dislike about the Curt Echo ® is that it requires me to use my phone while driving, which is illegal in most states. The Echo ® works best with the app open and visible while you’re driving so you can make quick adjustments to the braking if needed and it also allows you to see the trailer brake performance using a nice graphic. In theory, it’s great and it definitely has my attention since I love techie things. However, if I’m heading out on a camping trip, I typically use my phone for navigation so the app screen won’t be visible to me. By not having the app
screen open, I lose the ability to press the "button" to adjust the max braking output up or down depending on trailer or road conditions. To control the trailer brakes manually, you need to press the large orange button on your phone’s screen. This must be held as long as you want to control the brakes manually. This leads me to the last dislike. Curt does offer a manual override button that you can install on your dashboard; however, the button is nearly $80USD. Since driving hands free is required in so many states, I am surprised that Curt hasn’t come up with a better solution for the people that won’t use their app while driving to manually override their brakes.
As a safety feature, once this unit is configured, the unit will stay on the last setting even if your phone dies or you lose a Bluetooth connection, so your brakes will continue to function; however, the manual override function will not work.
If you have a 7-way connector on your vehicle, are not worried about theft, and you will keep the app open while driving, then this product may be a great fit for you since the setup is super simple.
This wireless trailer brake controller is a trailer mounted unit that is slightly smaller than a standard Kleenex box. It will function with a trailer that has up to 3 axles and it’s ideal for the family that has multiple tow vehicles since the hand held control can be moved easily from vehicle to vehicle. The brake controller features proportional braking in forward and reverse, so the harder you hit the brakes, the more braking power is applied to the trailer. Like the Curt Echo ® , there is a manual override button which will apply the trailer brakes without applying your vehicle brakes, which will slow your trailer down in the case that you start to jacknife.
The Tekonsha Prodigy RF should be mounted as close to the cabin on the trailer as possible for best function. The installation process is relatively easy to manage as it only requires 4 self tapping screws (which are included) to mount the unit to the trailer. At this point, you may have some wiring to do, depending how long your 7-way wire is. Your trailer 7-way needs to plug into the back of the Prodigy RF, so it may not be long enough to reach. If this is the case, then you will need to rewire your 7-way from your electric junction box
with the appropriate length wire. However, if your wire does reach, you have two options. 1. Just plug it in and secure the excess wire to the trailer frame with clamps or zip ties. 2. Cut off the slack and rewire from the junction box so you have just enough of the wire to safely plug into the 7-way connector. The second method is cleaner, but does require a bit more work.
As mentioned above, the Tekonsha Prodigy has a hand held control that must be plugged into a 12 volt outlet in the tow vehicle. For me, this is a plus and a minus. I like that this means that there is no battery to worry about replacing on the hand held unit, but it takes up a valuable 12 volt outlet in the vehicle which is usually reserved for phone mount chargers. Since I use my phone typically for GPS, that means that I would need to get an extra adapter with more 12 volt sockets, which just takes up more space near the driver.
If you have a 7-way connector on your vehicle and don’t mind a larger, wired hand held unit in your tow vehicle, then this product may be a great fit for you, especially if you tow your trailer with different tow vehicles from time to time.
This self contained, fully functional, electric brake control mounts on the trailer and also features proportional braking, meaning that it will adapt to every braking situation and will brake in the same manner that you apply the brakes in your tow vehicle. Unlike the other brake controllers mentioned above, once the Autowbrake is mounted on your trailer and connected to your vehicle, there is no initial sync up necessary to the key fob.
The key fob is not hard wired into anything and it’s not essential for normal operation of the brake controller; however, it can be used to manually override the automatic braking function to help stop trailer sway. I love the idea of only having a small key fob for a few reasons. First, I don’t want to use my phone to manually override the system like the Curt Echo ® . That’s not ideal because it requires me to use my phone (Michigan is a hands free only state) and since the app needs to always be open, I also lose the ability to use my phone for navigation which I always do while traveling with my teardrop. Second, it does not require any extra power
source like the Tekonsha Prodigy RF, power outlets are at a premium usually when we’re traveling. The key fob is also multifunctional; it can be used to fine tune the level of braking necessary when you set up your vehicle. To engage the manual override, which is necessary to reduce trailer sway, you can depress any of the three buttons on the remote. In my many years of towing, I’ve never experienced sway. If I did start to experience trailer sway, I like the idea that I don’t have to hit the “right” button to apply the trailer brakes without stepping on my vehicle brakes. The last thing I would want to do in that situation is to look at a fob and determine which of the three buttons is correct.
There is one downside to the key fob. You will need to replace the battery at some frequency. This is not a deal breaker, but if I’m leaving for a trip and I don’t have a spare battery, then it may result in not leaving on time while we head to the store for a replacement.
Another bonus of the Autowbrake is that you can use either a 7-way connector or a 4-way flat connector. If you plan to use a 4-way flat connector, I recommend that you send them an email or give them a call prior to placing your order to make sure it will work for your vehicle.
Autowbrake has been used for various tiny camper manufacturers in the past, so it’s a testament to how well their product works. Scamps currently install this on their campers and Taxa Outdoors (Mantis, Cricket, Tiger Moth campers) as well as nuCamp and Vistabule have used the Autowbrake on their tiny campers. Other manufacturers typically will install this brake controller at customer request.
All three products have pros and cons and it will come down to your personal preference on which brake controller is right for you and your towing/trailer situation. All three are relatively easy to install and they don’t have the traditional “knee knocker” controller mounted under the dash of your tow vehicle like many others do. The controllers are relatively small, with the Tekonsha Prodigy RF handheld unit being the largest and the Autowbrake being the smallest, at just a fob. All three are versatile in that you can use different tow vehicles if the need arises. All three would also not void your vehicle’s warranty if you are leasing since there is no extra equipment permanently mounted to the tow vehicle. The Autowbrake has the added advantage of being able to be used with either the 7-way connector or a 4-way flat, which the others do not, so that may be appealing for some. For me, Autowbrake has a major advantage because the fob is small and does not require a power source in the cab of my truck. We normally are charging phones, or iPads, or laptops, etc while we’re driving, so there are no additional outlets left to charge something else in the truck.
Now that the product review is completed, I want to give some additional information about Autowbrake since they have been a long time advertiser in the magazine.
Autowbrake is a small company based in Iowa that has been in business for over 20 years. While the main office (of three employees) is in Iowa, the brake controller is manufactured in Wisconsin. I had the pleasure of talking with Carlton (one of the three) a few months ago and we talked like we’ve known each other for years. While it was an interview, I could sense his passion for their product and I was assured that anyone that has an install problem gets a personal phone call back from one of the three, Carlton, Chris, and Byron (left to right below). They will even call you back on nights, weekends, or holidays.
To get a glimpse of Autowbrake, I recommend watching this short video.
Their brake controller was patented over 20 years ago, but it seemed pretty futuristic for the time. Other brake controllers back then required an internal unit to be mounted underneath your dashboard and it also had to be hard-wired in. While the Autowbrake has changed slightly over the years (becoming smaller, updating electronics) the core functionality has remained the same. They wanted the brake controller on the trailer and they didn’t want to plug in anything in their vehicle so the dashboard would continue to look seamless. I love that they continue to listen to the consumers to get ideas on redesigning their product. For example, the unit that attaches to the trailer has become smaller over the years as the electronics have improved and the fob that goes inside the tow vehicle has migrated from something that was as large as big mobile phone or walkie talkie down to something that is similar in size to a key fob to unlock your vehicle doors.