Trailer brakes are easy to overlook, but this is one aspect of routine maintenance you really don’t want to skip. Especially with larger trailers, the weight can outstrip what a tow vehicle can handle–especially in quick-stop or downhill scenarios. Trailer brakes link to the tow vehicle’s braking system, so sudden stops and slow-downs don’t lead to catastrophe. A trailer with spongy or otherwise ineffective brakes is far more prone to jack-knifing at the drop of a hat.
So what to do? Aside from taking your travel trailer in to be serviced regularly (which you should do anyway, unless you’re quite an accomplished amateur RV service tech), you can perform DIY brake checks to make sure your trailers’ brakes are functioning effectively before hitting the road for a big trip.
Types of Brakes
Typically, travel trailers and fifth wheels have electronic braking systems connected to a controller somewhere inside the tow vehicle. Electric brakes don’t contain brake fluid that needs to be monitored and flushed regularly (although if you have a Class C RV, you’ll have a hydraulic braking system that requires a different type of maintenance). But electric brakes do have pads and drums that need to be inspected regularly to rule out grooves, gouges, and other signs of wear.
Brake pads should wear evenly; if there are signs of uneven wear, they likely need to be adjusted or replaced. Also check to make sure brake pads are thick enough to effectively stop your rig; although guidelines vary, most manufacturers recommend a minimum of 1/16″ brake pad thickness. If you have a particularly large travel trailer, you might want to replace the pads before they get to that point.
Basic Brake Check How-To
You’ll need to consult your rig’s service manual to correctly perform a brake check. Steps usually include lifting the wheels off the ground and giving them a spin to see if they spin freely; any drag on the brake pads is a sign that something’s not quite right. Dragging, “catching,” or unusual loose spots can indicate a problem with the brake alignment or with the wheel bearings.
Follow the factory instructions to remove your wheel and wheel hub to access the brakes, then give them a good visual inspection. Your rig’s manual should cover exactly what you’re looking for here, including what “normal” brake wear looks like and danger signs to keep an eye out for.
At times, a connectivity issue with the controller prevents the trailer brakes from engaging properly in conjunction with the tow vehicle’s. If you suspect this is a problem, you’ll want to attach a multimeter to check voltage at the controller with the controller’s manual override button engaged. A problematic controller can be just as troublesome as issues with the physical brakes, so address these concerns right away; the issue might be as simple as a loose wire or as involved as replacing the controller itself, but it’s worth diagnosing these problems before you’re heading to your next camping destination.
Brake problems aren’t something you want to dally with. Perform checks regularly, and take your rig to a brake specialist if you suspect an issue. You’ll thank yourself later. Questions about insuring your travel trailer? Feel free to get in touch! You’ll also find more information on year-round RV maintenance and care on our blog.