Monday, January 14, 2008

How to Level a Trailer

Experience is that which you gain immediately after you actually needed it.
My bride and I live in a 34' Avion travel trailer, our "aluminum twinkee." Living in a travel trailer has its pros and cons. On the plus side, you can often live in some incredibly beautiful areas, you can move when you need to - and you've got everything with you. On the down side, well, you've got everything with you - and you have to schlep it all with you.

Most times, when you pull into an RV park they'll show you a nice level spot. If you're paying the daily rate or if you're camping in the off-season you usually get the nice spots. Sometimes they're perfectly level with a bit of asphalt or concrete to park on. Most times they're mostly level and two by under the low side will level you out just fine. You just back in, or (preferably) drive through, check your level side to side, and pull the trailer onto a couple of 2x6's if needed. Power, water, sewer, cable TV, and you're all set.

But we needed a space, the season had just started and long-term spaces were not to be had. We drove around checking out every park. Finally we found a park with a space. It was narrow, but oh so lovely. It had a deck! We'd never had a deck before. I paced it off and looked it over. It wasn't quite level, but that had never bothered me before. Surely they wouldn't try to squeeze us into an impossible situation, would they?

The manager had suggested that I might want to hire somebody to back it in for me, but I've been full-timing for three years and I've backed into lots of spaces. I might should have taken the clue. When I tried to back in the slope was so steep that a couple of times I heard my tires spin on the gravel. It was that steep.

It took quite a while to get the trailer backed all of the way in, close enough to the deck so that you could step into the trailer, but far enough away not to damage the trailer.

I dropped the trailer and drove the truck out of the way. It still hadn't hit me just how steep this space was. I tried to raise the tongue with the jack and it went a little way, but really whined. The physics are a bit obscure, but when the tongue is low, the jack has to work a lot harder to lift the trailer. As I looked over the situation, I realized that I needed to raise the trailer tongue three feet into the air! I did the math, you know, rise (three feet) over run (34 feet, the length of the trailer) and the space was a 10% grade. I guess that's why they needed that nice deck - so people could get into and out of their airborne trailers.

One of the park employees helped me level the trailer with wooden blocks for the night. Since most of what we had was scrap lumber (chuck), we would put his little 2 ton bottle jack on one stack of chuck, jack up the trailer a bit, stick as much chuck as we could in a second stack under the trailer, and then lower the trailer onto the second stack. We did this under the tongue, under the front stabilizers, and even under a couple of the wheels. It was a lot of work and it wasn't stable. I wasn't proud and I wasn't happy, but I sure didn't want to take the trailer back out of the only space we could find in the area.

Sunday morning we bought fourteen cinder blocks and a 20 ton bottle jack. The guy from the park had been using a 2 ton jack and it sort of worked, but my trailer weighs 9550 lbs. and it was just barely adequate, so I bought the biggest jack I was willing to afford. By God's grace the 20 ton jack was on sale that day and happened to be the cheapest bottle jack of any size I could find.

I pulled out the breakaway pin to set the emergency breaks on the trailer wheels and blocked the wheels with piles of chuck and cinder block to make sure the trailer wouldn't roll when I jacked it up. I set up a stack of cinder blocks under the tongue as close to the trailer jack as I could, topped it off with a broad piece of 2x6 and set the 20 ton bottle jack on top so that it would be lifting the trailer by the frame as far forward as I could. I started to lift the trailer with the bottle jack very slowly and gently to make sure that it was strong enough to use as a lifting point, as well as make sure the wheels weren't going any where. The trailer was still resting on the front stabilizers, as well, but I didn't want to take any chances.

My bride is so good to me. "Have you planned which way you're going to escape if that thing falls?" she asked from a safe distance. (I hadn't, actually, and it was a good question. I told you she was good to me.) The site was not only sloped from back to front, but from left to right, as well. If the trailer were to shift, it would roll downhill, away from the big wooden deck, so I positioned myself on the up-hill side of the tongue when jacking it up.

I lifted it up just high enough to be able to pull the chuck out from under the electric jack and quickly built a cinder block tower in its place. I didn't want the bottle jack holding up the weight of the trailer any longer than necessary. I put down two 8"x8"x16" blocks side by side one way and two blocks side by side rotated 90 degrees on top of them, making sure that the center support in each block was exactly under the sides of the blocks on top of them. The strength of a cinder block is in the vertical supports, not in the open spaces! Then I added two more blocks 90 degrees off, and finally a big piece of 2x12 on top. As you can see, I cheaped out and used an existing block instead of buying another block the same size as the others. This made the setup much weaker and I had to jack the trailer up again to fix it. If I were going to do it again, I would have acquired some 2x8x16 boards to put between the second and third layers and then again on top of the third layer of cinder blocks. Cinder blocks are brittle, but wood isn't and the combination is much more solid. You'll see that if you look at the cinder blocks holding up a mobile home.

Finally, I lowered the electric jack back down onto my new cinder block tower and checked the level on the side of the trailer and used the electric jack to get it level from front to back. With a firm foundation under the tongue, I lifted one front stabilizer at a time and replaced the chuck with a stack of single cinder blocks topped with some 2x8. That made it very solid. In fact, it's about the most solid installation I've ever had with my trailer.

Now that the trailer was level from front to back, I worked to make it more level from side to side. The downhill side was too low, so I crawled underneath and jacked up the two front axles (our trailer has three axles) and put some spare pavers (2x8x16 bits of cinder block, basically) they had in the park under the wheels. The ground was soft and I didn't have enough room for the bottle jack under the trailer, so I dug a little hole, put a small 2x4x4 in the bottom, and set the bottle jack on top of the board, directly under the axel. I lifted the axel, one side at a time, lifted the tire completely off of the ground, slipped in a couple of pavers, and let it down. In this way I was able to build up the downhill side and level the trailer from side to side.

Lastly, I blocked the wheels again and replaced the breakaway pin to release the emergency brakes. The brakes are battery powered, so you don't want to use them for parking brakes.

So, that was all there was too it. Now let's just hope that I don't need to know how to do that again...