Having your brake controller not recognize your trailer is an unsafe situation. This means your electric trailer brakes are not connected to the tow vehicle, and the only thing stopping your trailer is your truck brakes!
The most common reasons for a brake controller not recognizing the trailer are a poor trailer connection or a broken wire on the trailer. This post will review a step-by-step guide to checking your brake controller, including:
- Confirm trailer connected
- Checking power at 7 pin connector
- Inspecting for broken trailer wiring
- Checking and replacing waterproof connectors
This step-by-step guide will help you with any trailer that has electric trailer brakes. Whether you have a boat trailer, travel trailer, or utility trailer, these same basic principles apply.
Table of Contents
- Trailer Brake Controller
- Is Your Trailer Connected?
- Trailer Wiring
Trailer Brake Controller
As we dive into the first step, let’s get a quick understanding of the electric brake controller. To operate the brake system on your trailer, you must press the brake pedal on your truck or towing vehicle. When you press that pedal, your trailer brake controller senses that brake pressure and will send voltage through the blue wire to your electric brakes. That voltage powers a brake magnet that causes the brake shoes to press onto the brake drum. This is similar to hydraulic brakes, except with electric brakes, you use voltage and magnets for brake power instead.
Depending on your brake controller setting, often called trailer gain, more or less voltage is sent to the trailer brakes as you press the brake pedal.
The issue is that none of the above processes happen when you don’t have your brake controller working. Your trailer brakes are not receiving a signal to operate, and you rely solely on your truck brakes for stopping. This is an unsafe situation as braking distances are greatly increased, and you will also wear out those truck brakes much quicker.
Is Your Trailer Connected?
The first step to check is your trailer connection to the towing vehicle. Without a good connection, that voltage from the brake controller will not reach the trailer brakes.
And since we are looking at electric brakes, you likely have a 7 pin connector vs a 4 pin connector. 7 pin connectors have the proper wiring to have electric breaks. If you have a 4 pin connector, there is no wiring provision to have electric brakes.
Step 1: Check your trailer connection
The easiest way to check your connection is to see your trailer brakes work. Turn on your running lights and even press the brake pedal. You should see your brake light illuminate. If these trailer lights work, you have a good connection.
If some of your other lights are not working, resecure the trailer plug into the truck. Sometimes, firm pressure into the connector will get you a better connection.
Also, check your trailer plug for corrosion. Since your trailer plug is exposed to weather, it easily corrodes and can cause a failed connection. If you notice some corrosion, you must clean it for a better connection. Visit my post on how to clean a trailer plug for more information.
The next step to look at is your trailer wiring. If you confirm a good and clean connection with your tow vehicle, the next possible cause is the trailer wiring.
Many parts of the trailer wiring are exposed and, at any time, can disconnect or break. A broken wire or short from either the blue wire (which is your electric brake) or the ground wire will cause the trailer not to be recognized.
Step 2: Inspect the ground wire
The first culprit in trailer wiring problems is the ground wire (white wire). This is because the ground wire connected to the trailer frame is susceptible to corrosion. Since the ground wire is connected at various parts of the trailer and exposed to the elements, corrosion is likely causing a poor connection.
If you see corrosion on the ground wire or the screw connected to the frame, get some sandpaper or wire brush to clean off any rust. You will need a good metal-to-metal connection for the ground wire to work. Check out my post on how to check the ground on trailer wiring for more information.
Step 3: Inspect wire connectors
As you inspect your trailer wires, you will notice many connectors (hopefully, they are waterproof). These connectors are also a trouble spot in trailer wiring. As your trailer goes down the road at high speeds and bounces, this can cause connectors to loosen and fail over time. And if one of these connectors fails, then it is just like having a broken wire where no power can get through.
Do a visual inspection first. A failed connection can sometimes be obvious. Give them a slight tug and make sure the wires within the connection are still secure. If you notice any visible connection failure, replace it with another waterproof connector. There are many on the market today. I have used the 3M snap-in type, which is easy and requires no tools other than pliers. Put the wire in the holes and press down. The dielectric grease already in the connector will keep out the water.
Sometimes, a visual inspection may not be enough to determine. If you want to confirm whether a connector is working, you can use a circuit tester. They usually have a continuity setting, which will confirm if a wire is connected. Use the circuit tester probes, one on each side of the wire. You should get a beep if the current is flowing through the connector. If not, then replace the connector as mentioned above.
Your brake controller is the center of your electric trailer brake system. When you step on your truck brakes, the brake controller sends a voltage signal to your trailer brakes to engage the magnet and give braking power. If you are not getting the controller to recognize the trailer, the most common causes are a poor trailer plug connection or a broken trailer wire. First, ensure you have a tight and clean trailer connection to your trailer connector. Next, inspect your trailer wiring for any bad ground or broken wires. Also, inspect your wire connectors for a secure and watertight connection.
Tony is an avid camper and RV traveler. He fell in love with camping on his first RV trip with his wife over 25 years ago. Tony loves sharing lessons learned and tips about RV maintenance and safe traveling.