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1. - Introduction

2. - Trailer Strength

3. - Stability

4. - Versatility
 


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Page 4:  Options for Versatility
A look at Trailer Options for Greater Utility

 

Versatility is a broad and sometimes vague area to define.  In the context of a utility trailer, the necessary (or even desired) options that make the trailer versatile are so highly dependent on the intended use.  However, when you have a need, choosing the right options will certainly effect how much you like (and use) the trailer.

The areas below are intended as items to consider.  The desirability and usefulness will depend on individual preferences and the requirements for the trailer.

Size Considerations:
Trailer Size (and size related options) are the obvious first choices.  Most size aspects are fundamental parameters that are not usually variable.

Length:  How long should the trailer be?  Longer will hold more, but will be heavier (think slower, lower gas mileage), be harder to maneuver (turn corners, park, turn around), and probably cost more.  Consider carefully your need before making this decision.

Width:  Two big factors are First, legal restrictions; Second what vehicle will be towing the trailer.  Ideally, the trailer will be roughly the same width as the tow vehicle.  That will minimize compensation for turning corners, and your ability to see around it as you drive.  if the trailer is quite narrow compared to the tow vehicle, it can be hard to see when backing up.  This is not to say any of these are bad, just things to consider.

Frontal Area is also a size consideration.  How much larger (if any) is the trailer frontal area than the vehicle?  If the trailer is wider or taller, then it will impact aerodynamics -- thus reducing gas mileage and slowing you down.

There are several Capacity Options available.  Typical sizes are 1000#, 2000#, 3500#, 5200#, 6000# and multiples of these.  Choose a capacity that meets the requirement.  Bigger is not always better, because a 6000# capacity will have much stiffer springs, therefore a much harsher ride if it is lightly loaded.

Next are choices for the Number of Axles.  Do you choose a single axle?  Or double?  Or maybe even triple?  It all depends on the need.

Overall Trailer Size will also depend on the need.  (See your local restrictions on length, height and width if you are considering long, high or wide trailers.)

Suspension Type is sometimes overlooked as an option because leaf springs are so common.  Actually, the typical leaf springs on pivots are the most common, but slipper type leafs are also popular -- especially in high capacity and multi-axle trailers.  Rubber torsion suspensions also have a following -- especially for light duty trailers -- because of compactness.
Other types of suspensions seen once in a while are the coil spring (right) or the latitude mounted leaf spring (below) shown in these 2 pictures. Coil Spring Suspension
East-West Leaf Spring Trailer Suspension

Thoughts on Suspension:
Each suspension type has advantages and disadvantages.  When considering suspension, here are a few things to consider:

Single Axle Leaf Springs with dual eyes (one spring set per side)

  • Advantages:  These are the most common, and probably the most practical.  They minimize stress on the frame because they apply a simple vertical load at 4 distributed points on the frame.  They are easy to set-up so the axle position is correct.  They are attached with through bolts as simple constraints, and the back shackle is a simple, dynamically stable method of taking up spring deflection.
     
  • Disadvantages: include size, weight, and package constraints (they can take more room under the trailer and limit how low the bed can be set.

East-West Leaf Spring
Single Axle Leaf Spring Assembly
Photo from www.sturdybuiltonline.com

Multiple Axle Leaf Springs

  • Advantages:  Like above, but for multiple axles, these springs distribute a simple load fairly well to several points on the frame.  These can be made to share the trailer load reasonably well with a rocker link (usually included with an axle kit).
     
  • Disadvantages:  Like above, these take space and pose limitations on bed height.  Different variations exist, but typically for load sharing the rear axle is not as well constrained as the front, so these can be less stable than the simple single axle.  Finally, load sharing is not perfect, especially for bumps in the road, so the "real" trailer capacity is not the sum of the axle capacity -- it's a little less.
     

Slipper Style Leaf Springs

  • Advantages:  There are some packaging advantages, though not too much.  These are not used very often on single axles because they don't really have many advantages over the pivot style, but for multiple axles, they make mounting and load distribution a little easier -- particularly with 3 or more axles.  In multiple axle applications, especially for high capacity, these are very popular because they load share OK, and have stability advantages.
     
