How Does an RV Brake Controller Work and Why Is It Important?

When towing a heavy-duty vehicle such as a travel trailer, have you ever wondered how the trailer comes to a stop when your towing vehicle does? That’s due to the presence of a brake controller. How does a brake controller work?

RV brake controllers work differently, whether they’re proportional or time-delayed. A proportional brake controller uses a pendulum to determine the speed and then allow for braking relevant to that. A time-delayed controller recognizes when you hit the brakes and then begins to slow gradually. 

There are plenty more nuances regarding these types of RV brake controllers that we want to talk about ahead. We’ll also discuss how to choose the right brake controller, why having a controller is so important, and how to install it.

Let’s get started! 

What Is an RV Brake Controller? 

Taking it from the top, what exactly is an RV brake controller?

It’s essential to have a brake controller when towing a trailer with electric or electric over hydraulic brakes. A brake controller is a piece of equipment attached to the dashboard of the driver’s side towing vehicle. The controller is electric regardless of its type (which we’ll talk more about shortly).

A brake controller allows the travel trailer attached to your towing vehicle to stop commensurately with that vehicle. Travel trailers don’t have brakes, as they don’t have gas pedals. They need the brake controller to stop on time. 

Many brake controllers are adjustable, allowing you to shift a setting known as the gain. You can either increase or decrease the amount of gain. The weight of your trailer is a good indicator of whether the gain should be higher or lower, with a heavier trailer indicating a higher amount of gain.

This setting prevents the wheels from locking up when you bring the travel trailer to a stop. 

Outside of the controller, some especially conscientious trailer owners will install a brake controller monitor to their setup. The monitor includes a display screen placed on the dash that the driver can review at any point to determine how much power the brakes receive and whether the electrical system is working as intended. 

There are even devices out there that use your smartphone and Bluetooth. One of our favorite wireless units is the CURT 51180 Echo Mobile Electric Trailer Brake Controller found on Amazon. 

It’s an optional accessory for sure, but it can help! 

How Does an RV Brake Controller Work? With Examples 

As we’ve established, all brake controllers are electric, but explaining how they work requires us to delve deeper into the types of brake controllers. Let’s do that now.

Time-Delayed Trailer Brake Controllers

The first type of brake controller is the time-delayed controller. Whenever you stop your towing vehicle with a time-delayed brake controller installed, the brakes have a certain amount of power dedicated to them. This isn’t random, as it’s up to you to decide the precise amount of power.

This is where those gain settings we talked about in the last section will come in handy. If yours is a heavier trailer, then you’d increase the gain. For a lighter-weight trailer, it’s best to use less gain. 

When you apply pressure on the brakes in your towing vehicle, the brakes in your trailer will begin to stop, but on a delay. That’s why this brake controller is called time-delayed, of course. 

If the thought of a delay makes you nervous, keep in mind that you can always buy a sync switch for this type of brake controller. The sync switch allows you to set how much delay will occur between your towing vehicle and the trailer rolling to a stop. 

The benefits of a time-delayed brake controller are ease of installation and low cost. That said, your brakes must work harder with one of these controllers, so you might find yourself replacing them more frequently. 

Proportional Trailer Brake Controllers

The second type of brake controller is called the proportional controller. You might also hear of this referred to as a pendulum brake controller. 

Within the controller is a motion-sensing device. The device will gauge the stopping speed of your towing vehicle. So, let’s say that you gently tap the brakes on your towing vehicle. Thanks to the motion-sensing device’s intelligence, your travel trailer receives a signal to stop to the same subtle degree.

This allows you to make not only hard and light stops but slow and fast ones as well. That’s why this style of brake controller is called proportional, after all. 

So why the nickname of pendulum brake controller? That’s due to the way the motion-sensing device works. The device moves like a pendulum. In other words, if you’re parked on a flat, level surface, the motion-sensing device doesn’t read any motion. 

Then, when you start to drive, the pendulum moves back. Braking your towing vehicle and, thus, the trailer brakes cause the pendulum to move forward. That’s where the power to stop your travel trailer brakes comes from in a proportional brake controller.

As with a time-delayed brake controller, you can precisely adjust the pendulum positioning before you use this style of the brake controller. 

