How to Get a Handle on Your Trailer Brake Controller

How To Adjust Trailer Brake Controller

You likely became well aware of the need for a brake controller the first time you ever drove a tow vehicle with a travel trailer on a trip. It’s no wonder why most states require them. Their purpose is to give you optimal control over the slowing and stopping capability of your load. It’s an essential safety feature whether you’re driving a fifth wheel or a popup camper.

You also have to consider the wear-and-tear on your tow vehicle. Using a brake controller takes the load off of your ride. It also makes for a more pleasant trip without herky-jerky stops. Considering what motorhome prices are, that puts using one in the win column.

How Does a Trailer Brake Controller Work?

A brake controller acts as a go-between your tow vehicle and your trailer. It allows you to sync the slowing power you need between the two to stop safely. When you press on the brakes, it responds in kind. You also can apply it manually if your trailer starts to sway or skid.

You’ll set up the hub part of the device in the vehicle’s cab and connect its wiring to the brake controller on the trailer or camper. The process is simple, especially if your truck or SUV has a factory-installed tow package to use a quick plug system. You can expect to pay under $200, depending on the model and make.

Types of Brake Controllers

You’ll see many different kinds of brake controllers. Your choice rests with several factors, including the frequency that you tow and what you plan to haul. Some products offer better selection in some cases. The two main categories are time-based and inertia or proportional-based. The difference lies with what triggers their response. The type will, in turn, affect how to adjust the trailer brake controller.

Time-Based Brake Controllers

These devices work when you press the brake with the controller responding based on the setting you selected when adjusting it. The moniker refers to the gap between your action and the activation on the other end. The output is gradual until it reaches its maximum.

The advantages are that you’ll find them easy to install. You can put the hub anywhere you’d like in the cab to make it most visible to the driver. They are also easier on your pocketbook. That makes them a sound choice if you haul light loads occasionally and want a quick solution.

On the downside, time-based brake controllers distribute the braking power unevenly, since either your trailer or tow vehicle is going to do most of the work at times. That may translate into shortstops. You also have to adjust them manually. That’s not a dealbreaker, but it is an extra step toward getting on the road.

Inertia-Based Brake Controllers

These devices are more responsive to specific situations because they use a motion sensor or accelerometer to detect the momentum and activate automatically to the demands of your braking. That allows for smoother stops and provides an added safety factor. This type is an excellent option if you tow heavy loads and use it frequently.

Inertia-based brake controllers are more expensive than the time-based models. Installation is more involved since you may need to calibrate them for optimal performance. If you can shell out some extra cash, you might be able to get something more user-friendly the justify the RV price you paid.

All of these factors make the inertia-based brake controller a smarter choice if your usage justifies the higher cost. The final straw may lie with what you need to get the most out of installing one in the first place, namely, setting the device up before you hit the road.

Adjusting the Time-Based Trailer Brake Controller

Adjusting the brake controller is a necessary evil with this type. It uses one brake setting for any situation, which is why you need to make sure that it’s right. It’s another reason why these products are more suitable for occasional towing, preferably with only one trailer. That makes it a set-it-and-forget-it solution to stay legal.

Fine tuning your time-based brake controller isn’t difficult. The goal is to have the controller’s power setting to slow down the trailer while using the manual brake lever to apply the stopping pressure. You’ll need to hook up your rig to your tow vehicle. Then, head out to an open space such as an empty parking lot. Try to hit at least 45 mph to warm up the device for an accurate adjustment.

The next step involves engaging the manual brake to slow down the trailer alone without the support of the tow vehicle. The objective is to find the right gain setting to ensure smooth braking and no skidding. That’s where the weight of your load and the road conditions come into play. This initial testing gives you a handle on how the brake controller responds to help you get it right.

When you get to your destination, stop your vehicle but keep it running. Then, dial the power to midway. Start going again. Slow your SUV or truck, keeping your foot on the accelerator and releasing some pressure.

Some suggest getting it down to 25 mph before the next step. However, you may think that speed is still fast, considering you may come to an abrupt stop until you get it dialed in correctly. Instead, get it down to 10 or even 5 mph and lift your foot off the gas. Slide the brake to the highest setting.

If the brakes on your rig locked up, you’ll need to dial back on the power. If it took too long to slow down, ramp it up a notch. This process will take some trial and error until you home in on what works best for your setup. Bear in mind that you’ll need to make adjustments if you change your typical load weight. You’ll need more power if you increase it.

Some RVers suggest doing this test on a gravel road instead of pavement. It’ll allow you to hear—and see—if your trailer skidded. Either way, keep repeating these steps before moving on to the next part.

Now, it’s time to put it to the test. This time, your tow vehicle is going to activate the braking action instead of you doing it manually. Drive and then put your foot on the brake pedal to slow and stop your tow vehicle in the same empty lot. Again, you may find that you’ll have to tweak the settings until you feel comfortable with the brake controller’s response.

The advantage of taking the time to go through the adjustment process is that you will have a better feel for your setup’s responsiveness. Even if you have to do it often, you’ll learn more every time. Think of it as a work in progress.

Working With an Inertia-Based Brake Controller

The proportional-based model is a different story. Newer ones are often self-calibrating, making them simple to use without the fuss of adjusting them. You’ll find Bluetooth-enabled products with a smartphone interface that puts you in charge of the process. The advantage of these items is that you save profiles for the different towing situations to get you on the road faster.

That’s a big deal if you’ve been looking at RVs for sale. You can set up one profile for your primary rig and another one if you use a trailer for hauling. Equestrians will appreciate being to change the settings on the fly whether you’re taking one or a few horses to the trail.

Adjusting a trailer brake controller is an effective way to ensure that your tow vehicle and trailer are in sync when on the road. Whether you choose the time-based route or opt for the motion-sensor way, using these devices allows you to drive safely. Knowing that you have a backup if you need to respond quickly to a hazardous situation is priceless with your precious cargo in tow.