  • Disadvantages:  These systems can be noisy on rough roads because there is a loose spring end that can move.  They can also create a lot of wear on the metal parts that rub together, so some accommodation for that should be made.
     
  • In comparison to pivot style springs, for multiple axles multi-axle slipper style springs tend to be more stable by virtue of the way the springs are constrained, but they do not load share quite as well -- meaning the axles don't each carry the same amount of weight all the time (like over bumps and through dips).  Making a recommendation that one system is better than another is more a matter of preference and use.  Choose based on need and application.

East-West Leaf Spring
Triple Axle Leaf Slipper Style Spring Assembly
Drawing from jraautoquip.co.uk

Torsion Axles

  • Advantages:  These can be very compact and allow additional freedoms in designing the trailer - like low bed height - and the elastomer gives some natural damping to the "bumps" in the road.  They are also very nice because single sided units make for an independent suspension.  Torsion axles can be a good choice for light duty trailers -- BUT ONLY if the frame is designed for the added stresses.
     
  • Disadvantages:  While it is true that they make torsion axles for larger capacities, we do not recommend them for the following reasons:
     
    First, the loading applied by the torsion axle to the frame is more complex and localized on the frame.  This adds stress (a lot) over simple the leaf springs described above.  (Load is both linear and torsional, applied at the same point on the frame.)
     
    Second, Loading to the frame can be complex - especially when individual units are used so there are moments in 2 directions along with the vertical loads.
     
    Third, Torsion axles don't load share in multiple axle configurations.  This means as a trailer is pulled over a bump, the one axle takes far more of the load than the other -- which means one could overload while the other is hardly loaded.
     
    Finally, because the "spring" is an elastomer, it has a limited life.  Over time (years), the elastomer will gradually harden and crack.
     
  • When choosing a trailer with torsion suspension make sure the frame is well reinforced at the axle mounting location.
     

Other Suspension Types like the transverse leafs and coil springs (shown above) are not widely used because of their limitations.

  • Coil Springs can be the most compliant (soft) and can have the most travel, but they usually require more complex attachment (like trailing arms) and can be space inefficient under the trailer (vertically).
     
  • Transverse Leaf Springs are fairly uncommon as they require extra stabilization measures and the loading is to the center of the trailer.
     

Shock Absorbers.  I am frequently asked about shock absorbers on trailers.  Most trailers do not have them.  In general, if you wish to have a cushioned ride, shocks are great.  If a little bouncing is not a bother to the load, shocks are not necessary.

Note that shocks will not reduce the bouncing of a nearly empty trailer.  Shocks work between the axle and the frame and require motion (compression) to operate.  The bouncing of a nearly empty trailer is usually the tires (like bouncing a basketball).  To avoid bouncing, reduce tire pressure when the trailer is empty -- maybe as low as 15 psi or even 10 psi.
 

Recommendations:
The key is using the right suspension for the application.  This article cannot cover every possibility, so use the knowledge to choose a suspension that best fits the need.

A first choice is usually Single Axle Leaf springs.  Why Single Axle? 

  • Tires are pretty good these days so having extra wheels to compensate for a flat is not a good reason for multiple axles.
  • Single axle applications are less expensive.
  • Single axle trailers require less maintenance.
  • Single axle trailers are easier to maneuver.
  • Single axle trailers are more efficient to pull so fuel efficiency is better for the tow vehicle.
For Tandem Axle applications (two axles), if the load rating is 6000# or less, I usually recommend Pivot Style Leaf Springs for load sharing and ride.  For heavier capacities and for Multi-Axle applications (more than 2 axles) use the Slipper Style Leaf Springs for stability.

