No. 3 – I didn’t spend enough money on my trailer brakes

Toy Boat 2 is not heavy for a saltwater boat. When we picked her up from the dealer, our Pacific trailer had no brakes. But that changed when we got a new tow vehicle. The new Owner’s Manual said we had to have brakes on trailers with a GVWR of 1,500 lbs or more. If we didn’t, it would void our drive train warranty.

That led to a series of different trailer brakes over the last 15 years. We started with coated drum brakes and ended up with all-stainless steel disk brakes

Drum Brakes

Typical coated drum brakes

The conclusion we’ve come to is this: if you’re going to be launching in salt water on a regular basis, it’s false economy to scrimp on your trailer brakes. All-stainless steel disk brakes are expensive, but have worked out the best for us. 

Trailer brakes are a pain to check and maintain, so they tend to get ignored. That often leads to discovering a problem the night before, or the morning of, a trip. It only takes one or two of these incidents before you realize that the cost of a cancelled trip far outweighs the extra cost of a better set of brakes.

Drum brakes are a standard offering on many boat trailers. But in our experience, they have too many parts that can rust and seize up, no matter how hard you try to keep clean them.

When we had drum brakes, we purchased the best brake rinse kits we could find. These are gadgets that allow you to use a hose to flush the insides of the brake drums. We placed a hose connection on each side to maximize the water pressure to each drum,

We rinsed the drums religiously after every trip, using a de-salting solution (Salt-a-way) instead of straight water. After the final rinse, we took the trailer out for a few laps around the neighborhood, riding the brakes to heat them up and help them dry out. But we still wound up with frozen brakes on a regular basis.

Disk brakes are a better choice for salt water because they have fewer moving parts, and are much easier to rinse and inspect. But they are not necessarily perfect.

Our first set of disk brakes had stainless steel rotors and pistons, but the cylinders were cast steel, with an anti-corrosion coating. They were great at first – easy to clean and inspect, good stopping power. However, in the third season, one of the calipers started locking up.

The cause? The calipers had a rubber boot that covered the junction where the stainless piston exited the caliper housing. The rubber boot developed small cracks which went unnoticed.

Disk brake caliper and the rubber boot

Disk brake caliper showing the rubber boot

These cracks allowed a few drops of salt water to seep under the boot, where they sat next to the piston and the cylinder. Despite the anti-corrosion coating on the cylinder, rust eventually formed on the cylinder, all the way around the piston, which locked the piston in place.

The first time this happened, we pulled the caliper off and tried to use compressed air to pop the piston out of the cylinder for cleaning. That failed. After futzing around with it for while, we reconnected the caliper to the hydraulic lines on the trailer (but did not mount them back on the axle), and refilled the brake lines. Then we worked the surge brake actuator manually until the piston popped out. With the piston out, we cleaned off the rust and replaced the boot.

This repair lasted about a year. This time it took a pair of channel locks to twist the pistons out. The third time this happened, we were completely unable to remove the pistons, even after heating the cylinders with a butane torch. 

That prompted a call to the manufacturer, and after some discussion, we decided to replace the original calipers  with all-stainless calipers (both the pistons and cylinders are stainless steel).

The good news is that the new calipers have been trouble free for several seasons. The bad news? All-stainless calipers cost twice as much as the original calipers (of course).

Kodiak DBC-225 SS

Kodiak Stainless Steel caliper

But as we said earlier, we think they’re worth it. The cost of calling off a much-anticipated trip due to brake problems far outweighs the additional cost of the all-stainless steel calipers.

Trust me, you won’t regret it.