This Buyers Guide is about “construction trailers,” a rather loose term encompassing a variety of pull-behind carriers. While the term can refer to flatbed transporters of heavy equipment and enclosed box trailers for carting hand tools or portable power units, it also applies to more specialty products such as belly-dump aggregate haulers and pull-behind temporary jobsite office units. This guide focuses on the most common application of “trailers:” flatbed haulers and enclosed tool carriers.
Trailers are specialized pieces of equipment. They have evolved from simple four-wheel wagons that were pulled with a tongue by horse or machine. Eventually, the tongue and front axle were sacrificed and the front of the trailing unit affixed directly to a pivot at the rear of the pulling unit. Hitches have evolved, too, moving from a primitive pinning mechanism to a ball coupler to 5th-wheel and gooseneck connectors.
For a trailer buyer to choose the most appropriate product from a full line-up of manufacturers, knowing how he will employ a trailer is paramount. What connecting mechanism will join the trailer and power unit? How heavy a load will the trailer be expected to carry? Will a load be driven onto the trailer, lifted onto it, or hand-loaded?
Buyers of trailers range across classes of customers, from weekend property DIY landscapers to mom-and-pop contractors to fleet owners moving heavy equipment and worksite containers. To best choose a trailer for a particular application, hereafter are some things to consider:
1) What will be the maximum load required of the trailer?
The strength of a trailer is in its frame. Light-weight trailers for moving small tools often are built of angle iron or channel iron. While these are strong components, they do not match the strength of box tubing and I-beams, which resist distortion — and heavy loads require maximum rigidity. Some trailers are constructed of aluminum for lightness and rust-resistance, but if strength is a paramount concern, steel is the better choice. Knowing the load capacity of tires, axles and suspension system (if any) is important. Don’t get a trailer that is handsome but too weakly built to do the job.
2) What features will you require for efficient use?
A light-weight flatbed trailer most often is loaded by hand. If it is to carry a small machine, it must have a way to load the machine — with fold-up or removable ramps. Larger trailers for heavy equipment-hauling sometimes offer tippable decks that become ramps or hydraulic mechanisms that lower a deck to ground level. Your choice. Some enclosed container trailers have side-entry doors or swing-up sides for easier access. If you will be hauling dirt or rock, you should consider an end-dump sided trailer. Shop for the configuration that will best fit your particular project needs.
3) Consider buying a trailer at auction.
Trailers are basic pieces of equipment, even those with some hydraulic functions. They have fewer moving parts than do powered pieces of equipment and generally have a long working life. This means many used trailers are available on dealer lots and at auction houses. A trailer on the sales block can be thoroughly inspected before a local auction day and maintenance records often are available for trailers sold on internet auctions. An auction can be a good place to buy a trailer if you know beforehand the features you require in a trailer and take time to evaluate its condition.
Sometimes a task requires infrequent use of a trailer or begs for a trailer of a particular size. In that circumstance, buying one is not as good an idea as renting or leasing the piece of equipment. A word of advice: Go to the rental store knowing precisely what you need:
1) Know the dimensions of your task.
Trailer-buyers don’t have to worry about horsepower under a hood. They do need to know other numbers. How heavy a machine can the rented trailer handle? How much trailer can the intended power unit pull? Can you shovel the amount of dirt to be loaded, or is the volume sufficient to justify an end-dump trailer solution? Can you fit all your tools into the enclosed trailer? Know your needs.
2) Be aware of a leasing company’s record of service.
Rental houses and OEM dealerships want to please. The good ones won’t try to rent a trailer that won’t fulfill a customer’s needs. Still…. how well do you know store management? Do they stand behind their equipment? What is the service reputation of this dealer versus another? Do they check wheel bearings and keep wires and hoses in good repair? Will they show up promptly after a breakdown? Rates aren’t everything.
Trailers can be tricky to examine. Have some idea of where wear-and-tear can show up on a trailer. Be able to recognize telltale signs of misuse. Suggestions:
1) Frame and ramp
Is the frame strong enough to support your intended load? Under-strength spine and rib work under the deck will literally let you down. Does the framework have cracks or do welds indicate that it has been beefed up after stress failure? If it has ramps, do they fit properly and easily fold or remove? Are they twisted? Do ramps show evidence of being repaired — possibly after handling machinery heavier than the trailer is rated to carry?