The Importance of RV Brake Controllers

Are RV brake controllers necessary for every towing setup? Not necessarily, no. If your trailer is under 10 feet long, it doesn’t need a brake controller. That said, you’re not likely to find travel trailers that small. 

Even the ultra-tiny Happier Camper HC1 is 13 feet, which also goes for the Scamp. Thus, travel trailer drivers should always have a brake controller.  

Allow us to take this section to explain why they’re so important. Imagine that you’re towing a travel trailer, and it’s far bigger than 13 feet. Maybe it’s 20 feet or 25 feet long. It weighs several hundred pounds. 

You’re confident in your towing setup, as you took the time to buy an appropriate hitch and triple-checked that everything is secure. You practiced driving in an empty parking lot with your travel trailer rigged up to get used to the extra weight.

What you didn’t accommodate for was braking. You focused more on how soon you would have to brake relative to your trailer that you didn’t even realize the travel trailer itself has no brakes. 

Since you decided to forego a brake controller, here’s what would happen. You roll your towing vehicle to a stop at a light (or a stop sign) as you usually do when you’re not towing. You have no way to stop your travel trailer, though. 

You’re stopped in your towing vehicle and waiting at the light when you feel a slam in the back of your vehicle. You immediately look out your mirror, sure that some foolish driver wasn’t paying attention to the light, and hit the back of your vehicle. 

But no, it wasn’t another motorist. It was your travel trailer. If the trailer just gave the back of your bumper a love tap, then the damage won’t be so bad. You’ll have a few scuffs here and a small dent there. It’s nothing you can’t get buffed out at your local mechanic’s.

Yet if you suddenly stopped and towed a heavier trailer, the trailer is likely to have done much more severe damage. Your back bumper could be crushed in, including the rear lights. 

Now you can’t continue your adventures, as you need to take your towing vehicle to a mechanic immediately. 

Selecting the Right RV Brake Controller

Okay, you’re convinced you need a brake controller for your travel trailer setup, but how do you choose one? Here are some considerations.

The Weight of Your Setup

Maybe you love those small travel trailers such as teardrops. To reiterate, you still need a brake controller, but a time-delayed controller is suitable for these applications. For the driver with a heavy-duty travel trailer, using a time-delayed controller might be too nerve-wracking. We’d suggest a proportional controller instead. 

The Distance You Travel

Many RV and travel trailer owners plan to see as much of the world as possible in these vehicles. That’s sort of the point of owning one: you can camp out for days or weeks on end and live among Mother Nature.

Long-distance travelers are better off with a proportional brake controller over a time-delayed one. As mentioned earlier, time-delayed brake controllers create accelerated wear and tear on your towing vehicle’s brakes. 

Regardless, this is terrible news, but even more awful if you’re a long-distance traveler. Rather than replace your brakes between 10,000 and 20,000 miles as the average driver does, you might see your mechanic for fresh bakes every 5,000 to 7,000 miles or less. 

New brakes can cost $150 for each axle, so the price does add up. 

A proportional brake controller, due to the way it works, causes slower and more even wear on the brakes. Your brakes will last longer, and your pockets will be drained less often. 

The Frequency of Travel

The final factor you want to consider when considering a brake controller is your frequency of travel. If you only go camping in your travel trailer or motorhome in the summer, even if you travel thousands of miles, a time-delayed brake controller isn’t the worst option.

True, you’ll still wear down your brakes, but since you won’t be in your RV or trailer again for months at a time, that’s not so detrimental. You’ll replace your brakes at 10,000 or 20,000 miles and then be on your merry way.

A proportional brake controller is still the better pick here for preserving your brakes, but for the several-times-a-year camping crowd, you can’t go wrong with either type of brake controller. 

The 5 Best Brake Controllers

Did your trailer not include a brake controller? You can always buy an after-market one, but which is best? We rounded up 5 of our top picks for you to peruse.

Tekonsha 90195 P3 Electrical Brake Controller

An Amazon’s Choice product and a favorite here, the Tekonsha 90195 P3 is intuitive for drivers using a brake controller for the first time. You can store preferred settings up to five ways, so if more than one person drives your trailer, each can configure their settings their way.

Compatible with trailers weighing four axles max, the Tekonsha brake controller includes a red warning system with flashing lights to indicate when your trailer can’t brake, or the brakes have been disconnected.

