We can’t work with them and we can’t work without them. They’re either twice as big as needed or just a foot too short. When they’re full, they need to be emptied yesterday. When they’re empty, it’s time to hurry up and load them again. We don’t need them every day, but when we need them, we really need them. This puts into perspective the key problems with most trailers on the job: Most construction workers do not have everyday experience trailering a load, and almost three-quarters of the employees hauling a trailer have never had any formal safety training. Even hauling a trailer once a week will not adequately qualify most untrained construction workers for this serious duty.
According to a 2006 research survey titled “Towing Troubles,” the second annual study of Americans who tow, conducted by Customer Profiles Ltd. and Master Lock (www.masterlock.com), trailer towing accident statistics are quite astounding. In 2004, more than 65,000 vehicular accidents involved vehicles towing light- and medium-duty utility or recreational trailers (up 20 percent since 2003). Analysis of these accidents indicated 422 fatalities, over 27,000 personal injuries and almost 48,000 property damage cases. The vast majority (71 percent) of drivers who tow trailers admit to having little or no specific training in or knowledge of proper trailer hauling techniques. Seventy-five percent stated they had previous experience towing a trailer once or twice and 63 percent stated they needed no education on safe trailer towing techniques. Fifty-seven percent did not know the actual gross trailer weight indicated on the specifications plaque or registration. Less than 25 percent of the operators owned or had read the trailer’s operation’s manual. In what may be the most disturbing statistic of all, the study stated that upon completion of their tow operator survey, is only 5 percent of respondents requested further information or training on safe trailer towing.
The root cause of the majority of light- and medium-duty trailer accidents involves operator error due to a lack of skill sets. In many cases, an event such as a blowout on a trailer tire is sufficient for an unskilled driver to jacknife or overturn the trailer, lose control of the tow vehicle, shift or lose the load, or cause a trailer to break away entirely. A simple, pre-trip inspection could have identified potential tire damage and prevented the accident. Knowing the manufacturer’s limitations, load distribution factors, proper rigging and the safe operating practices of your trailer will best prepare the operator for preventing accidents while towing.
Conservatively speaking, there are thousands of trailers to choose from today. While there are several dozen well-known national manufacturers, there are countless fabrication shops across the country producing hundreds of custom-built trailers every year. While much time and effort may be spent in negotiating the best price from a dealer, it’s just as important to carefully select the proper specifications for weight class, tongue and hitch style, and body design. Also, consider any custom-built or after-market features which may require the manufacturer’s additional attention to structure, such as ladder racks, extra lights, spare tire racks, etc. If you’re purchasing a trailer for the first time, chances are you will learn from your mistakes. Typically the first trailer we all purchase is under-built and too small for some needs. Don’t be afraid to go bigger, heavier, longer and more expensive. You won’t regret it.
I find that most contractors consider their trailers to be consumables on their business accounts. A well-utilized trailer simply wears out on a pretty regular basis. Always include eventual trailer replacement whenever estimating an equipment bid into a job proposal. With used trailer sales, it’s the date of manufacture, not the mileage (if it has a hubometer) that is critical. Depending on your level of use, a three-year replacement cycle is not necessarily conservative. Don’t expect an equitable trade-in value much past that time, even if your trailer is well maintained. Complete service records will increase value to the private sale of an older trailer. The Master Lock 2006 survey stated that less than a quarter of customers purchasing a new trailer were offered any professional training by the dealer in how to inspect their new trailer. Less than one-third of new owners said that they were informed of any safety issues involving trailer towing during the sales process.
Equipment InspectionIt is a good idea to look over your equipment carefully and regularly, not just 15 minutes before highway travel when you’re already running late. Everything originally built on a trailer should be maintained in the condition it was manufactured and operate properly as designed. An annual inspection by a state certified mechanic is mandated, but this checklist is the minimum requirement. New York, for instance, only requires pulling one wheel to check its brakes and bearings. It is a good practice to pull them all for annual inspection and repack each of them with new grease. Grease caps with clear view ports are now available as after-market items. I ask my mechanic to get the trailer up on a lift once a year in order to inspect the frame. Always know the condition of the trailer’s frame members to which all of the running gear is attached. Look for corrosion on the U-bolts and nuts holding your axle to your suspension and the suspension to frame. Put a telescoping inspection mirror and flashlight in your tool kit for your operators to look into tight spots.
