Draggin' a Clean Wagon

Today’s trailers face more corrosive agents than ever before. That means trailer owners have to focus more on maintenance to keep their trailers rolling.

“We have a chemical fiasco on the roads today,” says Chuck Cole, director of marketing at Utility Trailer. “We have sodium chloride (salt), calcium chloride and magnesium chloride, and they are dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of this stuff on the roads for winter de-icing.”

These compounds form a paste that constitutes a deadly mix of chemicals never before seen on trailers. “Corrosion is a serious issue,” Cole says. “We’re even seeing problems with stainless steel, something we have never seen before. And this nasty cocktail is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture right out of the air, making corrosion worse.”

Sal Molina, manager of Utility’s field service department, says, “Trucking companies are also introducing stuff into their yards to keep the dust down. This adds further to the compounding effect.”

As important as cleaning your trailer is checking the quality of the rinse water. “One key to making a trailer last is to thoroughly rinse everything off, even soap, and be careful to use clean water,” Cole says. “Recycled water used by truck washes sometimes contains these chemicals from the trucks that got washed before. Fresh water is best.”

Washing is especially important in the winter months. “In the North, they are aggressive with calcium and magnesium chloride,” says Mike Monroe, sales manager of Ravens Trailers. “This is such a big issue it’s increasingly being discussed at Technology and Maintenance Council meetings.”

Monroe recommends a weekly wash, ideally with a pressure washer. “Get underneath and between the main beams to get the corrosive stuff out of there,” he says. “When you have steel components, you have the dissimilar metal issue. Salt and calcium chloride, and magnesium chloride, will damage and etch aluminum and eat the steel. The landing gear, axles and suspension system can trap a lot of moisture and salt.”

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Rod Ehrlich, head of engineering at Wabash National, says the best way to clean a trailer is with water, mild soap and a brush. “High-strength chemicals can do a lot of damage,” he says. To make matters worse, truck washes sometimes skimp on the rinse water because of the need to recycle the water. That means, says, Ehrlich, “Mild soap and a little agitation are a lot better than strong chemicals and no agitation.” Obviously, there are big advantages to going to the trouble of washing it yourself by hand.

He adds that when using any kind of pressure washer, it’s smart to realize that “blast can do a lot of damage.” Many parts of the trailer will drain themselves of rainwater, but a pressure washer can put water-containing chemicals in areas that would not get rainwater and thus are not designed to drain.

Charlie Wells, director of dump trailer products and dealer development at East Manufacturing Corp., says all highway residue is tough on all the components, even aluminum. “Remove any road de-icer immediately after you encounter it, or as soon as practical,” he says. “Every couple of days is ideal. Use mild soap, nothing harsh.”

But Cole is hesitant about recommending too much pressure washing. “It can force the chemicals farther into the joints that separate dissimilar metals,” he says. So use pressure washing with a bit of caution, avoiding those seams.

Cleaning your trailer is only the first step to keeping one looking like new and working properly.

So how do you preserve a trailer? Ravens’ Monroe says, “We see some truckers waxing and polishing their trailers. It helps the resale value when it looks better and provides some protection in winter.”

For aluminum, Monroe recommends, in addition to the washing, a mild commercial cleaning once a year. “Truck washes can only purchase an environmentally friendly commercial cleaning solution. It’s caustic, but, if used properly, will be of benefit.” A 5-year-old trailer can be made to look new this way, he says.

Cole agrees that these work, saying the surface of an aluminum trailer can actually get black if never cleaned this way. But he warns that these solutions contain phosphoric acid that can remove the protective layer of aluminum oxide, creating microscopic damage. The key is thorough rinsing.

David de Poincy, president of Transcraft Trailers, also sees value in acid washes, but he echoes the warnings about proper removal after the application. “Too much acid without proper rinsing can eat away at the steel components and dull the paint,” he says.

Aluminum solvents or sealers and conditioners can help. “They are wax-based and keep both aluminum and stainless steel looking new,” Cole says. “They are different from brightener and contain no acids, chlorides or sulfides.”

Some owners of aluminum dump trailers apply polyurethane clearcoat. It’s durable, but must be maintained. If the metal is dented to the point where the coating is stretched and broken, the affected area must be resprayed to ensure the metal won’t oxidize just at the bare spot and leave the area looking spotted.

“Utility uses various types of coatings,” Cole says. “Hidden structures are coated in and out by flooding or dipping. Self-healing undercoating is used between the two frame beams on our flats. It has a better salt-spray life than paint.” Self-healing means that when chipped away by a stone, the coating is likely to eventually melt and fuse back together.

You can buy spray-on rust preventive coatings that are paraffin-based. They offer especially good protection between the kingpin section and end-plate on a Utility trailer, which are made of dissimilar metals and receive an initial treatment. The coating is also used between the two main structural beams. Replacing that coating if it deteriorates is a good idea. Undercoating is used over large areas “to keep moisture from getting under the paint if it chips,” Cole says. Replacing that periodically from a spray can will also help.

If you should drill holes and add a toolbox or anything else, use such a coating to seal the area.

Polyethylene tape is also used in places where dissimilar metals are joined. Replacing it when anything is disassembled or when the tape has obviously deteriorated is another valuable aid to prolonging life. “Prevention is best,” says Cole.

And be careful with wiring harnesses. Don’t stick a harness with a pinprick probe to test because that wintry mix is very aggressive on wiring. The tiny hole you’ve made will “become a chemical path” to allow that stuff to get into the wiring and corrode it, says Cole. When replacing wiring, “Always use sealed harnesses and plug-in connectors carefully filled with di-electric grease or full soldered connectors.”

Painting is the other preservation method for steel. East’s Wells has seen some users repaint their steel trailers as often as every two to three years.

