When it comes to pre-holiday safety checks, your caravan’s braking system is usually out of sight and out of mind. Here are 5 simple braking system checks you can perform before you head off on your next trip.
As a rule, the electronic braking systems fitted to most modern caravans are designed to be simple to service and reliable to operate. The problem with this simplicity is it tends to lead owners into a false sense of security. If my brakes worked on the last trip, they should be right for the next one. The problem with this thinking is that there are many points of failure in the system that, if not checked, can largely go unnoticed until that emergency situation when you need all the components to work in order to avoid a catastrophe.
Recently we shared a video on our Facebook page showing a caravan rolling on its own, detached from the tow vehicle, uncontrolled down a busy freeway in Melbourne. It prompted a lot of readers to ask why the emergency braking systems had not kicked in and stopped the van in its tracks. While the circumstances of that incident are unknown, any caravan that becomes detached from the tow vehicle should pull up almost immediately if the braking system is in good working order.
Here are five simple checks you can perform on your caravan’s braking system that will ensure it is in working order during normal towing and in the event of an emergency.
Check the emergency brake battery
According to the Road Vehicle Standards, trailers over 2,000kg GTM must be fitted with an efficient emergency braking system (breakaway brakes). This system must cause the immediate application of the brakes, should the trailer become disconnected from the tow vehicle. These are usually electrically operated and they will have a backup battery as part of the system. It is essential you test this battery before you head off on your travels. Most units will have a simple push to test button and they will indicate the battery is either good to go or requires recharging. If it is flat, depending on how the system is wired into the caravan’s electrical system will determine how it needs to be recharged. Some will be connected to a 240-volt input and will recharge when the van is plugged into mains power. Some will recharge from the Anderson connection to the tow vehicle. If you are unsure, check with the caravan’s manufacturer.
Check the wiring going to the brakes
The wires that provide the power to the electric brakes are vulnerable to damage caused by stones, water and general wear and tear. It is not unusual to find at least one set of wires broken on one or more wheels of the caravan. You’ll need to get down and dirty to check them as these wires are located at the back of the wheel hub. While you’re down there, make sure all the zip ties holding the wires in place are secure. These too are prone to damage.
Check and adjust the hand brake
The handbrake on most caravans is a very simple device however they do require periodical adjustment. If you have to pull the handbrake lever beyond the 3/4 position before the brakes apply, the cable likely needs adjusting. It is a simple matter of undoing the locknuts and turning the adjuster wheel clockwise a few turns until the bakes are tightly applied with the lever raised to around the half way point. If you are not sure how to do this, there are plenty of videos on YouTube to follow or pop down to your local mechanic who should be able to adjust them for you in a matter of minutes.
Check the condition of the emergency breakaway system
Most caravans fitted with electric brakes will have an emergency breakaway activation switch such as this. It consists of a small black box mounted to the A-frame, a pin located inside the box, a cable attached to the pin and a shackle or carabiner to attach to the tow vehicle. When the pin is removed from the box, the caravan brakes should apply. Check to make sure all these components are in good condition particularly the cable as these have a tendency to get pinched when the caravan is on a tight turn. Also, ensure the connection point on the tow vehicle is separate from the tow hitch. In the rare event the whole tow hitch comes free of the tow vehicle, if the breakaway cable is attached to the hitch, it will not activate.
Check the operation of the brake controller
Every brake controller will have a control unit in the cabin of the tow vehicle. It will either be the button/dial style such as the Redarc TowPro or a larger under dash unit such as the Tekonsha range. Each operates differently so in order to check they are working correctly, you will need to refer to your brake controller’s user manual. Generally speaking, when the caravan is attached and the engine running, the controller should show no flashing lights or error messages on the display. You should also check the manual override is working by activating it as you drive slowly away from your site and feeling the trailer brakes pulling up the whole vehicle.
Obviously, we haven’t looked at what is required to service the brake components inside the wheel hubs as that takes some degree of mechanical knowledge and, if you’re unfamiliar with these systems, you’re much better off leaving these checks to a qualified mechanic as part of your regular service regime. If you want to know more about that aspect of your caravan’s braking system, you can follow our guide by clicking here.
That said, if the electrical braking system is working, when the driver applies the brakes, you should be able to tell if the brakes are engaging by listening for a humming noise emanating from behind the wheels. The humming is a good sign. It means that the brakes’ magnets are being energized by the output from the brake controller in the vehicle. If you don’t hear this sound, you may need to get a mobile mechanic out to your site and have the braking system checked and serviced.