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Taking the Hassles out of Trailering

By badriance - Published November 17, 2009 - Viewed 12988 times

While a boat typically receives considerable attention during the season, a trailer is likely to spend day after day neglected in the corner of a storage lot. The boat “coughs” and the owner drags out his tool kit. But the only tool that comes anywhere near the trailer is the lawnmower.


To be fair, most trailers don’t require much maintenance. There are only a handful of moving parts, the frame, a few rollers and a bare-bones electrical system. But trailers do require at least some maintenance to keep them rolling. The proof is the large number of calls each year that are received by the BoatU.S. Trailer Assist and Tow (TAT) program. In this issue, Seaworthy examines all of the TAT calls for assistance last year to see why members’ trailers broke down on the highway and how the breakdowns could have been prevented. A little maintenance before the start of a trip sure beats the misery of a breakdown.



Almost half -- 43% -- of all calls for assistance were for flat tires. Unlike automobile tires, which typically are used every day and lose tread gradually, trailer tires tend to be used infrequently and the tread may look “healthy.” Looks can be deceiving, however. Instead of failing after tens of thousands of miles of hard driving, trailer tires tend to rail after many years of sitting quietly in the sun. Sunlight degrades and weakens the sidewall. Before the start of any trip, look for spider-web cracking on the side walls, which indicates the tire has rotted and must be replaced. Removing the tires and bringing them inside (set blocks under the axles) when they won’t be used for a while will prolong their life (and also help to deter theft). If you can’t store your tires, cover them with a tarp.


Trailers that sit for long periods suffer from another problem: under-inflation. Tires lose about a pound of pressure per month and another pound for every ten degrees the temperature drops. An under-inflated tire is more likely to fail and could also cause the trailer to fishtail -- sway. When a trailer has been sitting for many months, step one, before starting a trip, should always be to check inflation.


Other sources of flats are the load capacity and design of the tire. Tires are stamped with their load rating on the sidewall. The weight of the boat (including fuel, gear, etc.) and trailer must never be more than the total capacity of the tires. The larger the diameter of the tire, the slower it will rotate, which generates less heat. All things being equal, larger tires are better -- safer -- than smaller tires. Trailers need tires with an ST (Special Trailering) rating, which have stiffer sidewalls and more capacity to reduce sway. Either bias-ply or radials can be ST rated. Radials generally run a bit cooler and are better for long-distance towing and light loads, while bias-ply tires are best for heavy loads or when you need an extra measure of stability. One other thing to remember: ST tires have a maximum speed rating of 65 mph.


Even if you take exceptional care of your tires, road debris could someday cause a flat. Do you have a spare? Do you have a jack? (A typical car jack will not work on a trailer; you’ll need a scissors jack or a hydraulic jack that is big enough to handle the load). Do you have a properly sized lug wrench? Are the lug nuts rusted onto the wheel? Even with the assistance of TAT, the quickest way to get back on the road is to carry a spare. Leaving your trailer by the side of the road, even for a while, runs the risk that gear, the motor and/or trailer could be gone when you return. And unlike a damaged automobile tire, a damaged trailer tire can sometimes be difficult to replace.


Keeping Your Bearings


Member Thadd Wilson of Seattle, Washington remembers the day he was pulling his 27-foot Boston Whaler on I-5 outside of Portland when his truck began losing power. As he pulled into a rest area, Thadd noticed smoke coming from one of his trailer’s tires. A bearing had seized and caused the wheel to lock up. It was so hot that the wheel was discolored and the bearing had melted onto the hub.


Wheel bearing problems account for 21% of service calls in the Trailer Assist and Tow program. If your hubs don’t have bearing protectors, it is best to keep them out of the water. If the hubs must be dunked, allow time for them to cool, or cold water will be drawn inside, displacing the grease and causing the bearings to corrode and fail. Bearings that have been accidentally submerged in saltwater should be cleaned with kerosene and then butyl alcohol before being repacked with grease. Remove old grease and use something like a tongue depressor to distribute the new grease evenly to both front and rear bearings (don’t overpack). With most hubs, seals must be replaced whenever they’re removed for packing.


