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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 lives.

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

Before that, it never dawned on me that failure was a possibility.

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! Mine was NOT working.

That's not good.

Worse yet, neither was his!

Yikes.

In any case, have you checked your breakaway switch lately? If not, do it today.

Regardless, if you don't know how to, you're going to learn how to check your breakaway switch right here.

But first, let's learn what the breakaway switch does for your RV.

What Does A Breakaway Switch Do?

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

It has a removable pin that's 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, then 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 could 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.

Other trailers, such as a horse trailer or utility trailer, if they come with a breakaway switch, it comes with a small battery that powers the switch.

Therefore, that battery must be watched, 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, property damage or death can result.

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.  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 what it does and how it works.

Just having the switch connected properly to your tow vehicle is not enough. Indeed, you must periodically check that the switch itself is working!

Surprisingly, 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.

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

Whereas 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 must be close to the front of the trailer.

How To Check Your Breakaway Switch

Fortunately, 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.

Second, installation is not hard. You simply 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 safety checks you make, the better off you are. Just know that your breakaway switch can FAIL and should be tested regularly.

God forbid you ever need it while on the road. But if you do need it, it must be in working order.

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

Kelly Headshot

He-llllo. I'm the co-founder of Camp Addict, which my biz partner and I launched in 2017. I frigging love the RVing lifestyle but in December of 2020, I converted to part-time RV life. Heck, I lived in my travel trailer for over 5.5 years, STRICTLY boondocking for pretty much all of it. Boondocking is a GREAT way to live, but it's not easy. Anyway, I'm passionate about animals, can't stand campgrounds, I hardly ever cook, and I love a good dance party. Currently, I can be found plotting and scheming whether or not to start collecting farm animals (or plotting my next RV trip!) at my beautiful new 'ranch' named 'Hotel Kellyfornia', in Southern Arizona. 

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    • Hey Kent,

      Thanks for the comment and for checking out Camp Addict!

      The breakaway cable will come in a certain length, determined by the manufacturer. There is no reason to make this shorter as it will only be used if the trailer breaks free from your trailer, which should pull the pin from the trailer emergency brake.

      Depending on the configuration, I suppose it is theoretically possible to have a breakaway cable that is too long. In other words, it won’t pull the pin out if the trailer is being dragged behind your tow vehicle by only the chains. In this case, you would want to somehow shorten the breakaway cable.

      So, to answer your question, you want the breakaway cable to engage the emergency trailer brakes if the trailer coupler were to come off the trailer hitch but still being dragged behind the tow vehicle by the chains.

      You want to make sure the breakaway cable isn’t too short so that it pulls out when in a tight turn. Though that would have to be a case where there really wasn’t any slack in the breakaway cable.

      I hope that clarifies the situation!

  • Regarding checking the breakaway switch. I decided to check mine and upon pulling the pin a large cloud of smoke poured out from under the trailer. Turned out the wiring to the brakes had been resting on one of the leaf springs and chafed through. The wiring shorted out and burned up all the way back to the switch. Interestingly this locked up the brakes. Had to disconnect the battery and tow the trailer to a local service center. $250.00 later the system was totally rewired.

    • Hi Michael,

      Are you glad you checked it? Sounds like it! That could have been very bad on the road. Happy to hear you have the problem all wrapped up and working properly again!

      Save travels!

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