The snap-in mounting clip lets you easily install this brake controller and remove it from your towing vehicle when you no longer need it. The Plug-N-Play Port is for dual-plug adapters. 

You can customize your level of braking with the boost feature, choosing between hydraulic or electric settings. Included diagnostics readout on an LCD display screen in several languages and in color. You can review warning alerts, output voltage, braking, and battery level on the display.

DirecLink Brake Controller

Tucson RV Brakes, LLC’s DirecLink brake controller is another highly favored pick you might like. 

This controller syncs data from an onboard computer system of your towing vehicle via a connection to the ODBII port. Data such as the speed of your trailer is always available. 

Adjust the brake gain with refined settings to achieve excellent brake load balance. 

Reese Towpower Brake Controller

Here’s another proportional brake controller for your consideration, the Reese Towpower

The Towpower controller is compatible with lightweight one-axle trailers up to heavy-duty four-axle travel trailers using solid-state electric technology. As some of the other brake controllers discussed, the Towpower uses plug-and-play technology. 

You must buy a T-connector to use this brake controller, as one isn’t included. However, it has many great features that make the Towpower a worthy contender for your next brake controller. These include built-in diagnostics on an LED display, reverse battery protection, and a boost feature for initial braking.

Draw-Tite 5535 Trailer Brake Controller

The Draw-Tite is yet a third proportional brake controller with I-Command electric brakes. 

Built to handle heavier trailers up to four axles, the Draw-Tite brake controller uses plug-and-play technology. Everything you need to mount the controller to your towing vehicle is included, such as mounting hardware and brackets.

The clear LED display showcases crucial diagnostics. Give your brake controller a boost for initial braking. The controller also recognizes when you’re moving down or uphill and can adjust its settings for smooth travel.

Tekonsha 90160 Primus IQ Electronic Brake Controller

Here’s another one from Tekonsha, the Primus IQ

This highly-rated brake controller has a sizable LED display. The included mounting clip snaps right in, although you must do some minor installation work. Fortunately, the hardware comes with your purchase.

You don’t get a T-connector, which is integral to getting this brake controller working. You’ll have to buy it separately. 

The other features are initial brake boosts, Plug-N-Play, and a self-diagnostics feature that will light up when something is wrong, so you can’t miss it! 

How to Install an RV Brake Controller

You bought one of the RV brake controllers from our list above. You’re eager to use it for your next road trip, but you have no idea how to install the controller. Here’s how it’s done.

Step 1

If your towing vehicle battery isn’t already disconnected, that’s your first order of business. After all, you’re going to tinker with the electrical system. You don’t want the battery plugged in, or you could be shocked.  

All you have to do is detach the battery cable’s negative port and then shove it aside. 

Step 2

Now it’s time to select a spot for mounting the brake controller. If yours is a larger towing vehicle, such as an SUV or a truck, you want the controller near the steering wheel, underneath it, and on the left or right side. This way, it’s easily accessible but unobstructed. 

If that location doesn’t work, then a secondary option that travel trailer owners use is installing the brake controller over the dashboard.

Step 3

Hold the mounting bracket exactly where you want it, keeping it still in one hand. With a cordless drill in the other hand, add a hole for each mounting bracket fastener. You might want to remove the dashboard panel ahead of drilling just to ensure you don’t drill into any wiring or anything you could potentially ruin.

Step 4

Shift the mounting bracket into position, adding the fasteners when you’re happy with where the bracket is. You can use self-tapping screws to secure the fasteners. Some RV brake controller kits include the screws; if not, you’ll have to provide them yourself.

Step 5

With everything mounted to your towing vehicle, attach your brake controller to the mount. 

Step 6

The brake controller is installed but not connected. You’ll need a wiring harness for this next part that’s compatible with the make and model of your towing vehicle. 

The wiring harness connects to your towing vehicle factory harness below the dashboard on one side. Then attach the other end of the wiring harness to your brake controller.

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Final Thoughts

RV brake controllers include proportional brakes and time-delayed brakes. Both allow you to bring your travel trailer to a stop when needed so you don’t risk your trailer bumping into the back of your towing vehicle and causing potentially serious damage.

If your trailer still needs to get a brake controller, we hope this post inspired you to get one!

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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