When you’re towing, you might have noticed that, sometimes, your truck drops its backside, the steering feels lighter, and the headlights illuminate the trees instead of the road. This situation is due to the payload shifting to the back or towing something so heavy; it’s close to the truck’s limit.
If you’ve gone through this, you know that it’s not a comfortable feeling and, you might have also heard, that airbags can help solve this situation. So, let’s talk about them.
What Do Airbags Do For Towing?
Airbags help in towing because they add support for the load, preventing it from shifting rearwards and dropping the backside of your truck. Providing this additional support, steering, handling, and braking can improve, and you can feel an increase in control. While there are many options out there, most follow the same operating principle.
Think of airbags and balloons. An airbag, or pneumatic suspension, as it is also known, is a bag made out of resistant rubber that can either replace the spring or work with it.
When you’re loading your truck with heavy cargo, you add air (increasing the pressure), which helps in leveling the bed. If you’re riding with no payload, you can remove air, lower the pressure, and return the truck to its original level.
Airbag systems are also handy for leveling cargo. In the situation that you’re not experiencing a drop in the back of your truck, but you might face irregular terrain, or your trailer produces too much drag, airbags can help in maintaining the entire payload leveled.
There are different types of air suspensions. Most replace the spring element with an airbag, but some can work with the spring. These compound systems are less frequent as they can be more expensive and require a more complex installation process.
Because these bags need air and most cars and trucks don’t have a compressor, chances are you’re going to have to install a source of compressed gas (CO2 or air). These systems allow to increase or decrease pressure, depending on the situation.
Some systems are as basic as adding inflation valves that you manually operate, and other, more complex systems include onboard controls for more comfortable use.
If you follow installation guidelines and proper maintenance procedures, these systems can last for a long time. But, keep in mind, these systems are usually more expensive than mechanical suspensions, so maintenance costs will increase, especially if you want to keep the system running in optimal conditions.
To better understand why airbags might be the right upgrade for your truck, let’s talk about some key terms when we talk about towing.
Towing: Definitions and Basics
To talk about towing safely, we need to get some basic facts about towing straight. You will hear many experts recommend sticking within the factory specifications for your truck to pull safely.
We’ve written about the possible consequences of exceeding your towing capacity. Read this article if you want to learn more about this topic.
Sure, this seems like sound advice, but not all drivers understand what this means. The following are the basic terms you need to understand for towing safely.
- Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR): usually expressed in pounds or separated by class. It’s the vehicle’s maximum total weight.
- Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCVWR): usually expressed in pounds or separated by category. It’s the recommended maximum loaded weight of your vehicle and your trailer.
- Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW): usually expressed in pounds. It’s your vehicle’s weight, alone, without the trailer, when fully loaded.
- Gross Trailer Weight Rating (GTWR): usually expressed in pounds or separated by class. The maximum recommended weight for a fully loaded trailer. This number is the maximum towing capacity.
- Tongue Weight (TW): usually expressed in pounds. This is the maximum weight that can be exerted onto the back of the vehicle. It concerns the hitching point between the trailer and the truck. It’s an essential value for stability.
While all of these terms are critical, we’re going to talk about two essentials for towing—the Gross Trailer Weight Rating (GTWR), which indicates the maximum weight your vehicle can tow. How you distribute that weight is also crucial, and that’s where the Tongue Weight (TW).
Why is the Tongue Weight Important?
Since it’s the hitching point between the vehicle and the trailer, it plays a critical part in towing dynamics. If your tongue weight is too much, it can cause the truck’s rear end to drop. When this happens, the front of the vehicle raises, reducing steering and handling.
When the tongue weight is too light, and most of the trailer’s weight is in the back, the truck’s rear end will rise, putting unnecessary pressure on the front and reducing traction, as the rear wheels have less grip.
Many web sources say that your tongue weight must not exceed 10% of the trailer’s weight. This estimation isn’t necessarily accurate, as it might be too light in many situations. The recommended interval is that your weight stays within 10% to 15% of the total trailer weight.
But some trucks with stock suspensions might still suffer from a lowered rear end, even when you stick to recommended TW and GTWR. In these situations, airbags might provide the necessary added support to prevent dropping.
But perhaps the most crucial aspect to consider when talking about air suspensions and tow is that, no matter what they try to sell you, an air suspension will not increase your towing ability. Let’s talk about that.
Airbags Do Not Increase Towing Capacity
All vehicles come out of the factory with determined towing and hauling capabilities. We’ve written before about how manufacturers increase these numbers by adding heavy-duty packages, including improved transmission cooling, bigger or more powerful brakes, a higher gear ratio, stronger hitches, and stiffer suspension. It’s the combination of all these aspects that increases towing capabilities.
When you’re towing heavy loads, the truck is logically heavier. The transmission faces more friction and strain, therefore heats up faster. Since automatic transmissions usually connect to the radiator, the only way to improve gear cooling is through a bigger or better cooling system.
Brakes have to work extra to stop the additional pounds. Manufacturers fit either more potent calipers and pumps or larger discs altogether to deal with the added effort. If you want to improve your truck’s numbers with aftermarket parts, you’d need a significant reengineering of your vehicle to fit all of the necessary upgrades.
As you can see, we haven’t mentioned springs and airbags, and that’s because it’s only of the many components that are vital to towing. Yes, chances are you need to improve on your suspension to tow more pounds, but it’s not the only aspect you must improve.
Airbags will improve your truck’s handling. Because they help in leveling your vehicle and sticking all tires on the ground, they also aid in better traction, steering, and braking. Plus, thanks to the fact that the air inside the suspension is actively leveling the car, you might even feel a smoother ride over bumps.
Having said this, just because you have an air suspension doesn’t mean that you can add as much weight as you want. Because they are made of rubber, the bags can rub and chafe. Therefore you need to continually keep adequate clearance and avoid driving with the bags either over or underinflated.
As a word of warning, since the airbags define the suspension’s travel, it’s recommended that you unbolt the entire bag so that you don’t overstretch it and cause any tears that might lower its useful life.
This article aimed to explain to you what airbags do for towing. We’ve demonstrated that airbags (otherwise known as pneumatic or air suspension) are a good option for leveling the truck. Some trucks might drop their rear end when handling heavy loads, both hauling and towing, so airbags come in handy to stabilize the bed.
Air suspensions can have basic systems that require you to inflate and deflate them manually or more advanced compressions systems that do so with controls, compressors, and valves. Since they are much more complicated than regular spring suspension systems, their maintenance cost is usually higher.
Also, we spoke about how maintenance is critical when it comes to airbags. Given that the bags are rubber, they might chafe or rub, resulting in a decreased expected useful life. But, if you follow proper maintenance guidelines, such as frequent revisions, unbolting them, if you’re going to lift your truck, and always maintaining the right clearance, these systems can last for a long time.
Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, airbags do not increase towing capabilities since all trucks come with a defined towing capacity from the factory. Manufacturers can offer heavy-duty packages that increase a truck’s pulling power but doing so yourself might require considerable reengineering and increases costs.
Air suspensions are ideal for providing an added level of safety when towing. They help in stabilizing the vehicle, a more comfortable ride, and improved steering and braking. If you’re going to pull heavy loads frequently, be sure to consider airbags as part of the upgrades to enhance your truck’s towing prowess.