Use multiple axles when:

  • The loads are large -- too much for a standard single axles.
  • The trailer is quite long (with large loads) such that stresses are a factor in choosing multiple axles.  However, it is usually cheaper and easier to strengthen a long frame than to add axles, so load is really the controlling factor.
Choose Torsion Axles when the load is particularly light (less than 1000#), and/or when the ride needs to be particularly cushy.  If you use them, choose a full length axle rather than 2 short ends.  The stresses will be less and the wheels will align.  ...  Some say to use Torsion Axles for a low bed height, but I say, unless the load is light (< 1000 lbs.), sacrifice a bit on bed height in favor of a more robust suspension.

Note:  I know some will disagree, which is just fine.  There are lots of great trailers that don't fit these recommendations.  And that is just what these are:  Recommendations -- from my experience and engineering point of view.
 

 
Some functional options for Brakes (and whether they're needed or not) including types and methods of actuation (electric, hydraulic, applied or surge) are discussed in detail in the Stability section.

Breakaway brake activation can be another nice safety feature.  Basically these devises activate the trailer brakes if the breakaway connection comes disconnected.  These are used extensively in the rental market, and in more industrial and heavy applications because require additional setup, configuration, maintenance and cost.
Truck Bed to Trailer Conversion

Options for Wheels & Tires abound.  Trailer specific wheels and tires are available for most applications, however, automotive components offer some nice benefits.  From a functional standpoint, automotive tires offer a better ride and wider availability.  Then for aesthetics, automotive components offer a whole world of options.  Like with cars, wheels can make the look, so if you want to go in style, get the nice wheels.  Just be sure the specs (load, speed, size) match your intended use.

For more about tires, see the discussion on Page 2, - Trailer Strength.

A Spare Tire.  Do you need one?  If so, where should it be stored?  The picture at right shows a good idea as a place to keep the spare.  Not only is it out of the way, but it's convenient to check the tire pressure. Comment:  Though this image shows a good place to carry a spare, it's a good idea to keep the spare covered to avoid dry rot and other issues from exposure to the sun.
 

How important is a spare tire?
Perhaps a better question is ... How often are spare tires used?  The answers may be best attained with an assessment of the trailer use.  If the trailer is rarely used, or stored in the sun where dry-rot can be an issue, it might be really important to have a spare.  On the other hand, if you carefully inspect the trailer before use, keep the tires in good shape and have a good road-side assistance program, a spare may not be needed.

If it's possible in your circumstance, a nice idea for efficiency is to have the wheels and tires of the trailer match those of the tow vehicle.  That way, if there is a flat, the vehicle spare will accomplish the task for any of the wheels.

From a personal standpoint, in all the years I've pulled a trailer, I've only needed a spare once, and it was the same size as the tow vehicle.  I had 2 spares, and wondered why?


 
Adjustable Pintle Hitch
Adjustable Height Hitch

The Type of Hitch used to pull your load is certainly an option.  Normally it's a given with a particular trailer as to using a bumper type hitch or a goose neck or a 5th wheel -- though I have seen some interesting conversions.

In the realm of bumper type hitches (or those that mount at the rear of a vehicle, to include draw-bar styles), there are choices for Ball Hitches (of various sizes and loading capacities), Pintle Hitches, and some other weird stuff.  I recommend staying with the standard ball style for "typical" duty, and pintle styles for really heavy duty stuff.  Keeping to the standards makes changes much simpler down the road.

One other point worth noting is optional equipment to help stabilize a trailer with respect to the load.  Load-Distributing Hitches are a great thing for this.  Dampers between the trailer and tow vehicle are also available, but usually if one is needed, there are other more serious issues with stability that ought to be corrected first.  (See the Trailer Stability page for more information.)
Trailer Tongue Jack
Tongue Jack and Safety Chains

The option for a Tongue Jack also has options -- like whether it has a wheel or not and whether it telescopes or not.  From a functional standpoint, the size of a tongue jack wheel will determine how easily the trailer can be moved (off the hitch) on concrete, gravel and/or dirt (or muddy) surfaces.  For trailers to be stored on dirt surfaces, a larger tongue jack wheel may be desired.

