Can You Pull A Trailer With Brakes Without A Controller?

Most travel trailers and fifth-wheel trailers will come from the factory with a pre-installed independent braking system. These are typically drum-style electric brakes located behind each wheel on the trailer.

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These brakes require a separate brake controller tied into your tow vehicle’s braking system to operate. When you press the brake pedal, that brake controller is activated, and it applies the brakes on the trailer wheels electronically based on the current controller settings.

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Can you pull a trailer that has brakes without a controller? It is certainly possible however there may be several issues with doing so that you would need to consider.

  1. without a brake controller your trailer brakes will not work. You’ll be towing without the auxiliary braking force they provide, which leaves all the braking responsibilities to your tow vehicle’s braking system. A task it was likely not designed for. This will lead to excessive long stopping distances and excessive wear and tear on your brake components.
  2. depending on the state you are traveling in and the size of your trailer it may be required by law that you have a properly functions brake controller and braking system on your trailer. Some states require all trailers equipped with brakes to have them functioning properly, while others limit the requirement to trailers over a certain gross vehicle weight. Finally, using the brakes on the trailer make travel significantly safer and less stressful.
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There are many quality trailer brake controllers on the market for exceptionally reasonable prices and installing them is usually as simple as plugging them into your vehicle’s wiring harness with the appropriate adapter.

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Given the low cost and easy installation there really is no reason to not have a brake controller installed in your tow vehicle. Let’s take a look at some specific pertaining to brake controllers and their use with RV trailers.

Does My Truck Come With A Brake Controller?

It might, many trucks do come from the factory with pre-installed trailer brake controllers. These are often included in tow packages, particularly on larger ¾ ton and 1-ton trucks. Lighter duty trucks like a ½ or the newer small/midsize trucks probably will not have a preinstalled trailer brake controller from the factory.

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Many of these trucks are not designed to pull trailers large enough to need one. Even if your truck has one pre-installed, there will likely still be a plug tied into the wiring harness to easily add one later. If that’s the case, putting in a new trailer brake controller is a plug-and-play operation.

If you are looking at used trucks, there is a good chance the previous owner installed one if they did any towing with it. If you don’t see it mounted on the dash right away, try looking in or under the center console if it has one. These are common places for people to hide them. If you find one, make sure they are including it with the truck as part of the purchase price.

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Adding one to an older used truck is usually just as easy as with a new truck. For example, Ford trucks dating back to at least 1999 have pre-wired plugs to easily connect a brake controller into your wiring harness.

Do Motorhomes Come With A Brake Controller?

Like trucks, whether a motorhome comes with a brake controller will depend entirely on the specific motorhome and the installed option packages. Also like a standard truck, most motorhomes that do not have one pre-installed will include a standard plug that will allow you to add a brake controller easily.

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Do I Need A Brake Controller If I Have A Tow Package?

A brake controller is still required and may be part of the tow package on a new truck. A “tow package” on most trucks is a series of upgrades that improve the towing capabilities of the vehicle while making it safer. These upgrades vary by vehicle but can include things like a class 3 hitch, 7 pin trailer plug, heavy-duty alternator, heavier springs, sway bars, and fancy camera systems.

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There are many instances where a tow package is useful for vehicles that are not towing large, heavy trailers that need a brake controller. Jet-ski trailers, smaller boat trailers, and even landscape trailers generally don’t have trailer brakes pre-installed so they would not benefit from a brake controller. For this reason, brake controllers are not always included in an optional tow package for a given vehicle.

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Not having a factory pre-installed brake controller can actually be a benefit by allowing you to choose the best controller for your application.

Do They Make Wireless Trailer Brake Controllers?

There are several manufacturers that offer wireless brake controllers including Tekonsha, Curt, and Redarc; although they are typically significantly more expensive than an equivalent wired controller. The major advantage of these units is that the brake controller module is mounted on the trailer tongue.

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The remote which controls it can then be plugged into whatever tow vehicle you happen to be using to pull the trailer. This negates the need to buy separate brake controllers for each tow vehicle if you use more than one. There are several downsides to these.

Most plug directly into your 7-pin trailer plug and use the brake light signal for activation. This means the brakes will pulse if you turn your hazards on, which is not the case with a wired controller.

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In most cases, wireless technology is limited by distance. Many wireless controllers will not function properly if the remote is 20 feet or more from the master controller. This may make them unusable if your tow vehicle is a motorhome. Check the specifications for the specific model you are considering for the distance limitations before purchasing one.

How To Use A Brake Controller?