Ravens’ Monroe estimates that painting of steel trailers occurs as often as every three to five years, depending on the application. But it’s worth it, he says. “Paint will deteriorate, and repainting will leave the trailer looking a lot better.”

Painting, like acid washes, is a science. Cole says, “The only way to repaint is to get down to bare metal. If it’s significantly gone, you have to sand blast and start over, just like when doing a classic car. If there is any rust left in there, you will only delay the inevitable.”

Repainting depends on how often you wash and how clean you keep the trailer. And how well you keep the salt off. Repainting a trailer requires downtime, and typically the cost to sandblast and repaint an entire trailer can run around $2,500 or more. This is a very big cost when you factor in the downtime and freight to get a trailer to and from the service facility. “All the more reason to spend the time to keep the trailer free of road salts and debris and keep the dunnage from rubbing on the paint surface when not in use,” dePoincy says.

Routine inspection
A daily pretrip inspection is important in maintaining all equipment. Most truckers probably don’t realize that DOT inspectors routinely walk around tractor-trailers and find wheel nuts so loose they can turn them with their fingers. What’s critical is the need to torque them properly when a wheel is installed, and then go back after running 50 to 500 miles and re-torque them because the wheel does not seat right away. After that, check weekly with a torque wrench. Heed the torquing advice on decals.

Tire pressures should be checked “every time the driver gets out and gets back in,” recommends Monroe. Make sure your gauge is accurate.

Monroe believes using a “tire billy” can be helpful because, “guys who know how to use one can tell if a tire is down four or five pounds.” This is so important, not only for the safety of others, but because “when a tire goes flat and blows, it doesn’t just fail, it often takes out mud flaps, flap hangers and light panels. The cost of repair is often as high as $1,500.” Remember, too, that tire pressure drops in winter until you reinflate.
“An inspection of the critical weld areas, suspension and load containment points should be made prior to every trip,” says Transcrafts dePoincy. “A simple walk around and observance of any cracking of the suspension hangers, cross bracing and their weld areas should also be done during the pretrip.”

Wells suggests “a weekly inspection of the body structure, crossmembers and decking, and main beams on a flatbed.” Check for damage to the dump bed and sides on dump trailers. Also on dumps, check the function and adjustment of the tailgate lock and the hoist hydraulics. The latter system requires a fluid level check and an inspection of the hoses for cracks.
Inspect side rails and tie downs for damage, normally caused by forklift trucks during loading and unloading. Repairs should be made by a pro as side rails are structural members, says Monroe.

Grease suspension parts and slack adjusters as component manufacturers recommend. Grease the fifth wheel and upper coupler as frequently as the trailer manufacturer recommends and inspect all parts for secure mounting. Check the suspension for broken springs or leaking air bags or lines, and inspect rubber bushings for cracking that indicates a need for replacement.
Drain the trailer air reservoirs to remove accumulated moisture and oil, and check the basic function of air brakes and the system valves. Wells reminds you to look for “damaged wires hanging down” and to check lights and reflectors. Carefully inspect all tie-down points to make sure the metal itself and welds are not cracked.

If you are using wheel oil seals, inspect fluid level in the wheel bearings and replenish as necessary. Monroe reminds us that many late model trailers come with unitized wheel bearing designs that require much less frequent inspection. Adhere to manufacturer’s recommendations for the simple checks required.

This is a rolling tarp system from Ravens. Such upgrades are an excellent way to shelter the cargo as a van does while retaining the ability to load from the side of a flatbed.

Upgrading your trailer

One of the hottest modifications to trailers these days is converting the original incandescent lights to LEDs (light emitting diodes). “LEDs are getting to be cheaper,” Ravens’ Mike Monroe says. “They will eliminate some maintenance. They also pull less voltage and are more visible.” Not only are they brighter, but LED brake lights also come on faster, adding to the reaction time of the driver behind you in a panic stop.

Utility’s Chuck Cole says LED lights are an expense originally, but they are more cost-effective. “For one thing, you don’t want people on ladders replacing bulbs,” he says. “And their lower current draw actually saves fuel.”

Monroe cautions, however, that you will need to go by the regulations if you decide to add lights. “For example, the regulations require three i.d. lights only. The arrangement tells you how wide the vehicle is. You can be in trouble even when you keep all the original ones and add extra lights.”

Toolboxes are a very popular option. “It’s a security issue,” says Monroe. “If you can’t see it, you won’t steal it. But go to a certified installer because you have to know where you can drill holes and where you can’t.” He says post and panel sidekits are popular because “in principle you can use a flatbed as a dry van. Sometimes the fleet needs to also be able to travel where there is a 13-foot 6-inch outside height limit.” Cole says it’s wise to strengthen the structure when installing a side kit, or at least ask the dealer if the trailer will be okay with such a system installed.

While Monroe says people “almost never” switch suspension systems, Cole allows he has seen it done on vans, where you can switch from springs to air “by removing the slider and bogey. You may even be able to salvage the extra parts.” It’s much harder to do on a flatbed. He reports that there are even accessory air ride systems designed to enhance the performance of your present springs.

You can add tarps to keep the load in a dump trailer, and the common addition of a plastic liner or even a vibrator to make unloading go faster, Wells suggests. You can even get a “side-swing” gate that opens vertically or horizontally. “Conestoga” style covers incorporate a system of sliding bows that give you access to load a flat from the side, then allow you to roll the cover over the cargo.

Cole is especially high on the single tire system. “It’s the biggest development in many years,” he says. “It gives a 6-inch wider suspension, yielding a 5 percent roll stability increase in tests. It lowers cost per mile and has the potential to increase payload. It gives weight savings and better fuel economy,” according to Cole.

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