Delayed With Trailer Brake Issue

Well, I can’t think of a better place to extend our stay other than along Lake Michigan at Traverse City because of a trailer brake issue. Especially as we have dear friends we met in Florida who live here and our campground could care less how many times we extend our stay as they have plenty of parking. More on that in the next post. Ray and Charlotte – you guys are the best. Had we lived near each other back in Missouri, we would have been friends for life. That may be the case now…. Can’t wait to see you again in Florida!

Anyone planning to travel fulltime in an RV needs to know this. You will met the most fantastic people. Folks you never would have had a chance of getting to know without being on this journey. I have told others about all the friends we have met – you know who you are and we are thinking about you. Those friends are planted all over the United States. When we have a chance to text, call or meet up that unfortunately has to be good enough, for now, even if we want to live next to you forever.

The following photo might not make sense unless you happen to own an RV with electric brakes and can climb under it to see what I’m writing about. I’ll post the photo as a introduction regarding our trailer brake issue.

This is a set of brake wires that come out of the underbelly near the wheels/axles. These wires feed the power and ground wire leading to both axles and all four wheel brakes. They move up and down with the suspension system as you move down the road. Those two wires are connected to the main trailer brake wires that run from the front of the camper to the back. No worries, I’ll explain further in this article. In our case, the butt connectors used at the factory were adequate, but not installed correctly. Some asshole on the assembly line decided his/her/they wiring was adequate. They caused much delay, expense and worry because the extra 10 minutes to do the job correctly was not on their mind. This is not an over-reaction. Trailer brake failure on all four wheels could kill you and those around you. I also know for sure the Tiffin family, who build our fifth wheel, would not be proud of this. “Built for fulltime travel” is a slogan used by some manufacturers. To me this now means simple things like expert brake wiring needs to be included with the package.

If I had to summarize this in two sentences I would write: If you have intermittent brakes then go to the underside of the trailer at the axles and check the connections up inside the trailer underbelly to see if any of the wires are broken or not connected. I believe the brakes were shorting out as the positive electrical wire, with exposed wire, was rubbing against the nearby metal frame of the trailer.

For this lifestyle, you better have average skills for mechanical work. If you don’t have the skill, moving around the country fulltime in an RV might not be the best place to be. Because, as was the case for us, it might be a holiday in a smaller town when you break down with limited services. You may be stuck with a major issue and no one to repair it for weeks – other than doing it yourself. I suspect, however, many of us are used to figuring it out.

Following is the background on this issue: We ordered our 320GK Vanleigh (Tiffin) Vilano in 2019. Picked it up at the dealership a week after it arrived from the factory. About a year later we were in a campground and our then 2018 Ram truck brake controller gave a warning across the dash that our brakes were disconnected. Karen checked online and advised shut the truck off and restart. That worked and we were on our merry way.

About a year later, to now, we were traveling down the highway in the rain. Truck said (across the dash) “check brake wire” “brakes disconnected”. This was an intermittent problem and we limped into the campground for DAYS of future investigation into the matter. I would never tow a 16,000 pound trailer with no trailer brakes…. That’s not safe for my family nor anyone moving around me. This is serous folks. Its not like a slide being stuck out on the day you plan to move from a campground or an awning that will not retract all the way. Thankfully we have a dually diesel truck with plenty of stopping power, rated for a much heavy trailer. Tow with a barely capable truck and you might be facing a danger you never suspected. Not to get off track, but this example supports what I learned earlier in terms of selecting a truck. Get one with plenty or towing capacity.

So we arrived to Traverse City Michigan, with big plans to travel the northern parts of Michigan’s upper peninsula. The trailer brake issue now became the priority. Called around and no RV dealership could see us for weeks. Thinking outside the box, I called trailer repair companies. After all, this might be an RV but it’s on a trailer. Received recommendations to various mobile techs from the trailer repair facilities but not the RV dealerships. Had a tech that could make it out a week later, despite being backed up 50 service calls as the northern portions of Michigan are backed with vacationers. He knew we were stranded and God Bless felt for us. He found what I believed to be an unrelated issue which was a single brake magnet not connecting very well with the brake drum. The mobile tech believed his fix had a 50/50 chance of being the issue and knew electrical problems are hard to track down.

I was not going to move this heavy trailer without a surety we had found the problem. That lead to hours of searching online, finding bits and pieces of advise. I called a 30 year trailer guy back in Texas, called the factory service center and got a couple technicians on the phone from dealerships. This revealed there could be several issues associated with the error code my truck’s built-in trailer brake controller was telling me on the dash.

Logical thinking was going to be required in order to troubleshot the problem, starting with the most likely issue. And I was intent on avoiding a situation where a RAM truck dealership would say the problem was the trailer or an RV dealership saying it was the truck. That’s no help… I can say we did find a dealership here in Traverse City who cared even though we they had not bought the trailer from them. They wanted to help but just could not guarantee a fix anytime soon. They could “look at it” on July 5th after the holiday but part shipments and labor shortages could delay the fix.

