Truck Air Suspensions: What You Need to Know Before You Buy

If you’re a serious trailer enthusiast, you probably already know the reasons why you should add a truck air suspension system to your heavy-duty truck: A quality truck air suspension system helps cushion a bumpy ride, level your vehicle, reducing wheel hop, limiting trailer bucking and adding stability during braking. And, an air suspension system helps protect your investment in your heavy-duty truck by preventing the heavy wear and tear caused by a heavy trailer.

But before making the decision to purchase a product that can have such a significant impact on your truck, trailer, and cargo, there are a number of factors to consider, including load capacity, build quality, ease installation, adjustments to your vehicle, warranty and much more.

Here are some tips for serious buyers looking for optimal performance and value in a truck air suspension system.

All truck air suspensions are NOT created equal

When 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 understood as an additional auxiliary spring that helps level the truck and reduces bouncing, yaw, or bumping of the vehicle when carrying a heavy load or towing. The air springs can be adjusted, often with an air hose from the gas station, to the loading condition of the truck for greater control and leveling support.

Cons: Auxiliary springs are bolted directly to your truck’s factory leaf springs. Unfortunately, factory leaf springs skew and spin when accelerating and braking. This “rope” axle not only causes the truck to drop when you accelerate, it also causes the truck to lean forward when you apply the brakes, throwing nearly the entire weight of the truck and trailer onto the front suspension and brakes. Auxiliary springs also tend to distort the natural spring frequency of leaf springs, actually making the ride worse in certain situations. This type of air suspension system is best suited for ride leveling and light or occasional towing.

Advantages: the initial cost is less expensive. (Note that additional equipment may be required over time, offsetting the cost.)

o Complete trailer suspension system. This type of system is designed to both level the truck and improve overall ride. Installation of these kits involves removing the steel leaf spring from the truck and replacing it with a brand new air spring. Some manufacturers also replace the front and rear shocks for optimal performance.

Disadvantages: More expensive. (Note: If you buy a quality kit that comes complete with all the bells and whistles for long-term performance, you may be worth the initial expense)

Advantages: The truck’s steel leaf spring is removed and replaced with a new spring, allowing for greater handling and control, stability and safety, even when hauling the heaviest loads. Sometimes the manufacturer will install front and rear shock absorbers to match the suspension frequency.

Compare important features and options

As with any product, each truck air suspension system claims to have the “latest and best” features and benefits. It’s easy to get caught up in all the hype, but when you get to the bottom of it, there are some things that are more important than others. Here is a list of the top features and options to consider when comparing purchases.

o Quality of materials. Does the manufacturer use high-quality, premium parts that will withstand years of heavy hauling? Avoid plastic accessories and inferior materials that can wear out or need to be replaced. Quality materials translate to increased reliability and longer life for your air suspension system, even in the harshest of towing conditions.

o Ease of use. Is the system easy to use? Can you easily adjust your suspension level? Are there controls in the cabin to help you determine air pressure and load information? An air suspension system that is difficult to level and adjust will cause you increased stress and unpredictability.

or set. The articulation, which is the up and down tilt of the shaft, is a critical feature to consider. If you have an accident and your trailer ends up in a hole, you want the axle to have maximum up and down movement. Most systems have a heavy link between the front spring and the axle, preventing proper articulation.

o Towing capacity. Look up the air suspension system’s towing capacity and make sure it can adequately handle the load you plan to tow. When it comes to towing capacity, the larger 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 in a fully loaded condition, including food, water, equipment, etc.

o Installation options. How is the system installed? Is it necessary to modify the frame of your truck to install the system? Is it necessary to drill holes? Can the system be removed if necessary? Before you buy, make sure the installation is not a problem for you or your truck. Find out if you can install the system yourself or if you will require assistance from the manufacturer. If assistance is required, does the manufacturer provide you with a manual or access to a dealer or installation specialist?

o Guarantee and risk guarantee. Does your system offer a warranty that won’t expire before you’ve had time to really test your system for the long term? Does the manufacturer endorse the product? Does the manufacturer offer a risk-free guarantee if you are not satisfied with the system?

buyer beware

Buyers should be especially wary of claims made by many auxiliary spring manufacturers that their systems are designed for heavy loads. Despite the claims, the fact remains that these auxiliary springs are bolted directly to the factory leaf springs, which are NOT made for heavy duty trailers. With this type of system, you run the risk of twisting the leaf springs when accelerating and braking hard. In turn, this “wind-up” axle can cause the truck to drop when accelerating, as well as launch the truck forward when you apply the brakes, throwing nearly the entire weight of the truck and trailer onto the front suspension and brakes. If you simply want to level out your ride, the auxiliary spring is a good choice, but if you really want to tow heavy loads, you should consider a total performance trailer 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 primary consideration should be overall driving performance, safety, and stability during heavy towing. If you really want to tow, you want to make sure you buy an air suspension system that can do more than level the vehicle; must be suitable for heavy towing. Like many things in the automotive industry, using an inexpensive aftermarket part often produces less than optimal results.

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