What Is a Trailer Brake Controller, and How Do You Use It?

If you plan on towing with your next truck or SUV, you might need to know how to use an electronic brake controller. You might encounter two major types of trailer brake controllers: proportional or time-delay controllers. Before hopping in your truck or sport utility vehicle with a heavy trailer, be sure to get acquainted with your TBC system first.

What is an electronic trailer brake controller?

Kelley Blue Book says that an electronic brake controller is invaluable for those who want to tow safely and efficiently. That is especially important for those who plan to haul heavy loads regularly. If you own a modern full-size pickup truck like a 2022 Ford F-Series or large SUV from the last few years, it probably came with a trailer brake controller (TBC). You can probably locate it on the dashboard somewhere, even if you don’t quite know how it works. If your vehicle didn’t come with a trailer brake controller from the factory, you probably added one on.

A trailer brake controller helps control the electric brakes on a trailer you are towing. It works to engage the trailer brakes automatically whenever needed. It also has a manual control that allows the driver to check and adjust the trailer’s brakes as required.

If you have a modern vehicle with a trailer brake controller, you can probably locate it on the left or right steering column. That way, you can use the manual brake controls with one hand and continue to steer with the other hand.

The two different kinds of electronic trailer brake controllers

There are two types of trailer brake controllers, a proportional and a time-delay version, both of which will automatically apply the brakes when the tow vehicle brakes. Proportional TBCs are suitable for those who tow a variety of loads. These have a quick reaction time, require less setup, and offer smoother braking and operation. The cons are a more significant expense and a more complicated installation.

Time-delay TBCs are better for those who tow lighter loads and tow on flatter terrain. A time delay brake controller works to whatever specs the driver sets it to instead of matching the tow vehicle’s brakes. Slowing is based on preset times loaded into the TBC ahead of time. Sometimes if the timing is off, it can result in a push-and-pull effect and wear on the trailer and tow vehicle. It does offer easy installation and is usually cheaper.

If you have a brand-new vehicle, such as the 2022 Kia Telluride, that even has a trailer brake controller you can use wirelessly via Bluetooth. Check your vehicle’s owner’s manual if you think you might have this system somewhere.

To adjust your TBC before heading off, follow these steps

How to use an electronic brake controller
A Ford pickup truck pulling a camper trailer | Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Related

3 Pickup Trucks Jamming Past 250,000 Miles With Ease

To adjust your electronic trailer brake controller, you’ll want to follow these steps to test and adjust your setup.

  1. Park on a flat surface.
  2. Plug the wiring harness in.
  3. Allow your trailer brake controller to self-calibrate.
  4. You will want to enter the trailer gain setting, usually between one and 10, increasing in increments of 0.5. Alternatively, some will show 10-100 with increments of five. The higher the number, the greater the braking power (also known as gain).
  5. For a lighter load, begin with two (or 20). Start the tow vehicle, squeeze the manual control toggle, and release the brake. If your tow vehicle starts to roll, the gain is too low. Raise the setting to four (or 40) and repeat. Kelley Blue Book says that when you find the correct gain for the load, the trailer brakes will hold in place with the control toggles squeezed and the foot brake released.
  6. Test the brakes by getting up to about 25 mph and try the brakes. If you don’t feel enough braking force, try it again. You might need to reduce the gain and try again if there is too much force.
  7. Check the brake sensitivity and test that in the same way. Accelerate to 25 mpg and depress the brake pedal. If it slows too slowly, adjust the sensitivity to a higher setting. Lower it if the braking is too hard.
  8. Repeat these steps each time you increase or decrease a lot.

While the trailer brake controller process seems daunting initially, you will learn the process quickly. Towing different types of loads might make it more complicated at first, but it will probably help understand the electronic trailer brake controller better in the long run.