Proper operation of a brake controller will depend entirely on the specific controller you have. Most units will have a boost knob that sets the strength at which the brakes will be applied. They will also typically have a manual activation lever which will allow you to apply the brakes on the trailer without applying the brakes in the tow vehicle.

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More advanced models will proportionally adjust braking depending on how hard the tow vehicle is braking. Units with this feature require the brake controller to be mounted in line with the travel of the vehicle and within a certain number of degrees from level.

This is critical to allow the controller to properly calculate the linear deceleration velocities it needs to properly apply proportional braking. Units with the feature will also often include a series of preset programming curves which are tuned to specific trailer weights or lengths. Always read through your owner’s manual to get details on these settings so you can choose the appropriate one for your specific trailer.

What To Look For In A Brake Controller?

There are several features to look for in a brake controller. At a minimum, all brake controllers should have a controllable boost setting and a manual brake application lever. Additional features to look for are.

  1. Pre-programmed boost algorithms tailored to specific trailer sizes and weights.
  2. Proportional Braking. This provides the ability for the controller to sense how hard the tow vehicle is stopping and apply trailer braking pressure to match is also important.
  3. Auto Leveling. The proportional braking features will require the controller to be “level” to the ground. Auto Leveling is a feature which allows the controller to be mounted off level within a specific amount. The controller then automatically compensates for the difference.
  4. Auto rotation. Like the auto leveling feature, auto rotation allows the controller to be mounted off angle from the direction of vehicle travel. The controller will auto compensate when applying proportional braking.
  5. Digital display with error codes. Look for a controller that can give you error codes to help you diagnose problems when they occur.
  6. Number of Axles. Brake controllers will be rated for the number of axles the can control. Make sure the unit you choose can power all the axles on your specific trailer.
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Who Makes The Best Brake Controller?

There are many manufacturers of quality brake controllers on the market today. For wired controllers, the Tekonsha P-series brake controllers (P2, P3) are considered by many to be the best available. The Tekonsha wireless controllers are also highly regarded.

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Do You Need A Brake Controller For Electric, Electric Over Hydraulic, Or Surge Brakes?

Brake controllers are only required for electric and electric-over-hydraulic braking systems. Surge brakes rely on the mechanical force generated by the tow vehicle slowing relative to the attached trailer. When buying a controller for electric or electric-over-hydraulic brakes be sure to check the compatibility. Some controller handle both while others are system specific.

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Trailer Brakes Not Working But Lights Are?

There are a number of reasons your trailer brakes may not be working even though your brakes lights are. First, with the exception of most wireless brake controllers, the brake light circuit and the brake activation circuit are separate.

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Given that, your brake controller may not be sensing that your brake pedal is being depressed. This can be the result of a brake controller failure or a wiring issue between the brake controller and the brake pedal activation circuit. There can also be an issue in the brake circuit between the brake controller and the brakes themselves.

Many brake controllers will show error codes, or short circuit warning which will indicate such an issue in the wiring between the controller and the brakes. If the controller is not showing the normal operation, refer to your brake controller’s owner’s manual for a troubleshooting guide for your specific issue.

Many issues with trailer brake function are eventually traced to the 7 pin plug and receptacle. Proper maintenance of these two items is essential for proper brake function. Always make sure the pins are clean, free of corrosion, and make proper connections. If you are having brake issues, this is usually a good place to start looking for a solution.

Brake Controller Not Working With Pedal?

The brake controller not working with the brake pedal indicates the electrical connection between the pedal sensor and brake controller is faulty. If your brake lights work, then the sensor itself is probably good.

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In that case you’ll want to locate the sensor wire in your wiring harness and trace it through the connection to the brake controller and all the way back to the controller itself. Make sure all connections are working. A digital multimeter can be used to test the wire at each connection.

If the signal is making it through all the connections, but the controller is still not responding to the pedal then you may have a faulty unit. Contact the manufacturer for more troubleshooting options.

Brake Controller Not Recognizing Trailer?

The brake controller not recognizing the trailer can be caused by a number of different issues. First, check the controller for any messages it is displaying. If it’s displaying a short or other error message then refer to the owner’s manual for more details.

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Shorts are usually caused by chaffed wires, water intrusion, poor connections at the trailer plug or worn-out components within the brakes themselves. Each of these issues has different methods for diagnosis.

If your controller is just not seeing the trailer at all (showing ‘no connection’, or ‘nc’ on some controllers) then the brake circuit is completely open. The most likely cause of this is a bad connection at the 7 pin connector between the trailer and tow vehicle.