2) Tires and suspension
Are the tires the correct size for the trailer’s load limit? Do they show signs of uneven wear? If so, the axle may be misaligned with the trailer frame. Are the leaf springs intact or cracked? If the latter, the trailer may have been overloaded or subjected to severe road conditions. Where rubber inserts are a part of the suspension, inspect them for resiliency. A lot will be riding on these undercarriage elements, so satisfy yourself of their condition.
3) Brakes and bearings
Braking mechanisms are crucial on heavy trailers because if they malfunction, the trailer and its load become dead weight at stopping. Inspect brake components for wear and overall integrity. Check wheel bearing housings for leakage and indications of being worn out. If there are grease fittings, check them for usage. If possible, always ask to pull a trailer for a ways so that the wheel and brake parts can be properly tested under stress.
4) Deck and doors
Open and enclosed trailers each must have floors strong enough to withstand anticipated loads, a few hundred pounds in the case of a cargo trailer, many tons for a flatbed deck. Evaluate the condition of the flooring. Replacing hardwood timber decking is expensive. On enclosed trailers, do the doors swing freely and close snugly? Are swing-up side doors wobbly or otherwise showing cause for concern about the hinges?
5) Electrical integrity
Signal, stop and night lights should be in full working order when attached to the pulling unit. If they aren’t, it could be simply a matter of replacing bulbs. However, it also could mean a wire has worn through its covering skin and is shorting out on the metal frame. Or there could be a broken wire, which can be difficult to find. Lines — as well as brake and hydraulic hoses — are mostly unseen, but they are critical to the safe operation of a trailer.
Lightweight flat or enclosed trailers are not a dime a dozen, but they generally are affordable. On the other hand, heavy trailers with various hydraulic functions, multiple axles and extreme tolerance for heavy loads carry bigger price tags. Here are some examples:
Manufacturers of trailers offer a broad selection of sizes and prices. Hereafter are general categories of pricing:
Second-hand trailers in good condition are readily available in the marketplace. Hereafter are some examples of pricing:
Some Financing Options
Long-term leasing and purchasing mechanisms are periodically reformulated by the capital industry, including dealers. The offers come and go. Example: In October, a Tennessee rental agency offered a 2016 53-ft. dropdeck trailer for $850 a month for 36-months — but it could be returned after 12 months with no penalty.
1) Aluminum or steel?
Aluminum-framed trailers are, of course, lighter, which is a real advantage. It puts less strain on the pulling unit and that means lower fuel consumption. Less weight also means less stress on brake systems and the undercarriage. And aluminum is rust-resistant. On the other hand, steel-framed trailers generally are stronger, more rigid and tighter welded. In short, steel trailers can carry heavier loads. The price point is higher on aluminum trailers, but that can be offset by a longer lifetime. Decisions, decisions.
Enclosed trailers have ramps for machinery loading and convenient doors for hand-loading. Open trailers offer more complex loading and unloading solutions. Simple ramp extensions are a basic option and sufficient in most cases, but some flatbeds are hydraulically converted into ramps. Some have moving axles that let a deck drop to accept a machine. Others have rear sections that transform into ramps. Still others have decks that lower to ground level. What system will your equipment require?
Three types of hitches are employed with construction trailers. The ball-mount hitch is a popular one. A Class 5 hitch with a 2.5-inch ball can safely attach a truck to a trailer weighing up to 25,000 lbs. Gooseneck hitches also are attached using a ball, but it is mounted in the truck bed. Besides distributing the weight more evenly across the axles of a truck, the high-neck configuration lets the truck-trailer unit make sharper turns. Fifth-wheel hitches employ an inboard plate that swivels on a king pin to join truck and trailer.
4) Axles and tongue
Trailers ride on single axles when the load is light and the road is smooth. As the load rises, however, so does the number of axles. Extremely heavy loads sometimes move on a dozen or more axles. Also consider axle placement — a poorly positioned axle puts undue pressure on a hitch. Most axles are fixed whereas a “traveling axle” moves hydraulically to lower a bed for loading. Become axle savvy. Also consider a trailer tongue’s length. If a tongue is inordinately short, it can impede turning.
