Amazingly, not many trailer owners know all that much about their RV trailer's brakes. Like, under what circumstances they should have brakes. Any trailer weighing more than 3,000 lbs., really ought to be equipped with its own brakes, rather than relying on the braking power of the towing vehicle. (For state-by-state brake requirements, contact your local DMV.) Whether you've got a car hauler, RV trailer or fifth wheel, it most likely does have electric brakes. So, what else is there other than electric brakes? Well, many of your tow worthy vehicles feature hydraulic brakes, just like the brakes sported by most trucks and cars. Bottom line, there isn't too much difference in the way hydraulic and electric brakes work. But, there are some fascinating distinctions that dramatically impact your trailer's functionality, and your budget. Here's the low-down on a serious repair issue that's specific to electric brakes.
Start by looking at your trailer's front section. (Also called the tongue.) Notice a breakaway switch (Figure #One) and battery (Figure #Two)? These two items work as a team to provide you with an emergency backup system, should your trailer ever break free from your tow vehicle. This happens as the result of the breakaway plunger getting pulled out, as soon as the trailer has pulled away from the towing rig. The breakaway switch is activated, it releases power to the runaway trailer's brakes, activates them and the trailer is brought to a stop.
Now, do you have to wait for your fifth wheel or car trailer to actually break free to confirm it's working properly? Thankfully, no. Every time you prepare to hit the road, do this quick test. Remove the emergency plunger switch from its receptacle. (Figure #Three) Find a wheel with a brake drum and watch how a screwdriver behaves when you touch it to the drum. (Figure #Four) A screwdriver that reacts to a brake drum like a nail to a magnet is verification that your emergency breakaway system is functioning correctly.
A trailer's braking system, regardless of whether it's an RV trailer, 5th wheel or car hauler, is based around driving current to an electromagnet, which then interfaces with a metallic braking drum, creating friction designed to slow or stop your trailer. As you press on the brakes, the amount of current sent to the electromagnet increases and decreases. After years of use, the braking drum can itself, become magnetized and that's a big problem.
By understanding this concept, you can prevent an incompetent or unethical mechanic from running you in circles with unnecessary brake adjustments or repairs to your brake clusters or brake shoes. Which could save you time, money, neurosis and the lot. Once you've ascertained that your car hauler or RV trailer's brakes aren't working correctly, it's critical that you disconnect the trailer electrically from the tow rig, as soon as physically possible. (Figure #Five)
Next, touch the brake drum with any available screwdriver. If the screwdriver snaps onto the brake drum like it's magnetized, your brake drums will need to be replaced. (Figure #6).
Now, anyone who hasn't seen this issue before wants to know exactly what's prompted the problem. Well, it comes down to this. The electro-magnet responsible for activating your system's brakes, is supposed to work in tandem with your brake drum, attracting it magnetically with the increased electrical current created every time you step on the brakes. (Because electromagnetic brakes, pulse very rapidly, you can brake as hard as you want without locking up the brakes. Old fashioned, mechanical brakes did not provide this rapid pulsing, causing some driver's brakes to lock up and cause skidding when they hit the brakes too fast.) However, once the brake drum becomes magnetized, the brake drum impedes the brake system's ability to work properly by repelling, rather than attracting the electromagnet. This causes the brakes to feel slightly engaged as you ride, yet seem to work far more ineffectively, when you hit the brakes.
Proper brake maintenance is key. Inspect your trailer brakes annually, without fail. The majority of RV trailer's seem to get their big, once-over in the springtime, as owners prepare for the season. For more information, check out your trailer manufacturer's website. If they're reputable, they're sure to offer free safety tips and trips to keep you and your trailer on track.