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Must-do trailer maintenance when times are tough (and even when they’re not)

Jason Morgan is the content director of Fleet Equipment. He has more than 15 years of B2B journalism experience covering the likes of trucking and construction equipment, real estate, movies and craft beer industries.

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Given the latest industry trailer order numbers (April was the lowest order month since 1990), it’s clear that many fleets are making do with the trailers they have, at least until there’s some certainty in our pandemic-impacted world. To ensure your trailers roll productively and safely, you’ll need eagle-eyed focus on maintenance. So we picked the brains of the pros to bring you the must-do trailer maintenance tips and best practices for managing your trailer service process.

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This will put your trailer out of service

Brake systems are the top offender, according to Tony Neven, aftermarket field support manager for Great Dane, making up 28.4% of out-of-service instances. Second is tires and wheel issues at 19.1% and brake adjustment at 16.3%. While those are what will put your truck out of service, what will cause your truck to be pulled over is most likely related to the electrical system.

“Lights tend to fail more often than other trailer components and can cause trailers to go out of service,” said Cory Bogler, customer care manager for Hyundai Translead. “Fortunately, lights are relatively inexpensive and are simple to repair. Other common electrical issues are harness failures (shorts), seven-way connectors and permalogic boxes.”

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Follow the out-of-service causal chain up and you’ll likely find that trailer lights failed because of the poor preventative maintenance check.

Trailer Maintenance IPA

“Technicians often miss issues because they have the improper methodology and improper testing equipment designed to catch common lighting, ABS and brake issues,” said Ian Vinci, president, Innovative Products of America (IPA). “Something as simple as a light being out can lead to a trailer being pulled over and result in additional issues being discovered. As such, many fleets consider properly working lights as the most important function of the trailer to avoid citations.”

A few other out-of-service causes that Bogler mentioned were wheel end issues and air system complications.

“Typical wheel end issues include leaking wheel seals, leaking hubcaps, lack of lubrication and worn tires. If any of these problems are not swiftly identified, it can lead to costly and dangerous failures, such as a burned-up axle or wheel-off situation,” Bogler explained. “Air system malfunction, on the other hand, can be caused by failed or sticking valves, chaffed airlines, small air leaks, tire inflation failures, improper tire size and air pressures.”

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Here’s what to do to avoid out-of-service instances

Vinci noted it earlier, and stressed it again: “The term ‘preventative maintenance’ means that you do little things to prevent very big, dangerous and costly things from happening. Even with technician shortages or adjusted hours due to an emergency, it’s imperative for fleets to maintain consistent PMs. Preventative maintenance schedules should never be extended.”

“The last thing you want to do is put your driver or others on the road in danger,” Hyundai Translead’s Bogler added. “Maintenance is crucial to the trailer’s safety. Air systems, electrical and wheel end maintenance should be routinely conducted; most of these items can be identified during pre-trip inspections.”

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The inspection is the optimal service starting point.

“When the trailer first comes into the shop, have the technician do a thorough inspection,” Great Dane’s Neven said. “This will allow for any unforeseen damages or necessary maintenance to be addressed when the repair is started. If the tech does the inspection at the end of his repair, it could slow the return of that trailer to service as you may now need to wait on parts.”

While that advice is all well and good and should be followed, the reality is that the guidelines aren’t always adhered to in what used to be our normal world. In a business-threatening pandemic world, it’s easier to avoid maintenance costs, but imperative that you shouldn’t.

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“Some fleets are doing temporary repairs to accident-damaged bottom and top rails,” Neven said, citing an example of a “fix it later” repair. “However, the rails are a very important part of the structure of the trailer and if not repaired properly, the trailer could fail under load. In addition, some fleets are putting off necessary brake relines. This will accelerate brake drum wear and possibly cause an out-of-service situation or, worse, an accident.”

Making maintenance ends meet with limited resources

Social distancing is here. That potentially means staggered shifts in your shops or reduced hours at your go-to service location. So, how do you ensure you’re stepping up your trailer maintenance game in the toughest of times?