There are two primary types of brake systems offered today: electric brakes for heavy-duty and commercial trailers and hydraulic surge brakes for light-duty utility trailers. Always apply the trailer’s brakes within the first 25 feet of travel to ensure they are working properly. When on a slippery surface, a heavy white chalk mark on the tire sidewalls will indicate in your mirror if the wheels are locked or still turning. Electric brakes have an emergency battery backup system along with a breakaway switch, which will activate the trailer’s brakes, independently, it the trailer accidentally breaks away from the tow vehicle. Hydraulic surge brakes are activated upon inertia change sensed in the system and must also have a cable to mechanically activate the trailer’s braking system in the event of a breakaway. Check the hydraulic brake fluid reservoir for adequate level.
Tires are notoriously the worst offenders when it comes to trailer inspection and maintenance. Most tires on commercial vehicles are underinflated. The heavier duty the tires, the more plies and the less likely they will appear to be at low pressure unless loaded. Tires pressures should always be checked cold before travel. Refer to the small print on the tire’s sidewalls for maximum (cold) pressures for rated loads or check with the distributor. Post your required tire pressures notices on the dashboard or visor in plain view of the driver. Make sure there is a quality tire pressure gauge and flashlight in the glove compartment or door pocket of every vehicle. If you run dual tires, provide a commercial gauge of sufficient design and length to reach the interior stems. Tires may also need checking at night, so include a good flashlight. A valuable addition to your road flares and reflective triangles would be a 12-volt compressor powered from an auxiliary plug to fill low or leaking tires until you can reach a service station. Make sure your emergency compressor has either wire or hose of adequate length to reach your largest trailer’s tires. Installing an auxiliary 12-volt plug in a rear compartment of the tow vehicle can make reaching a power source easier.
Speaking of tires, always keep a properly sized spare tire, four-way lug wrench and a jack capable of lifting trailer and load, secured from theft somewhere convenient on your trailer. Don’t forget to check the spare tire’s pressure regularly. Remember to check your wheel’s lug nuts regularly every trip (first 50 miles) and once a year (or 12,000 miles). Carry and install additional wheel chocks to secure the vehicle before jacking.
Consider everything on a trailer as a safety device. The trailer’s hitch and vehicle’s tow bar are certainly essential components. This is a highly active joint, bearing tremendous loads and dynamic forces, with a lot of important and relatively sensitive equipment attached. You must appreciate that all of these components must be “bombproof” all of the time.
Redundant safety chains must be of adequate size, strength and length with safety latched hooks tied back to the hitch to ensure the trailer will remain attached to the vehicle should the tongue release from the ball. Safety chains should always be checked for proper crossover position in order to prevent the tongue from dropping to the ground in case of release. The chains may be twisted in order to shorten them to prevent dragging on the road. The chains should be rated in tensile strength equal to or greater than twice the maximum gross trailer weight rating.
The tongue should be latched and redundantly safety locked onto the proper size ball for the socket. Never allow the tongue weight to exceed the coupler and hitch rating, which have a 2 times safety factor. If he trailer’s couplers are interchangeable, make sure the proper hitch is being used. Keep the male and female electrical plugs clean, lubricated and in good condition. Ensure the pigtail to the trailer is kept off the pavement and free from any unnecessary tension during turns. For medium- to heavy-duty trailers, the brakes require an emergency “kill switch” to engage the electric brakes if the breakaway wire attached to the hitch separates from the brake control box on the tongue frame. Make sure this pull wire is in good condition and free from entanglement with wires, chains or jacking dolly, which may set your trailer brakes unexpectedly. Make sure the screw dolly is well lubricated and works freely. Always carry an additional jack pad (2 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches, pressure-treated) to either spread the tongue weight out on soft ground or prevent damage to the owner’s paved driveway in blistering July heat. Always carry at least two wheel chocks and make it a company policy to chock tires front and back. Set chocks on the driver’s side to remind him to pull them before leaving. I’ve even provided a clip-on sign for the steering wheel that reads: “Chock First and Last.”
