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Your Trailer Brakes Will Fail In An Emergency If This Is Broken

PublishedNovember 6, 2020

You learn stuff every day in RV life.

What you will learn here today, if you didn't know about it already, may save your entire RV and all of its contents. You also may save a life.

A mere month ago I learned that an RV breakaway switch failure is a thing.

It never dawned on me that that it failing could even happen.

Breakaway switch installed trailer frame

Breakaway switches aren't pretty. They are just a box located near the front of a trailer that activates the trailer brakes when the pin (right) is pulled!

But smart Marshall thought it was time to check both of ours the other day- and, surprise! He found that mine was NOT working.

Not good.

And even worse, neither was his!

Yikes.

Have you checked your breakaway switch lately? You're going to learn how to check your breakaway switch in a minute.

First, let's learn what it does for your RV.

What Does A Breakaway Switch Do?

Your breakaway switch stops your travel trailer if it becomes disconnected from your vehicle (IF it's working).

It has a removable pin.

The pin is connected to a cable.

This cable attaches to your tow vehicle (NOT to Your Hitch- Here's A Scary Example Of Why!).

If a disconnect happens, the cable yanks out the pin. Pin removal completes an electric circuit on the switch that triggers your trailer brakes to engage.

Otherwise, your runaway trailer could cause property damage to itself or to other people’s property. At worst, it might kill someone.

On an RV, the switch is wired directly to your RV trailer battery. You MUST have a working/charged battery on board in order for your breakaway switch to work.

On other trailers, such as a horse trailer or utility trailer, if they come with a breakaway switch, it will come with a small battery that powers the switch. It must be watched, and maintained and kept charged.

Does My RV Trailer Need A Breakaway Switch?

Very likely, yes.  Any time your trailer, no matter what type, disconnects from your vehicle, it can cause property damage or death.

Most states require any trailer over 1500 lbs to have a breakaway switch installed. AAA has a list of each state's rules about trailer brakes HERE.  Some of them list that a breakaway switch is required.

Do You Make This Potentially Deadly Hitching Up Mistake?

Get safer on the road- Having a faulty breakaway switch isn't the only reason your trailer brakes may fail to engage in an emergency.  Read about another common mistake you shouldn't make when hitching up.

Most RVs come with a breakaway switch. Find yours and become familiar with that it does and how it works.

Just having the switch connected properly to your tow vehicle is not enough. You must periodically check to make sure the switch itself is working!

It can go bad- the wires can become loose or disconnected, or the switch itself can simply fail. The good news is it's pretty easy to check if yours is working.

Where Is The Breakaway Switch Located?

Greg checking breakaway switch operation with battery monitor

Our friend Greg checking his battery monitor for a change after pulling his breakaway pin.

Usually, the breakaway switch is located near the front of the trailer, somewhere under or on the inside of the tongue.

If you have a fifth-wheel, check under the overhang near the landing gear jacks. Since the pin cable or wire must be connected to the tow vehicle, the switch has to be close to the front of the trailer.

How To Check Your Breakaway Switch

It's super easy to test your switch. There are a couple of other ways to test besides hitching up, but this probably the most reliable method.

  1. Hitch up
  2. Disconnect your 7-pin connector
  3. Pull the breakaway pin
  4. Start to drive your tow vehicle forward to activate the braking system
  5. The trailer brakes should activate, disallowing your setup to continue rolling forward
  6. If you can still easily roll forward, something is wrong. It may be a faulty switch, it may be a problem with your brakes.
  7. You can also test power with your multi-meter
  8. Reinsert the breakaway switch pin immediately after verifying if the brakes are activated

Don't Take Your Time With The Pin Pulled

  • When a working breakaway switch is activated, it's sending a lot of power to the trailer brakes. This potentially can drain your battery very quickly.

Keep the breakaway switch pin 'pulled' for as short of a time period as possible to minimize battery drain.

Reinsert the pin exactly the way it came out. It should only fit back in one way. Ensure it is fully back in to ensure the battery doesn't drain and the brakes are no longer applied.

Can I Replace My Switch If It's Not Working?

New breakaway switch assembly

This is what the whole switch system looks like. Grey cable- connect to your tow vehicle. Black box is the switch activator. Black wire gets wired to your trailer's electrical system (battery power source). 

Is it easy to replace a switch? Short answer- yes.

First, they are pretty cheap. This is not a break-the-bank fix. The ones we ordered cost under $15.

Installation is also not hard. You simply need to mount the new unit where the old one was, and attach the new wires to your trailer's electrical system where the old wires were.

Still, If you aren’t familiar working with wires and electricity, hire someone to install it for you.

Below is the switch we replaced our non-working switches with.

Conntek Breakaway Switch

Regular Pre-Trip Checks

Checking your breakaway switch is one of many checks it wouldn’t hurt to perform on your RV before every trip.

Breakaway switch with pin pulled

Pin pulled out of breakaway switch

Other pre-trip checks are: 

  • Tires: Check for wear patterns, gashes, limited tread, foreign object damage, pressure, etc
  • Brakes: Should test your trailer brakes every time you hitch up
  • Hitch: Make sure there are not any cracks in the hitch frame, or loose bolts
  • Propane tanks: Make sure you have the tanks secured since last removing them for a refill (and best to turn them off for a trip)
  • Lights/Signals: Check after every single hitch-up

Conclusion

Rpod small trailer hooked up to Xterra

Most trailers needs an emergency breakaway switch. 

The more you know, the safer you are. The more checks you make, the safer you are. Just know that your breakaway switch can FAIL and should be tested regularly.

God forbid you ever need it. But if you do need it, it needs to work.

Check yours regularly, and especially before each trip, and you should be fine.

Camp Addict Kelly

Kelly Beasley is co-founder of Camp Addict and loves sharing her enthusiasm for the RVing lifestyle. As a full-time RVer since May 2015, Kelly's playful writing style helps make learning about the sometimes dull subject of RV products a bit more interesting.

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