Most new trailers, fortunately, have bearing protectors, which are metal caps with springs that hold grease under pressure. These protectors eliminate water penetration into the hub, not to mention a lot of grubby work. If your trailer doesn’t have protectors, they can be -- and should be -- added to the hub. They’re easy to install and are relatively inexpensive.


With protectors, a squirt or two of grease at a fitting is all that is required to safeguard bearings. Press the protector at the edge; if it moves, it doesn’t need grease. If it is rigid, you’ll need to add grease (use only a grease recommended for trailer bearings). Even with protectors, boat owners who trailer long distances should carry a hub kit that has everything needed to replace bearings on the road.  They’re available for about $50 a set at West Marine.


Axles and Frames


There is nothing complicated about a trailer frame and axle. Bolted to the trailer suspension, with a tire at each end, there’s not much to go wrong.


Question: So why are 10% of the service calls for axles?


Answer: Rust!


Submersible trailers have the advantage of being easier to use, at least for beginners, but they have the disadvantage of requiring more upkeep, especially when the trailer is used in saltwater. Axles are usually held in place with u-bolts; which are prone to rusting, and the axles themselves, if dunked and ignored, can be weakened by rust. Any light rust on the trailer’s frame should be sanded and painted. The sooner the better. If an axle or structural component appears to be badly rusted, the trailer shouldn’t be used until it is examined by an expert or the component has been replaced. Rust starts inside the frame, so surface rust may be more serious than it appears. To prevent rust, even a trailer with a galvanized frame should be rinsed thoroughly when the trailer has been dunked in saltwater.


Trailers tend to get bounced around a lot, and any loose nuts on the frame must be tightened. If you aren’t familiar with your trailer, structural components should be inspected frequently until you’re confident that none are prone to loosening. Even the tightest trailer should be examined routinely on long trips. Most suspension parts can be bought at West Marine..


Trailer Towing Tips


v     Make sure the trailer can handle the weight of the boat and gear. The gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) is marked on the trailer -- the load should be no more than 85% of the rating.


v     Be sure your tow vehicle can handle the combined weight of the boat, trailer, vehicle, and gear -- referred to as the vehicle’s gross combined weight rating (GCWR).


v     The trailer hitch must be within the limits of the tow. Make sure the hitch is the proper class rating.


v     Ensure that the tongue weight on the hitch is five to ten percent of the total load. Too little weight will make the trailer prone to fishtailing -- swaying -- one of the main reasons for serious towing accidents. (Fishtailing can also be caused by under-inflated tires or the excessive weight of the trailer and boat.) Conversely, too much weight on the hitch will make it difficult to steer the car.


v     Securing the coupler with a latch will ensure it doesn’t come off the hitch ball -- if the ball and coupler are matched. A 2” ball won’t stay on a 1 7/8” coupler for long. Don’t forget to criss-cross and fasten the safety chain.


v     Keep up with maintenance on the trailer’s bearings. Stop frequently to make sure the hubs are not overheating. Don’t over-grease hubs since grease can ooze out and migrate to the brakes.


v     The proper tires, frequently inspected for cracking and properly inflated, will prevent the most common of all trailering breakdowns - flat tires. Remember, slower speeds generate less heat and extend tire life. Remove or cover tires when not in use. Corrosion is the biggest killer of trailers. Inspect the axles, springs and connecting hardware frequently. Wash down the trailer anytime it’s been dunked in seawater.


v     Check trailer lighting before every trip. While conventional lights are prone to failure, the newer LED trailer lights are shockproof and waterproof and will likely outlast your trailer.


v     Tie-downs are a must for all boats, even for heavy ones that you think can’t get away -- because they do.


v     Ensure the proper operation of brakes, if equipped. Surge brakes must be adjusted periodically. You’ll have to jack the wheel off the ground and then use a tire tool to first tighten the adjustment cog all the way until the wheel won’t turn and then back it off a few turns until the wheel again turns freely. If you do the job yourself, follow manufacturers’ recommendations.


v     Make sure the breakaway cable is functioning.


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