Getting ahead of myself I’ll add although there were numerous places to shop for wires, connectors and more, many of the shops I visited did not have recommendations where to find what part I might need. No idea if this was because of inexperienced employees or not. For example, I need 18 gauge wires that were shielded. Trailer supply company had none. Found the best wire at a marine supply store after my friend Bill in Florida said marine wire is the best and found a supplier in Traverse City.

So now I’m armed with a big bag of various wires and connectors. As well as advise from at least five people as to what they would check first. My friend from Traverse City (Ray) is better to have around than me because his attitude is to fix things better than new. I also wanted to fix the problem on a permanent bases but knew there might have to be a temporary fix for now. Such as if you can’t find double strand 14 gauge wire readily available. Think outside the box. Electrical extension cords are found in 14 gauge and will work even if you only need to use two of the three wires. Okay – best stop here and explain what I learned about electric trailer brake wiring. I’m committed to explaining this further as others will be reading this article after I posted the issue on our brands Facebook page.

I’ve got no fancy diagrams to post for those that learn visually. You will have to read closely at my attempt to explain electric trailer brakes on a two axle trailer. Inside your tow vehicle is a brake controller. This sends power to the trailer brakes based on how hard you press on the brake pedal. In our case, the truck also sends a signal every four seconds down the wires to make sure there is no trailer brake problems. In our case it found both a wire problem and warned the brakes had disconnected. At highway speeds, when the trailer was bouncing over pumps the most, we had a trailer brake disconnect warning. At low speeds there was no problem although I still left plenty of room between us and the next vehicle.

There is a plug that connects the tow vehicle to the trailer. No shit you say… Some are seven pin connectors like ours where the bottom two pins are for trailer brakes and a ground wire. That plug runs to the hitch area where one ground wire (usually white in color) and a blue wire providing the electricity for the brakes and run back to the axle area. It is possible to have trailer lights but not brakes as each of the seven pins control different areas.

The wiring system is not sensitive to polarity where it finally connects to electro magnets inside each brake drum that cause the brakes to work. You can hook up the power wire and ground wire in any order and still have “continuity” meaning there is a closed circuit. Okay, that’s a technical as this gets so don’t worry. I’m an idiot about electrical stuff and my friend Ray was not, so I felt comfortable. I also spent a lot of time finally learning how to use a multimeter to test wires for continuity and more. Get one now for future use. The mobile tech that came out to look at our brakes never got a meter out which was a warning sign he hoped to just find a problem somewhere and say it was good to go. In our case, a brake magnet that did not have a good connection.

So the wires that go from the front of the trailer to the back obviously should be connected somewhere. The white wire is a ground and we found it connected to a place on the king pin and inside the front basement on a metal grounding bar. Then the ground runs to the axles along with the positive blue wire that provides three amps of power for each of the four brakes. In our case, Tiffin runs both those critical wires in a plastic conduit all the way back to the axles. Great feature to avoid damage. They do this on all their wires running throughout the trailer. Sign of a rig built for fulltime travel!

We have two axles and four wheels. Each wheel has an electric brake. Inside the brake drum is a magnet that causes the brakes to work when power is sent from the truck. In our case, there is a setting in the truck we can dial up or down to send more or less power depending on how much braking we want which is dependent on road conditions and trailer weight. Remember, we had intermittent brakes warnings from the truck and to check the wiring.

At the back of the trailer at the axles is where the two brake wires end up leading all the way from the truck connection. Our ground wires a the front of the trailer were perfect. As was the power wire which was blue.

At the axle inside the underbelly of the trailer is a splice in both the ground wire and power wire. Because we have two axles they have to feed the opposite side of the trailer with brake wire. In or case, this required the factory place two wires inside a butt connector which is normally used for just one wire. This is common. This connection is the one shown in the photo above. Here is the photo again for reference.

You can see the underbelly of the trailer in the photo. The holes surrounding the two wires I have been mentioning had foam insulation around them. Remove the insulation and pull down on the wires so you can see if the two wires are connected. Ours were not. Those two yellow connectors are called butt connectors. One is for the ground wire (white in color) and the power wire (blue/white). These connectors are intended to be used based on wire size. Because we have two axles they must place an extra wire on each side of each connector to feed the brakes on the opposite side of the trailer. So they put two wires on one side of the connector which is usually used for just one wire. There is a professional way to do that which was part of my fix.

When I pulled down on wire from the underbelly I found the ground wire just dropped out of the butt connector. That ground wire had not been pinched inside the connector and was held in place with black electrical tape. The person that installed this wire knew the connection was poor and decided to tape the ground wire inside the connector. The power wire was located alongside the trailers metal frame and I believe bare wire was contacted the metal, causing a possible short. The power wire only had half the wire strands inside the connector and over time, with the trailer suspension moving up and down over bumps, the remaining wire inside the connector were in poor condition. I’m thinking this is why we had brakes sometimes and sometimes not. A poor connection.

