In our suspension shop, we’re often approached by customers inquiring about installing airbags to support the weight of their new trailer or fifth wheel. I’ll never forget the story a customer shared with us a couple of years ago about his experience
We had a customer come into our spring shop to have the leaf springs on his new truck upgraded. He wanted to increase the load capacity to handle the pin weight of his new 5th wheel. We talked, and he was not shy about explaining exactly why he was having this upgrade done right out of the gate. The season beforehand, he had been driving his last truck and 5th wheel up the interstate on an extended vacation road trip. The 5th wheel had a heavy pin weight, and he knew his truck’s suspension wasn’t really up to the task. Despite this, he installed a set of airbags to make up the difference. Unfortunately, midway through his journey, the airbag on the right side blew out, causing his truck to dive hard to the right side of the road. He was already in the right lane, so there was nowhere to go but off the road. His entire rig ended up violently rolling, veering off of the interstate, and crashing into the trees on the side of the roadway. The truck and trailer were basically upside down when it came to rest. Miraculously he, his wife, and additional passengers were seriously injured in the accident. Unfortunately, his truck and fifth wheel didn’t fare as well, and both were a total loss. He told us it was a hard lesson learned and that he would not make the same mistake again.
What exactly was his mistake, you’re probably wondering? Unfortunately, we see this common mistake all too often in this business. The problem is trying to make up for the lack of spring capacity with something designed for adjusting ride height and affecting rate (ride stiffness). Somewhere along the line, someone had the idea to use an airbag in place of a properly built spring suspension. People believed you could have the best of both worlds, a capacity increase without sacrificing their perceived ride quality. The idea spread like wildfire. It continues to spread to this day. We are regularly approached by customers asking if we can install airbags because they are hauling more weight than the truck can handle. Fortunately, we are usually able to set these folks on the right path and correct the issue with properly set up leaf springs or heavy-duty coil springs.
So does this mean airbags should never be used? Not at all. Airbags serve a specific purpose. As I previously stated they are great for load leveling and adjusting the suspension rate. Let's say your springs are technically within the capacity for the load you are carrying but you just wish that the rear end would sit a little bit taller while under load. Airbags are a great solution to this issue. Or maybe you wish you could adjust the rear height of your truck to make it easier to line up with your 5th wheel hitch. Airbags are again a good choice. Finally, let’s say you are running the same load and everything is fine except you wish you could stiffen things up a little in the rear to alleviate some of the lateral roll while under load. Once again, airbags are a good solution for this as well.
While you may think this is our opinion based on the fact that we specialize in leaf springs, airbag manufacturers address the topic as well. They just bury it in the fine print.
One airbag manufacturer states:
“Never exceed manufacturer’s recommended Gross Vehicle Weight Rating”
and when asked if installing airbags will increase the weight rating of a vehicle they have this to say:
“No. Adding air springs will not change the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of a vehicle. Exceeding the GVWR is dangerous and voids the warranty.”
An airbag manufacturer also states in their literature:
“This kit does not alter the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or payload of the vehicle.”
Airbags definitely have their place in the world of weight hauling. However, it is very important to understand what they should and should not be used for when setting up your rig. Just remember this when deciding on which upgrades to select; you should never use airbags to try and make up for the lack of spring capacity.