Electric Vs. Surge Boat Trailer Brakes

by Contributor
Most boat trailer have brakes.

Most boat trailer have brakes.

Many boaters trailer their boat from home to the water. Most state regulations require brakes to be fitted on boat trailers that are over 3,000 pounds gross weight. These state regulations comply with federal guidelines issued by the Department of Transportation. There are two types of braking systems used to comply with these regulations. Electric brakes use an electric sensor at the brake pedal to transmit commands to the braking system on the trailer. Surge brakes use a hydraulic sensor on the trailer to mechanically apply the brakes.


Electric brakes and surge brakes serve the same purpose on a boat trailer. These breaks slow the momentum of the trailer to ensure both the vehicle and trailer can stop safely. Without trailer brakes the momentum of the trailer could force the tow vehicle forward, causing an accident. Both electric and surge brake systems are designed to operate in conjunction with the brakes of the tow vehicle. This means that the driver of the tow vehicle does not have to be concerned with applying multiple sets of brakes. Depressing the tow vehicle brake pedal stops both the trailer and the tow vehicle.


Both types of brakes successfully prevent the boat trailer from dangerously impacting the performance of a tow vehicle. Each type of brake operates differently, however. Electric brakes are operated by a mechanism that senses brake pedal pressure. The brakes are commanded to apply increased pressure as pressure on the brake pedal increases. Surge brakes are operated by a coupling on the front of the trailer near the hitch. When the brakes on the tow vehicle are applied the momentum of the trailer pushes on the coupling. The amount and rate the coupling compresses determines the amount of breaking applied.


Some boaters favor electric brakes while others favor surge brakes. Electric brakes are preferred because they can be activated in two ways. The tow vehicle driver can activate the brakes by depressing the brake panel. Additionally, the driver can activate the brakes by pulling a brake handle. This more easily allows a tow vehicle to hold a boat in place while stopped on a hill. Additionally, electric brakes are easier to maintain than surge brakes because surge brakes require maintenance of a hydraulic system.

Some boaters prefer surge brakes because they don't have electric components. Some electric components on electric brakes are located at the wheels. These components are soaked in water each time the boat is launched and can require recurring maintenance. All surge brake components are located near the hitch of the boat and might not be submerged. This can make for a more reliable system.


Until recently, surge brakes were not recommended by the United States Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Many states followed this recommendation and outlawed surge brakes. Many manufacturers ignored this guidance and supplied surge brakes on boat trailers. In 2007 the FMCSA changed their recommendations for surge brakes and allowed them for interstate travel. Most states have updated their laws to be aligned with federal recommendations. Boaters should review state laws to ensure surge brakes are legal in their state.

Safety inspections

Both surge brakes and electric brakes should have an annual inspection as well as being inspected prior to each trip. Boat owners should check the master cylinder to insure there is adequate brake fluid. Fluid should be within 1/2 inch of the top. Brake lines, brake pads or brake shoes should be checked for wear. The vehicle should then be tested in a confined area such as a parking lot to make sure the brakes on the trailer work in conjunction with the brakes on the tow vehicle. If the brakes are not working properly, the driver should not attempt to trailer a boat until the problems are fixed.

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