1) Bri-Mar — Twenty-four years ago, Bri-Mar Manufacturing began in Chambersburg, Penn. It manufactures a variety of trailers including dumpers, the largest a triple-axle, 16-ft., 6.6-cu.-yd. model. Its 24-ft. equipment trailer has a gross weight rating of 10.5 tons.
2) Eager Beaver — This U.S. manufacturer builds ramp-load trailers, lowboys and special “paver” and “oilfield” lowboy models with either fixed or detachable goosenecks. Its largest is a three-axle 65-ton trailer set up for the close coupling of a fourth and fifth axle.
3) East Manufacturing — This Ohio manufacturer dates to 1968 and specializes in high-tensile-strength aluminum trailers. Its models include flatbeds up to 53 ft. long suitable for multiple-axle configurations, as well as heavy-duty drop-deck and end-dump models.
4) Featherlite — In 1973, this Iowa manufacturer built the first all-aluminum gooseneck trailer. It continues to build with aluminum. Today, Featherlite offers four cargo utility trailers up to 28 feet long and seven flatbeds, the longest a gooseneck 36 ft. in length.
5) Felling — This Minnesota firm began fabricating trailers in 1974 and today markets drop-deck, tilt-deck, hydraulic end-dump and construction semi-trailers with capacities as high as 60 tons. Each comes with a lifetime limited structural warranty.
6) Fontaine — Founded in Alabama in 1940, the company manufactures steel, aluminum and steel and aluminum flatbed and drop-deck trailers as well as extendable and lowboy trailers for heavy equipment transport. It builds 12 55-ton detachable gooseneck models.
7) Interstate — This Texas manufacturer offers tag-along, tiltbed, gooseneck and lowboy trailers. Among its products is a 25-ton, three-axle, 37-ft.-long tiltbed and a 35-ton lowboy with a 24-ft. deck. Its biggest drawbar trailer measures 16 ft. and can carry nine tons.
8) Kaufman — Thirty-two years ago, Robb Kaufman started building trailers in North Carolina. The company today turns out gooseneck tilt trailers up to 24 ft. long and detachable gooseneck lowboy haulers capable of hauling loads up to 55 tons.
9) Landoll — This Kansas firm built its first trailer in 1959. It introduced the patented traveling axle, which turns a deck into a ramp, and also has traveling tail models for loading ease. Other products include bottom-dump haulers.
10) Leonard — This North Carolina manufacturing company’s construction trailers range from 16-ft. dual-axle low-sided flatbeds for landscapers to 20-ft. heavy equipment haulers. Its 14-ft. dual-axle end-dump models boast 10-gauge metal floors.
11) Rogers Bros. — Begun in Pennsylvania in 1905, this firm manufactures standard and custom trailers. Among its construction models are goosenecks up to 35 tons in capacity, Ultima and “Cobraneck” 100-ton trailers and modular trailers with eight axles.
12) Towmaster — This Minnesota firm dates to the early 1970s and has a full lineup of more than 30 models, from tag-alongs to 24-ft., 50-ton-capacity detachable gooseneck trailers. Other designs include hydraulic dump, tilt, dropdeck and hydraulic tail models.
13) Trail King — The South Dakota company dates to 1974 and has exclusively built trailers since 1980. It manufactures top-selling hydraulic detachable gooseneck trailers with 55-ton capacity and a lowboy “paver special” specifically designed for asphalt equipment.
14) U.S. Cargo — The Indiana company got started in 1994. Among its products are enclosed single-axle and dual-axle trailers for contractors. Models range from 5 ft. to 8 ½ ft. wide and up to 26 feet long. Interior heights in some models reach 78 in.
15) Witzco — This Florida manufacturer (founded in Pennsylvania in 1938) offers a full line-up including non-ground-bearing gooseneck trailers with variable height decks, drop decks, flatbeds and tag-alongs. The largest triple-axles units can carry 60 tons.
By definition, trailers are not primary pieces of equipment. They trail trucks and other motorized machinery in the hierarchy of construction of equipment. But they are essential parts of any contractor’s equipment yard. Without them, other equipment and tools cannot reach a job site. Getting the right trailer is important because getting the wrong one is easy to do. A good-looking trailer can be alluring but if it lacks strength and functional components for efficient loading and safe travel, it will end up being unused. Buy or rent a trailer that will meet your needs.