5th Wheel Brakes and Axle

How To Setup a Brake Controller – Step by Step with Common Questions

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It doesn’t matter if your truck came with a brake controller pre-installed at the factory or if you are using an after-market brake controller, one of the most important steps before towing is to setup the controller for your trailer.  Properly setting up your brake controller will ensure that your trailer’s brakes are doing their part in bringing you to a stop.  This will not only help you stop faster, it will also prevent excess wear on your tow vehicles breaking system. Properly setup hitch and brake controller are essential to safely towing your RV down the road.

Brake Controller Setup Steps:

  1. Connect your trailer hitch and wiring harness to the tow vehicle.
  2. Check the brake lights and turn signals on your trailer (this will make sure you have a good connection between the trailer and tow vehicle).
  3. Set the gain on your brake controller to about 75% of its highest setting. Brake Controller Gain Setting
  4. Travel to a level paved road where you can safely test the brake controller.
  5. Drive at 25 MPH and apply full brakes to the trailer using the lever on the controller. brake controller apply manually
  6. If the trailer wheels lock up reduce the gain and try again, if the wheels do not lock up, increase the gain, and try again.
  7. The correct setting is just below where the wheels lock up.

Why you should follow this procedure (how you brake controller works)

Now that you know the procedure to setup your brake controller.  I want to explain how it works and why you should use the procedure.

If you were thinking just crank it up to the highest setting you could be creating a dangerous situation.  I’ll explain why in a minute, but first…

You may have seen your brake controller advertised as a “proportional brake controller”.  This means that if you are stopping slowly the brakes will be applied lightly to the trailer, but if you slam on the brakes the trailer brakes will also be applied more.  In other words the trailer brakes are applied proportionally to your tow vehicle brakes.

Built in brake controllers can monitor the vehicle speed and brake application to tell how hard you are braking, while aftermarket controllers use other methods.  In either case you want the controller setup properly to ensure you get maximum stopping power when you need it, but don’t lock up the trailer brakes when gently coming to a stop.

By setting the brakes just to the point of locking up the wheels you know that when you need full braking the trailer will give it to you.

So back to why you shouldn’t just set it to the highest gain.

If you were to set it to the maximum gain your trailer tires could lock up even under moderate braking.  This could cause you to lose control of the trailer.  Your trailer could begin sliding to the side and end up hitting a stationary object, or worse a vehicle or person next to you.

FAQs: Brake Controller Setup

  • What if my brakes don’t lockup even with the gain turned all the way up?
    • You may find that some trailers will never lock the wheels even with the gain at it’s highest setting.  This does not mean you have a problem.  Some trailer brakes just don’t have enough power to lock up. 
    • There are 2 cases that should be a concern, if you have either of these you should get your brakes checked out.
      • If you don’t feel any pull to slow you down when following the setup procedure your brakes might not be working at all.
      • If your brakes used to lock up, but now they won’t.  This could mean that your brakes are worn and need replaced.
      • Your brakes may need broken in.  Reference your trailer’s brake / Axle manual.  Click Here for a link to the manual for the most commonly used axles from LCI.
  • Do I need to readjust the brake controller if I change the weight loaded in my trailer?
    • Yes, any significant change to the weight of a trailer will affect the brake performance.  If you add or remove more than about 100lbs of weight to your trailer the brakes may need to be readjusted.
  • Do I need to readjust the brake controller if I tow a different trailer?
    • Yes, each trailer you tow will react differently and your brake controller should be setup accordingly.  Some more expensive controllers allow you to store multiple trailer setups, or you may want to keep a cheat sheet for the settings if you have several trailers.
  • How many volts should my brake controller output?
    • Electric trailer brakes are designed to accept an output that ranges from 0V to 12V.  At 0 volts no trailer brakes will be applied, at 12 volts the trailer will apply the maximum about of braking.
  • How many amps should my brakes draw? 
    • The maximum amp draw is calculated by adding up the amp draw for each brake.  Each axle has 1 brake per wheel.
    • Example if your brakes are rated at 3.0 amps each and you have a dual axle trailer.  The total amp draw would be 3.0 x 4 = 12A, this will occur during maximum braking when 12v is being applied.
  • What should I do if my trailer brakes don’t seem to be working correctly?
    • Brakes are one of the most important components to safely tow a trailer.  Because of that you shouldn’t attempt to work on them if you aren’t sure what you are doing.  I am a big fan of doing it yourself, but in this case, I suggest making an appointment at your local RV dealer or repair shop to have the brakes inspected and repaired if needed.
  • What brake controller should I use?
    • This question requires another article to completely answer, but here are 2 of my favorites.
      • Preferred, Tekonsha Prodigy P2.  This controller is reasonably priced, can be mounted in a variety of positions and has a long track record of reliability.
      • Easy Installation, Curt Echo.  The curt Echo is the easiest brake controller you will ever install.  It simply plugs in between your truck and trailer wiring harness.  No wires to run or splice.  The Echo is setup and controlled via a smartphone app.  If you change vehicles often or don’t want at permanent installation this is perfect.  The down side is that to manually apply the trailer brakes you will have the have your phone unlocked with the app open.

Thanks for Reading

If you have any questions or your own tips for setting up a brake controller please leave them in the comments below.

Thanks, Jason