Safety chains are required in most places and are a very good idea.  The chains (and chain attachment points on both the trailer and the tow vehicle) must be sized appropriately for the trailer.  Obviously a small, light duty trailer needs far less in safety chain than a Caterpillar hauling monster.
Utility Trailer Sides
Utility Trailer with Wood Slat Sides
Photo from trailermantrailers.net

Sides (or not) are an obvious optional variation.  They come in all different sizes and configurations.  Think about your intended use, then choose sides or not; then make the sides permanent or removable; and choose solid sides or perhaps slatted, tall or short.  There are lots of possibilities.
Extended Trailer Bed

For the creative, when remodeling a trailer, the bed and sides can be extended beyond the wheels as shown in the picture on the left.  Just be careful then in the loading and load distribution.

If you choose sides, you may also want a Trailer Top.  The top can be canvas, or hard; it may be permanent or removable.  A top may lift to gain access or it may be stationary.

One item of particular importance to consider with a top is the weather.  What will it carry?  Is water an issue?  Where and how will the trailer be stored?
Trailer Ramps

For some trailers, like utility trailers, a Tail Gate (or not) is an option to consider.  As pictured in some of the images here, there are all different types of tailgates -- and they can be made of various materials based on the requirements.  Some just hold stuff in.  Some fold down to become a rear ramp for access into the trailer.  Some are solid, some are open to allow wind to pass through. 

Ramps are a popular option.  Sometimes the ramp is really the tailgate that folds down (like in the wood slat sides image above), sometimes they are purpose built for motorcycles or ATV's, or perhaps a "store under" variety like on some of our trailers.  Let your needs dictate the type of ramp.

A good usability option that is often overlooked at the time of purchase is that of tie-down points.  Tie-down points are especially important with open utility trailers.  Sometimes the tie points are part of the frame, sometimes attached to the sides.  Sometimes they are rigid, sometimes they fold away.  Generally, for utility trailers, more tie-down points are better.  Examine tie points to be sure they are adequate, accessible and not in the way.  (I've wracked my knee many times against tie points welded in an exposed location.)

Tie-down Bars
Round bars on the trailer sides make great tie points all along.

Tie points should be located in convenient locations based on the intended loads, or (as in most of our designs) have adjustable positioning.  Dedicated tie points for specific loads (like motorcycles or ATV's) must be strong enough for the given application.

That brings up the next item -- Fenders.  There are all sorts of fenders available from stamped steel to plastic, fiberglass or wood.  They come square, round or as pasture fenders.  Mostly they do the same job, so looks and taste are the big reasons for consideration.  Strength may also be an issue if you are planning to use the trailer fender as a step, place to stand.  Also, your state or province may regulate the need for fenders.
Storage Bin on Tongue

Added Storage compartments like the tongue box in the picture can make a nice addition to a trailer.  As with this box, a nice weather tight (and/or secure) place to put tools, tie-downs and other items can be very useful.  Boxes such as this can also be added to the sides just in front or behind the wheels, or just under the bed.  It all depends on the specific application, and on your needs.

Aerodynamic Options are also worth mentioning here too, though they are discussed in detail on the Trailer Stability page.  There are many aerodynamic options and add-ons that can be used.  many enclosed trailers have pointed noses on the box, or very rounded sides and top.  These options can be worth a bunch to the trailer owner that travels a lot with a trailer.  These aerodynamic improvements are like (almost) free fuel, since they can decrease drag sufficient to increase fuel mileage of the tow vehicle.  1-5 mpg improvement is not out of the question (depending on lots of situational variables).

Finally, every trailer designer has some nifty options available with their trailers.  Some we have done are the movable (adjustable) axle, and the removable tongue.  The movable axle allows the trailer to be flexible to loading needs.  The removable tongue allows the trailer to be stored in a much tighter space.

 
Concluding Thoughts ...

Options for a given trailer are primarily a matter of taste and need - and perhaps a matter of what things can be accommodated in a particular design.  Several options for both safety and utility are listed here for reference and consideration.

 
Trailer plans, designed by us, with lots of options for versatility are available at MechanicalElements.com

Build your own, and make it personal!

 
ContinueFor Further Reading:  Choosing the Right Utility Trailer   -  An article specifically about choosing utility trailers.
 

 
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