Check your wiring and brake lines for condition and security. Add a few more plastic wire ties if the lines are sagging, as construction debris on the site can easily snag a hanger. If the connection is corroded, running, signal and brake lights may be intermittent or fail. Hit your ground point on your frame with a grinder and reapply the ground screw with a dab of battery terminal grease. I have either reinstalled or replaced many of my trailer lights with LED (light emitting diode) lamps. As they require only a fraction of amperage in the DC circuit, they are twice as bright as the original incandescent. Nighttime and foggy highway conditions require clear running and signal lamps on the trailer for following traffic. Do not forget to add DOT reflective tape to the upper and lower corners of the sides and rear of your trailer. The stuff may be expensive per foot, but no one can claim they never saw you at night.
Check your trailer’s floor and ramps often for damage and signs of deterioration. Apply a new deck or overlay the old one before it’s necessary. When a piece of equipment breaks through the decking, chains loosen, loads shift, debris flies, tires blow and accidents happen quickly.
Also, don’t forget to check that the trailer’s registration, inspection and insurance are current and copies of certificates are actually in the vehicle being used to tow it. The more trucks and trailers you own, the more likely this one slips through the cracks. Verify that the trailer’s gross vehicle weight rating on the registration is the same as the rating posted on the plate on the trailer’s tongue (including the VIN number and gross axle weight rating). Remember, your trailer is only as safe as the vehicle that’s towing it. Compiling and submitting a driver’s daily inspection checklist for all your company’s vehicles is a simple and dependable way to ensure your equipment is being evaluated for safe condition by the employee operating it. A lock-out/tag-out policy should be implemented by your competent person for all company equipment, including vehicles and trailers. Trailer tongue locks are an inexpensive method to ensure only those persons you’ve trained, authorized and supplied a key are actually operating those trailers.
Trailer MaintenanceBy definition, trailers spend much of their time in the tire spray from the rear end of your truck. In northern winters, this may closely resemble a continuous saltwater shower. Once you purchase your trailer, consider additional undercoating of some sort. I know of a rural mechanic who annually sprays underbodies with a solvent-based mixture of used engine oil and grease and then drives repeatedly over dirt roads to complete the job. I supplement this with brush-on undercoating for my fenders and tongue. Washing your trailers regularly is a ritual eventually worth many times its cost. It may also give you the opportunity to inspect the trailer more closely without its perennial mud jacket. Missing lug nuts, frayed wires and cracked welds will miraculously appear from beneath all that grime. If your trailer is commercial with a 10,000 pound gross vehicle weight rating, in most states you have electronic brakes operated by a 12-volt battery designed to automatically apply the brakes on one or two axles in the event of a hitch failure or breakaway. Some of these batteries are recharged by the tow vehicle’s alternator, while others should be recharged on a regular basis.
It is my experience that the DC lighting circuit requires many more times the attention paid to mechanical devices, such as brakes. All state and federal highway regulations require trailers have tail, stop, turn and side marker lights. Turn signals lamps must also operate with emergency flashers. From the rear, all visible lights must be red. From front and sides, all must be amber. No other lamp colors are legal. All flashing or strobe lights must be amber, not red. The dependability of a trailer’s light circuit is no less important than the brakes. I find that replacing a manufacturer’s plastic fixture with a heavy-duty unit designed for commercial rigs to be the best policy.
One of my trailers is constructed primarily of carbon steel, the other of fiberglass and aluminum. Guess which one gets painted once a year. More than aesthetics, a paint job is often the only way known to man to maintain surfaces, which are seldom out of directed sunlight and weather extremes.
For tax purposes, I depreciated my trailers in three years, although they were devalued 50 percent the day I drove them off the lot. Now every cent spent on maintenance comes from profit, not overhead. By their very nature, whether they’re hurtling down the highway or parked under a tree, trailers are places where money, otherwise put in savings, is assigned to be spent. Making a good faith effort to maintaining your trailers might seem like a lost leader activity, but at the end of the day it’s always cheaper than buying new ones of lesser quality for more money.
In the next article, we’ll explore proper loading and towing procedures and driver training.