Article

Trailer Maintenance: Little Things Mean A Lot

June 2009, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Deborah Lockridge, Editor, Editor in Chief - Also by this author

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Trailers these days get a little more respect than they used to. They're designed to last longer with less maintenance. Newer, more damaging de-icers have driven the development of new coatings and other solutions to corrosion problems.
Trailer tracking systems allow fleets to keep track of both tethered and untethered units.

Like tractors, trailers require maintenance on brakes, wheel-ends and tires, which we've addressed in depth in other articles. But there are a lot of little, simple things you can do to help your trailer last longer, with less time and money spent on maintenance in the long run.

Some of these things you may not have thought of. Others may be overlooked in the day-to-day hustle of the trucking business.


Smart Spec'ing

The first step to a relatively trouble-free, long-lived trailer is the spec'ing process.

"If you spec good equipment out of the gate, over the long term your maintenance expenses are going to be a lot less," says Travis Hopkey, director of marketing for Phillips Industries, which supplies air and electrical products. "As we like to say, 'To pay for quality, you only have to flinch once.'"

It's important to spec the trailer properly for the application, keeping in mind the wear and tear it's likely to get during its life. There are also many options available that may cost you a little more up front, but will more than pay for themselves in less maintenance down the road.

"The biggest thing to do in keeping maintenance costs down is to be diligent in the way you spec the equipment," says Tim Gilbert, director of fleets and heavy-duty OEMs at Peterson Manufacturing, a lighting and electrical supplier. "My advice to fleets or owner-operators is never be afraid to contact a component manufacturer to make sure you're getting the whole story on what the capabilities and the application should be. You don't necessarily have to take what the OEM is giving you. Be diligent and do your research and make sure you get the biggest bang for the buck."

Often, trailer buyers spec brakes and tires and the more expensive components on trailers, Hopkey says, "but focusing on smaller elements can really make a difference in maintenance costs."

For instance, sealed and modular wiring harnesses are standard now on many trailers, and if not, you should be spec'ing them. These harnesses keep out corrosion-causing moisture and de-icing chemicals. And if part of the wiring is damaged, for instance by a blown rear tire, part of the harness can easily be unplugged and replaced, points out Page Large, national fleet sales manager for lighting and electrical supplier Grote Industries.

Another commonly recommended spec is LED lighting, which is increasingly standard on trailers. It may cost more up front, but lasts many times longer than traditional incandescent lighting. If you're planning to keep your trailer longer than three or four years, LED lighting is a smart spec. At the very least, Hopkey says, spec LEDs on the top rails. "Thieves typically won't climb up a ladder to steal them, and that's the one that's expensive to repair."

The backside of lights are exposed on flatbed trailers, making them susceptible to corrosion-causing moisture and chemicals. On incandescent lights, that was addressed via a close-backed grommet. But when LEDs came along, mounted in a flange rather than a grommet, the backside was again exposed, explains Grote's Large. "So we developed a snap-in piece a few years ago that serves the same purpose as a close-backed grommet. We developed a cup, if you will, that snaps into the backside of a flange, so you're protecting your LEDs with a protective cover."

You may be able to extend the life of your brakes and your trailer tires by spec'ing a quick-exhaust or quick-release gladhand, Hopkey says. "Typically, air has to escape all the way back up to the tractor," he explains. "But with a quick-release right in front of the trailer, the air can escape a lot quicker." Too often, he says, drivers are already taking off before the brakes on the trailer have released, creating a "hop" or "bounce" of the trailer and putting more wear and tear on those brakes and flat-spotting tires.

While you're spec'ing gladhands, an anodized or cast iron gladhand will last longer and be more resistant to corrosion than the less-expensive aluminum ones. In addition, a polyurethane gladhand seal will last longer than the rubber kind. And if you're going to drop trailers, use a screen or a gladhand seal with dust flaps to keep bugs and other contaminants out of the air system.

Keeping to the air system, air lines are the focus of some new corrosion-resistant developments at Sloan Transportation Products, according to Tony Prusinski, marketing and product manager. Sloan uses a salt- and moisture-resistant plating initially designed for naval ships to fight corrosion on its new MaxxDuty hose assembly. These assemblies retain their swiveling ability and ability to be disassembled even after long-term exposure to corrosive chemicals.

The Tractor-Trailer Connection

Remember when the government started requiring antilock braking systems on trailers, and the industry was worried that the traditional seven-way connector wasn't up to the job? Manufacturers figured out how to do it, but now think about all the other electrical signals and information that also travel back and forth between the tractor and trailer - trailer tracking systems, stability and anti-rollover systems, tire pressure monitoring, axle-based weight info, and more. This means it's more important than ever to think about that connection when spec'ing and maintaining it.

Grote, for instance, recently developed a new nose box for the front of the trailer. "With the increasing complexity of systems that fleets are wanting installed on trailers, the real estate of the existing design of the seven-way connector at the front was just not too efficient in the assembly process," says Large. "We developed a brand new nose box that allows for these systems to be installed on new trailers easily and efficiently." It also makes maintenance easier, he says. If you find evidence of corrosion in a connector, you can just remove and replace it with a new connector instead of installing an entire new nose box.

The tractor-trailer electrical connection gets doused with road spray, so take steps to prevent corrosion. Routine maintenance for the connector includes pulling the plugs apart, checking the connections, regreasing and plugging them back in.

A very simple tip recommended by Phillips is to swap the ends of the cable at every PM. "It's so simple, but no one ever thinks of it," Hopkey says. "If they're dropping trailers, that end gets plugged and unplugged frequently and is kind of self-cleaning. On the tractor, they'll start corroding together."

Rod Ehrlich, senior vice president/chief technology officer for trailer maker Wabash National, cautions against a common industry practice of spec'ing "split" connector pins on the trailer side. The theory is that when the connectors start to wear out, the split will allow the pin to be widened using a screwdriver so it can at least make a temporary connection.

"We try to inform the buyer that it's better to use a solid pin on the trailer, and when the connection doesn't make a good connection, the part that needs to be repaired is the part on the tractor," Ehrlich says. "When they spread the split brass pins on the trailer, you can only do that once or twice, and then the pin breaks - and then you're totally out of luck. That's just a poor maintenance practice."

Electrical Systems

"A lot of people don't think of electrical systems needing maintenance, but grease does dry out on you," says Peterson's Gilbert. Not all, but many electrical connections require grease, especially the seven-pin connector between the tractor and the trailer. Read the m

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