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Truck Air Suspensions: What You Need To Know Before You Buy
If you’re a serious towing enthusiast, you probably already know the reasons why you should add a truck air ride suspension system to your heavy-duty truck: a quality truck air suspension system helps by cushioning a bumpy ride, leveling your vehicle, reducing wheel hopping, limiting trailer bucking and adding stability during braking. And, an air ride suspension system helps you protect your investment in your heavy-duty truck by preventing the harsh wear and tear caused by heavy towing.
But, before you make a decision to buy a product that can have such a significant impact on your truck, your trailer and your load, there are several factors to take into consideration, including load capacity, manufacturing quality, ease of installation, adjustments to your vehicle, warranty, and much more.
Here are a few tips for serious shoppers who are looking for optimum performance and value in a truck air suspension system.
All Truck Air Suspensions are NOT Created Equal
As you start shopping around, keep in mind that there are two main types of air suspension systems on the market:
o Adjustable “helper” springs. This type of system is generally comprised of an add-on helper spring that aids in leveling the truck and reducing vehicle bounce, dip, or bottoming out when hauling a heavy load or towing. The air springs can be adjusted, often with a service station air hose, to the truck’s load condition for more control and leveling support.
Disadvantages: The helper springs are bolted directly onto your truck’s factory leaf springs. Unfortunately, factory leaf springs deflect and twist under acceleration and braking. This axle “wind-up” not only makes the truck drop when you accelerate, but it also makes the truck dive forward when you apply the brakes, throwing nearly all the weight of the truck and trailer onto the front suspension and brakes. Helper springs also tend to distort the natural spring frequency of the leaf springs, actually making the ride worse in certain situations. This type of air suspension system is best suited for leveling the ride and light or occasional towing.
Advantages: initial cost is less expensive. (Note that additional equipment may be necessary over time, offsetting the cost).
o Complete towing suspension system. This type of system is designed to both level the truck and improve the overall ride. Installing these kits involves removing the steel leaf spring on the truck and replacing it with an entirely new air spring. Some manufacturers also replace front and rear shocks for optimum performance.
Disadvantages: More expensive. (Note: if you purchase a quality kit that comes complete with all the bells and whistles for long-term performance, it may offset the initial expense)
Advantages: Truck’s steel leaf spring is removed and replaced with a new spring, which allows for greater handling and control, stability, and safety, even when hauling the heaviest loads. Sometimes the manufacturer will install front and rear shocks to match the frequency of suspension.
Compare Important Features and Options
As with any product, each truck air suspension system claims to have the “latest and greatest” features and benefits. It’s easy to get caught up in all the hype, but when you come right down to it, there are a few things that are more important than others. Here’s a list of major features and options to consider when comparison shopping.
o Quality of materials. Does the manufacturer use high quality premium parts that will hold up over years of heavy hauling? Avoid plastic fittings and lower grade materials that may wear out or need to be replaced. Quality materials translate to greater reliability and a longer life for your air ride suspensions system, even under the harshest towing conditions.
o Ease of use. Is the system easy to use? Can you easily adjust your suspension level? Are there in-cabin controls to help you determine air pressure and load information? An air suspension system that’s difficult to level and adjust will cause you added stress and unpredictability.
o Articulation. Articulation, which is the up and down tilt of the axle, is a critical feature to consider. If you should have an accident and your trailer winds up in a hole, you want the axle to have maximum up and down movement. Most systems have heavy linkage between the front spring and the axle, which prevents adequate articulation.
o Towing capacity. Look for the towing capacity of the air suspension system and be sure it can adequately handle the load you plan to tow. When it comes to towing capacity, the bigger the air spring, the more weight it can handle. Keep in mind that your truck and trailer load should never exceed the gross combined weight rating (GCWR), which is the total weight of the trailer under fully loaded conditions, including food, water, gear, etc.
o Installation options. How is the system installed? Does your truck’s frame need to be altered to install the system? Do holes need to be drilled? Can the system be removed if necessary? Before you buy, be sure that installation won’t be a problem for your or your truck. Find out if you can install the system yourself or if it will require manufacturer assistance. If assistance is required, does the manufacturer provide you with a manual or access to a dealer or installation specialist?
o Warranty and risk guarantee. Does your system provide a warranty that won’t expire before you’ve had time to really test your system with a long haul? Does the manufacturer stand behind the product? Does the manufacturer offer a no-risk guarantee if you are not satisfied with the system?
Buyers need to especially beware of the claims made by many helper spring manufacturers that their systems are designed for heavy loads. In spite of the claims, the fact remains that these helper springs are bolted directly onto your factory leaf springs, which are NOT made for heavy towing. With this type of system, you run the risk of the leaf springs twisting under heavy acceleration and braking. In turn, this axle “wind-up” can make the truck drop when you accelerate, as well a throw the truck forward when you apply the brakes, throwing nearly all the weight of the truck and trailer onto your front suspension and brakes. If you merely want to level your ride, the helper spring makes a fine choice, but if you are serious about towing heavy loads, you need to consider a total performance towing suspension system.
Do a little research up front and you’ll avoid unnecessary wear and tear on your truck – and costly repairs down the road. Your main consideration should be overall ride performance, safety and stability during heavy towing. If you’re serious about towing, you need to be sure you are buying an air ride suspension system that can do more than level the ride; it needs to be suited for heavy towing. Like many things in the automotive industry, using an inexpensive aftermarket part often yields less than optimal results.
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