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“I recommend developing a game plan that focuses on essential maintenance to keep the trailer on the road and safe for drivers and other passengers,” Bogler said. “Instead of performing cosmetic repairs, such as replacing decals, touching up paint or refurbishing, make notes on each trailer outlining what needs to be addressed at a later date. These items will then be easily identified during the next inspection.”

IPA’s Vinci recommended a few daily inspection checkpoints to stay on top of small service issues that could grow to large out-of-service problems. “For example, checking lights, cleaning your trailer plug connector, checking air brake travel application and timing, performing leak down tests, and resolving any ABS faults should be done. A good remote-controlled diagnostic tester can be utilized for a very quick light and brake test. And specially-designed cleaning tools are also available for this application.”

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A diagnostic tester can be key to ensuring safe and correct trailer maintenance practices. “A good diagnostic tester prevents guesswork and allows technicians to identify problems that otherwise go unnoticed,” Vinci said, pointing to IPA’s Alpha mobile universal trailer tester (MUTT). The tablet allows technicians to read and clear codes on the spot and allow technicians easy access to systems like air brake application timing.

“Without remote control over the air brakes, technicians typically apply the brakes from the front of the trailer,” he said. “Doing so prevents them from one of the most critical steps, which is to watch the brakes as they apply to observe overall proper function. With a remote, a technician can adjust the brakes and apply pressure without having to go back and forth to the front of the trailer. There are many scenarios like these simple examples.”

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IPA noted that in addition to full ABS coverage, their Alpha MUTT series 5700A and the new 9109 Tractor Side Tester provide complete wireless diagnostics on all areas of trailer inspections and even an integrated and customizable PM inspection software which can be used to create and implement different levels of PM inspections.

Lite-Check also offers trailer testing equipment. Its Inspector 920 trailer tester is an all-in-one trailer diagnostic system which simplifies ABS, brakes, air, lights and electrical testing, and it’s preinstalled with all post-2001 power line communication (PLC) ABS codes from Meritor-Wabco, Haldex and Bendix, as well the latest roll stability codes. After automatically identifying ABS ECU manufacturer and any issues, the Inspector 920 tester displays all pertinent information to the technician for diagnostics and repairs.

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Additionally, Lite-Check’s Model 137 Truck Tester is designed to test and diagnose safety concerns between the truck and trailer relating to TMC recommended practices (RPs) 137C, RP 141, RP 144, and RP 619B. With the Model 137 Truck Tester, technicians can now verify that the voltage generated by the truck meets TMC RP 137C. Similarly, trailer testing can be accomplished by verifying the voltage recommendation for additional trailer hook-ups per TMC RP 141. The ability to test how the ABS cab light responds to a trailer’s ABS ECU is also incorporated into the Model 137 Truck Tester.

The latest technology can also play a role in boosting maintenance practices. Vinci touted the importance of moving to paperless digital inspections. “Alpha MUTT allows a technician to follow and complete an inspection, take images of any issues or repairs, record notes, and save a file without ever having to touch a piece of paper,” he said, noting that the inspection software is a free option with the aforementioned tester.
From an overall trailer management view, the latest in trailer telematics can also provide deeper visibility.

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“In a recent TMC benchmark study, it was shown that the average cost of an unscheduled mechanical repair has exceeded $500 for the first time since the inception of the benchmarking program,” Great Dane’s Neven said. “The new trailer telematics systems, like Great Dane’s FleetPulse, are a good way to reduce maintenance costs by being able to be proactive on repairs.”
In addition to having the right tools, you also need to understand and conform to all OEM recommended practices and maintenance intervals. There’s no one-size-fits-all fix.

“All trailers are comprised of different components with different recommended practices. Make sure you know your equipment and implement a maintenance plan based on that. No shortcuts!” Bogler stressed. “With every shortcut you take, you face more expensive maintenance and longer downtime in the future. Trailer maintenance can be cheap and cost-effective if you stick to regular maintenance intervals and driver diligence during pre-trip inspections.”

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