trailer brake controller

How to Use Trailer Brake Controller: A Detailed Guide

If you’ve ever wondered what a trailer brake controller is and why it’s essential, you’re not alone. We’re here to clarify your confusion and help you understand how to use trailer brake controller and how it works so that you can better prepare for your next camping trip.

The brake controller is an essential part of the braking system of a recreational vehicle (RV). It applies the brakes based on the driver’s input and assists with stopping the car on time.

What Is a Trailer Brake Controller?

A trailer brake controller is a device that helps you control the brakes on your trailer when it’s hooked up to your vehicle. It monitors the electric trailer brakes, and the driver can activate it from the vehicle’s cab.

The controller has an interface where the driver can see the brake-related information. There are also some buttons for activating the controller and regulating its output. Different controller models with varying capacities are available in the market.

How Does a Trailer Brake Controller Work?

The RV brake controller is an important safety feature to make sure that when you pull up to a stop light or turn into a parking lot, you can do that on time. Without it, the massive weight of the rig would make it more challenging to control and stop on time.

The controller sends signals from your vehicle to the trailer, telling it when to stop moving. Doing so sends another signal back through the system so that your car knows when it can let go of its brakes again.

The primary function of a trailer brake controller is to allow you to control how much braking force is applied to the trailer. The component becomes extremely useful if you’re trying to avoid an accident or if you’re only going very slowly to ensure everything goes smoothly.

what is a trailer brake controller
There are different types of RV brake controllers.

How to Use Trailer Brake Controller

The tow vehicle’s braking system is insufficient to stop a trailer within a specific time. A separate brake dedicated to the RV unit makes this task much more manageable.

So, how to use trailer brake controller when driving your rig? As the controller for electric brakes is the most common, we will limit our discussion to this type.

There are mainly two parts of a brake controller: a display and a control panel. The screen is an interface where the driver can see the information about the system. It sits somewhere close to the driver’s reach. The central part is the control panel with multiple buttons, which you must press to activate the trailer’s brakes.

An electric brake controller can be of two types:

  • Non-proportional or time-based
  • Proportional or inertia-based

We will discuss how to use trailer brake controller for both types.

Using a non-proportional electric brake controller

The time-based controller is an older system that works through a mechanical connection between the trailer and the vehicle. You can activate it by pressing on the tow vehicle’s brakes. Doing this sends a signal from your vehicle’s brake system to the trailer, which then starts the trailer brakes.

In this system, you need to configure the settings beforehand. When you press on the brakes, it applies force according to preset parameters.

The pre-configured settings are a huge drawback. No matter how you apply the pressure, whether forcefully or gently, the trailer brake will respond according to the parameters that have been set already.

But this isn’t enough sometimes—you might want to control how much pressure is applied by the brakes more precisely than just letting them all go at once. This is where a proportional controller comes in.

Using a proportional electric brake controller

Now, let’s see how to use trailer brake controller in a proportional system.

Since this controller is inertia-based, it responds to the pressure applied to the brake pedal. In addition, it’s not linked to the tow vehicle’s brakes, meaning that the outcome does not depend on the force applied to the car brakes.

These controllers use an accelerometer to monitor the inertia of the moving tow vehicle. They constantly oversee the car’s speed and other dynamics and function according to these parameters.

With this controller installed, there won’t be a speed mismatch between the RV and the tow vehicle. To avoid such incidents, the system transmits to the trailer brake the voltage needed to match the speed of the tow vehicle.

Handling your trailer with a proportional controller is much easier than operating a non-proportional system. The efficient braking system will provide a smoother experience on the road.

The advanced system also increases the trailer brakes’ lifespan with the methodical voltage distribution. For instance, when you want to slow down the vehicle, you apply lower gears to protect the brakes from unnecessary wear and tear. A proportional controller detects the speed decline and adjusts the RV’s braking power to match that speed.

Where to find the trailer brake controller

You will find the electric brake controller in the tow vehicle’s driver’s compartment. Some cars have a factory-installed controller, which is probably the best option because it does not need any tuning.

You can hook it up with any trailer without making any significant adjustments. Just select the RV from the towing car’s computer, and it will be all good.

In most cases, you will need to install the controller in the cab. The interface has to be within the driver’s reach. Choose a place somewhere on the dashboard and set it on mounting brackets.

Since the controller is hard-wired within the vehicle, you need to do the wiring every time you change the trailer or upgrade the car.


Whether you have a non-proportional or proportional controller in your towing car, following this guide will teach you how to use trailer brake controller. If you don’t know how to do the installation or power adjustment, check the controller’s user manual or ask for professional help.

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