Actuating the Trailer Brakes

Actuating the Trailer Brakes

As a responsible driver, you should always prioritize safety on the road, especially when towing a trailer. One of the most critical aspects of safe trailering is knowing how to properly actuate the trailer brakes. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at what trailer brakes are, why they’re important, and how to use them effectively.

What are trailer brakes?

Trailer brakes are an essential component of any trailer towing system. They are designed to help slow down or stop the trailer when the towing vehicle brakes are applied. Unlike the brakes on your towing vehicle, trailer brakes are not activated by the brake pedal. Instead, they require a separate actuation system, which we will discuss in more detail later in this guide.

Understanding different types of trailer brakes

There are several different types of trailer brakes available on the market, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. The most common types include electric brakes, hydraulic surge brakes, and air brakes. Electric brakes are the most common type and are typically used for light to medium-duty trailers. Hydraulic surge brakes, on the other hand, are commonly found on boat trailers and other types of trailers that are frequently submerged in water. Air brakes are typically used on heavy-duty trailers, such as those used in the transportation industry.

Air Braking System 

The air braking system is an essential part of any heavy vehicle or train, and it relies on a complex network of components to function effectively. One critical component of the air braking system is the air brake valve, which regulates the flow of compressed air to the brake actuators. The brake actuators, in turn, apply force to the brake chambers, which compress the brake pads against the wheels to slow or stop the vehicle.

In the event of a malfunction or emergency, breaking relays and breakaways can be used to quickly stop a vehicle or train. These mechanisms disconnect the air supply to the brake chambers, effectively disabling the air braking system. However, this can cause the brake pads to lock up and potentially damage the wheels, so it should only be used in emergencies.

Proper maintenance and inspection of the air braking system is crucial to ensure safe and reliable operation. This includes regular checks of the brake chambers, air brakes, and electrical relays, as well as ensuring that the brake actuator is properly lubricated and functioning correctly. Any signs of wear or damage should be addressed immediately to prevent potential accidents or breakdowns on the road.

How do trailer brakes work?

Trailer brakes work by applying friction to the trailer’s wheels, which slows down or stops the trailer when the brakes are applied. The friction is generated by brake pads or shoes that press against the trailer’s brake drums or rotors. In electric brakes, the brake controller in the towing vehicle sends an electrical signal to the trailer brakes when the brake pedal is pressed. In hydraulic surge brakes, the forward motion of the trailer compresses a hydraulic cylinder, which in turn applies pressure to the brake pads or shoes. Air brakes work similarly to hydraulic surge brakes but use compressed air instead of hydraulic fluid.

How to actuate trailer brakes

Actuating trailer brakes requires a separate system from the towing vehicle’s brakes. The most common types of actuation systems include electric brake controllers, hydraulic actuators, and air brake systems. Electric brake controllers are typically installed in the towing vehicle and send an electrical signal to the trailer brakes when the brake pedal is pressed. Hydraulic actuators are commonly used with hydraulic surge brakes and use the forward motion of the trailer to compress a hydraulic cylinder, which in turn applies pressure to the brake pads or shoes. Air brake systems use compressed air to actuate the trailer brakes, with the air pressure controlled by a valve in the towing vehicle.

Tips for using trailer brakes effectively:

Using trailer brakes effectively requires some practice and knowledge. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Always make sure your trailer brakes are properly adjusted before hitting the road.
  • When descending a steep hill, use the trailer brakes to help control your speed.
  • Avoid sudden or aggressive braking, as this can cause the trailer to sway or jackknife.
  • When slowing down or stopping, apply the towing vehicle brakes first, then the trailer brakes.
  • Monitor the trailer brake performance and adjust the settings as necessary for optimal braking power.
  • If you’re new to towing, consider taking a trailer safety course to learn more about proper braking techniques and handling.

Maintaining and troubleshooting trailer brakes

To ensure your trailer brakes work properly when you need them, regular maintenance is key. This includes inspecting the brake components for wear and tear, adjusting the brake settings as necessary, and keeping the brake system clean and free of debris. If you experience any issues with your trailer brakes, such as reduced braking power or unusual sounds, it’s important to address them immediately. Some common troubleshooting steps include checking the brake controller settings, inspecting the brake pads or shoes for wear, and testing the brake actuation system.

Ensuring compliance with local laws and regulations

In addition to ensuring safe trailering practices, it’s important to comply with local laws and regulations regarding trailer brakes. In most states, trailers over a certain weight limit are required to have functional brakes. Be sure to check the regulations in your area and make sure your trailer meets the necessary requirements.


Properly actuating trailer brakes is essential for safe and effective trailering. By understanding the different types of trailer brakes, how they work, and how to use them effectively, you can improve your overall safety on the road. Remember to practice safe trailering techniques, maintain your trailer brakes regularly, and comply with local laws and regulations to ensure a smooth and enjoyable towing experience.


How often should I inspect my trailer brakes?

You should inspect your trailer brakes before every trip and perform regular maintenance at least once a year.

What should I do if my trailer brakes fail?

If your trailer brakes fail, immediately apply the towing vehicle’s brakes and pull over to a safe location. Then, inspect the brake system and address any issues before continuing your trip

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