May 1 2004 12:00 AM

Looking for a trailer? It’s a wide, wide world out there, with a dizzying array of options. There is a price point for every wallet, and an abundance of vendors on the market. If you look hard enough, you will find everything from a glorified wagon to the Cadillac of trailers, decked out with options galore.
No matter which trailer you purchase, a trailer is an investment; a solid, well-maintained and properly used trailer can last up to fifteen years. On the other hand, purchasing the wrong trailer for your needs and subsequent overloading, or inadequate maintenance can cut a trailer’s life span down to three to five years. So why not make the most of your investment and do a bit of homework before you buy?

The Trailer Conundrum

Trailers present a fairly common business conundrum. Most business owners can identify their current needs, but the trailer, as with any investment, should address both current and future needs.
Al Koch, landscape division supervisor with Miller Landscape in Norwalk, Ohio, is in the process of purchasing a new trailer for the company. He’s researching and comparing several options. According to Koch, a contractor really needs to analyze his business needs. “You want to look at what the trailer can do for you now and two, three and four years down the road.” Often contractors buy a trailer for today’s needs. It works great for a year or so, but the business expands, and the contractor wants to carry an attachment or skid-steer loader. What happens? The crew overloads the trailer or distributes weight incorrectly, effectively abusing the investment and costing the business.
A better option is to plan for growth. With all of the models and an ever-growing assortment of options on the market, it can be a tremendous challenge to identify your future needs. Dealers can help contractors sort through the options, but they are in the sales business. The wise contractor approaches the dealer with a fairly clear idea of his needs and with thoughtful questions. John Foegley, president of Foegley Landscape in South Bend, Indiana., says his company assesses a number of factors prior to investing in a new trailer. These include capacity and purpose, quality, efficiency and value.

The First Step: Which Type of Trailer Do You Need?

Organizing your trailer/towing needs before you make the rounds of local dealers not only saves time as you shop around, but can also save money in the long run. The contractor who understands his needs and effectively communicates them to the dealer or vendor is more likely to come home with a wise purchase.
Trailers can be divided into a few simple categories. Each type meets somewhat specific needs. First, a simple flatbed trailer can be used to move equipment and loads of trees, shrubs or palletized materials. A flatbed is probably the least expensive option and may be the trailer of choice for the new contractor. However, if the business is well managed, the contractor could outgrow the flatbed in a season or two. Adding sides to the flatbed provides the ability to haul bulk materials.
Dump trailers simplify the unloading of bulk materials. If the contractor is considering this route, it’s important to know the weight and volume capacity of the dump feature, and ensure that any equipment to be hauled in the cargo area on a dump trailer will actually fit in the space.
The final category is the cargo or box trailer. One advantage of the cargo trailer is that equipment can be secured in the trailer, saving loading and unloading time. On the other hand, hauling debris, bulk materials and trees can be difficult on a cargo trailer. Another new option hitting the market is the combination trailer, which can serve as a flatbed trailer or bulk material trailer.

Size Matters

After determining or narrowing down the type of trailer, a contractor needs to figure what size best meets his needs. The tow vehicle is at the top of the trailer shopping to-do list. Determine which vehicle will pull the trailer and locate its maximum tongue weight and maximum tow capacity. Of course, the trailer will be loaded, so you need to assess the weight, width and length of the anticipated load. Take the time to measure the skid steer and attachments, and calculate the weight of several skids of brick or wall block, or a load of shade trees. It’s important to be as exact as possible with equipment; smaller equipment may be heavier than it appears. Another point to keep in mind? You may need a specialized trailer for certain equipment, such as a mini-excavator or loader backhoe. Next consider the length of the trailer. Maneuvering a longer rig becomes more difficult on narrow streets and drives.
There is a final weight factor to take into account. Shane Mikels, owner of GrassMasters in Louisville, Kentucky., points out: “There is a significant weight difference between aluminum and metal trailers. Aluminum trailers weigh one-third to one-half of what metal trailers weigh.” Reducing the weight of the trailer increases hauling capacity. But there is a downside to aluminum. Generally, an aluminum trailer costs more than its metal counterpart.
Another major consideration, depending on the size of the trailer in question, is the single versus tandem axle consideration. Again, there may be no right or wrong answer. It is important to assess weight; the need to consistently carry heavier loads may nudge the buyer toward a tandem axle. And a tandem axle is generally safer than a single axle trailer. On the downside, while a flat tire is always an inconvenience, it can be an even greater challenge on a tandem axle trailer.
Trailers come in low profile and taller profile options. A low profile trailer pulls easier and facilitates fuel economy by reducing wind drag. Low profile fans also boast that they can be more user-friendly than taller trailers, as it is easier for crews to get on and off a low trailer. But low profile trailers can drag on either end or when going over uneven terrain. A taller trailer also provides additional space for equipment.

Safety First

One of the most important considerations with a trailer is safety. An unsafe or marginally safe trailer is probably not worth its price. And assessing safety is fairly simple. Key safety questions are:

* Are the tires heavy enough for the maximum GVW of the trailer?
* Do the brakes comply with DOT regulations?
* Is the wiring weather-protected?
* Brake lights should be functional. LED lights last longer, use less electricity and are brighter than traditional lights.

The Final Choice

After the selection is narrowed down to a few choices, the task can become a bit tougher. Ultimately, a trailer should facilitate rather than impede a work crew. So assess how the trailer fits your crew and its workflow. The factors to consider are:

* How easy (or difficult) will it be for workers to access, load and unload equipment? Do the doors and gates simplify access?
* Look at and test the ramps. Are they easy to use?

Options, options, options

There are dozens (perhaps hundreds) of options that can be added to a new or existing trailer. And let’s face it, some options are bells and whistles. Some truly enhance safety and workflow. Some are appropriate for some businesses and not for others. Ultimately, purchasing options and accessories boils down to cost and priorities.
There are a number of trailer options that can enhance safety. Double-axle brakes can minimize wear and tear on the vehicle brakes and increase the operator’s ability to stop fast. A breakaway trailer brake box automatically locks the trailer’s brakes to minimize damage if the trailer separates from the vehicle. An additional spare tire and wheel can enhance safety and save time in the event of a flat tire.
Other options may extend the life of the trailers. A powder-coated finish is usually more durable than a spray painted finish. Check the thickness and construction of the floors, planking and walls on the trailers. Remember, gasoline and fertilizer can wreak havoc on wood. Pressure-treated woods, steel and wall guards are worth considering.
As you are shopping around, consider what your service and support needs will be. Trailers have become more complex. Do you have the in-house expertise necessary to handle electrical or hydraulic issues? What type of support does the dealer provide? Can you get a short-term rental from the dealer if necessary so that a trailer problem does not stop business?
Finally, cargo trailers can be equipped with a plethora of options—workbenches, cabinets, extra doors, tie down systems, tool rack systems, shelves and brackets. If you are considering any options, ask if and how they enhance the trailer’s utility or extend its life. Make sure the option is worth its cost. And remember, options can often be added later when you have a clearer idea of how the trailer is being used day-to-day.
There is one final option that is really mandatory for any contractor. A trailer makes an excellent rolling billboard. Go ahead and splurge to have the company name, logo and contact information added to the trailer. This investment will last the life of the trailer and could bring more business your way.