Inspect, clean, and/or replace the components necessary to ensure a good connection at that plug. If that is not the issue, trace your wiring and look for brakes. A continuity tester on a digital multimeter can help quickly track down breaks in your wiring.

No Power To Trailer Brakes?

There are two separate power situations associated with trailer brakes. One deals with the brake controller and the other is specific to the emergency break away system. The two circuits are completely separate.

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The emergency breakaway system is powered either by the onboard house battery or by a separate small dedicated battery mounted to the trailer. Lack of power for the emergency breakaway can be caused by a dead battery, faulty wiring, or a blown battery primary fuse.

Under normal driving conditions, the power to the brakes is provided by the brake controller which pulls it from the tow vehicle’s wiring power system. Like other brake controller issues, lack of power to the brakes indicates a faulty connection at the receiver plug or faulty wiring between the tow vehicle and brake controller or brake controller and brakes. It can also indicate an issue with brake controller itself.

How Do You Know Your Brake Controller Is Bad?

The best way to test a brake controller to determine if it is bad is to plug it into a vehicle and attach it to a trailer which you know are both working correctly. If issues persist between vehicles and trailers then the controller itself is the most likely issue.

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What Is The Maximum Weight I Can Tow Without Brakes On A Trailer?

The maximum weight you can tow without trailer brakes varies by state. Some states, like South Dakota, require any trailer equipped with brakes from the factory to be towed with the brakes functioning regardless of weight. Most states have a maximum of between 2000 and 3000 lbs.

There are other variables including the number of brakes, the number of axles, and Texas even allows higher weights if you don’t exceed 30 mph. The RVIA posts a list you can download here.

Are There Different Laws With Trailer Brakes For Each State?

Each state has jurisdiction to regulate trailer brake requirements within its borders. The need for trailer brakes comes down to the GVWR of the trailer. Some states require brakes on all trailers such as South Dakota and Wisconsin, while some states such as North Carolina require brakes at 1000 lbs or greater.

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California, Idaho, New Hampshire only required brakes on trailers greater than 1500 lbs. While some States such as Alaska and Illinois trailer brakes are not required until the GVWR weight exceeds 5000 lbs. While some states such as Wyoming, Oregon do not have a specific law but have specific stopping requirements for stopping distances.

While most States have a requirement for brakes after the GVWR exceeds 3000 lbs. The laws are all different for each state and so it’s easier to just look it up for each State. Here’s a link to the RVIA website with more information for each State.

Is There A Maximum Length Where A Trailer Needs Brakes?

Trailer length is not a determiner in deciding if a trailer needs trailer brakes. The weight of the trailer and its contents in it is the determining factor. This is called Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). Here’s an article on towing if you want to read more about it.

How Do Trailer Brakes Work?

The most common trailer brakes used in the RV industry are electromagnetic drum brakes. These operate by a brake controller applying a voltage to an electro-magnate located inside the drum brake mechanism. When power is applied to that electro-magnate, it will stick to the drum surface.

If the drum is rotating, the friction on the magnate will pull the magnet which is attached to the brake shoes, forcing them out against the drum. The greater the power applied to the magnet, the greater the friction between the magnate and drum. The greater that friction is, the harder the brake pads will be pressed against the drum surface and the harder the trailer will stop.

Electro over hydraulic brakes allows for the use of disc brakes on a remote trailer braking system. These brake systems consist of a brake controller similar to the ones found in electromagnetic systems. The brake controller is tied to a hydraulic actuator located on the trailer. That actuator pumps the hydraulic fluid to the disc brake calipers to actuate the brakes.

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Surge brakes work by having a two-piece trailer tongue. When the tow vehicle brakes, the tongue compresses from the force of the trailer pressing against the tow vehicle. A hydraulic cylinder connected to the two parts of the trailer tongue uses that compression to force hydraulic fluid into the brake mechanism, activating the brakes. Of the three types of brakes, surge brakes are the only ones that rely solely on mechanical force and do not require (or use) electricity or an electric brake controller.

What Are The Different Types Of Travel Trailer Brakes They Make?

Electromagnetic, Electro-over-hydraulic and surge brakes are the three primary types of braking systems offered on travel trailers in order of prevalence.

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Are Trailer Break Away Systems Required?

Trailer breakaway system requirements are also regulated on a state by state basis. Regardless of the legal requirements, having a working breakaway system on your trailer is an important safety feature which is inexpensive to add. There is really no reason not to have one installed if your trailer did not come with one pre-installed.