With two axles you will have two sets of wires dropping down from the underbelly. One is for each side of the trailer. They feed the wires from the brakes on the opposite side through small holes in the axles. Some others have had those wires frayed when rubbing inside the axle, especially where they exit out the hole of the axle. Ours were fine but I replaced them with better wire. The originals were 18 gauge and not shielded by an outer layer of wire insulation.

I post this because I want to pass along there will be times in this journey when stuff happens that cause much stress and delay. Our future in an RV will be laced with problems. But this is a way of life and not a vacation. Slow down, stay longer and work it out.

I’ll be testing the brakes individually and not while towing. Raise each side of the trailer, have the wife press down on the trucks brake pedal. Spin each tire separately to make sure each has brakes.

So now you know one of several reasons you may loose brakes…. Still want to haul this thing around the country daily?

9 thoughts on “Delayed With Trailer Brake Issue

  1. Mark, Sorry to hear about these issues. I had a similar crimp issue but fortunately it was just 12v to the inside panel. We had flickering lights and it possibly killed our antenna amplifier. At least these aren’t safety issues. I replaced all the similar connections in my front bay. They had hand crimped them and I used a hydraulic crimper. They were large wires. Of course who knows what’s hidden. Luckily we have hydraulic brakes so all the electrical connections are in the front bay. Safe travels!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel good with electric brakes with our truck/camper setup. I could see an advantage for sure if all the electrical connections were in the front bay. I keep that area clear of any personal property that moves to make sure they don’t hit a wire.

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  2. We had the same thing but it was the wire fraying inside the front axle as it rubbed inside which doesn’t make sense to Steve as the axle does not turn. We still get the same problem on occasion and Steve grabs the wire on the passenger side and pushes it back in the hole which gets the frayed part off the inside of the axle. Steve has new wire but hasn’t changed it out yet.

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    • Debbie, they use 18 gauge double strand wire. I called Dexter and verified this. I also pulled both those wires out, attaching the new wire to the end of an old one to pull it through the holes. Make sure the rubber grommets are in place where the wires enter the hole.

      More than likely it was not the movement of the wire that caused the fraying. Sometimes when they install the wire they drag it through, scaping off the wire insulation at the hole. I have 20 feet of 18 gauge, double strand, jacketed marine wire. I’m going to rewire mine a second time as the 14 gauge I pulled through the hole is to snug and one of the rubber grommets will not fit. There was water inside the axle as well which should not be an issue. I heat shrank every connector and used the best I could find.

      The hole in the axle on my trailers 7,000 pound axles is 3/16″. Typical grommets are going to be 5/8″. So you will need room in the hole left to cut a section of the rubber grommet to bend it back into the hole. Assuming they need to be replace.

      Wiring through the axle is an industry standard and has been done from years. Some run new wires on the outside of the axle. Place them on top of the axle, in wire loom with plenty of zip ties. When I referred to running a new wire using two stands of 14 gauge, found as typical orange extension cord, what I was suggesting is that is where you can get wire in an emergency. I wanted ours put back factory good – less the splice issue I found, so I ran them inside the axle. You will not find many videos on YouTube related to axle wire failure, suggesting it is not common. Trailer guy I know says he finds it all the time. Factory support says they find more frayed wire inside the brake assembly where one of two wires attached to the brake magnets came loose. Local trailer guy said check the drop wires where I found my problem.

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  3. That had to be quite a moment each time you discovered one of the things causing issues. Talk about persevering! Relieved you’re going to be safer now heading down the road.

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    • Was at least nice to be stuck in a wonderful area about 20 miles from the sand dunes on Michigan Lake….. Now I know how to fix electric brakes… especially if necessary on the side of a road. So good came out of it. Lessons learned is what we call experience.

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  4. I meant to comment about the friendships made on your last post but, yes there are so many friends to make in this lifestyle, between the bloggers who have become friends, FB RV groups like our Grand Design group, and the friends we make when volunteering our lives have become all the richer because of them.

    We’ve talked at length with many who are thinking of going full time, we stress very much how being mechanical inclined is very helpful or have a limitless bank account.

    We fixed our trailer brake issue, bought a new truck, we had determined ours was in the truck, not the trailer. Just one reason it was time to get a new truck.

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    • I read on Debbie’s blog that she and Steve were camped with you guys in Illinois. Wish we were there to enjoy a campfire with you guys. For the first time this year met a recent fulltimer with a newer toy hauler and kids. Says they are downsizing now – to a small house. Hope a lot of others give up after spending their year on the road during the pandemic times and kids being out of school. Lots of campground no no’s are hardly ever mentioned in all the fancy articles on the subject. Such as it’s never okay to park even a tire in the roadway just because you have a 43′ toy hauler and want to be able to sit on your back deck.

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  5. Pingback: Visiting Family in Missouri – New Dash Camera and Upgrading RV Suspension | Our Future in an RV

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