Your truck is among your most valuable pieces of equipment. When pulling a trailer, having a well-maintained, reliable truck can be the difference between a safe trip and a disaster for both humans and horses.
“Besides having two additional axles, a set of trailer brakes and lighting on your trailer, tow vehicles are heavy-duty vehicles—hauling and towing precious cargo—that require commercial standards of maintenance,” says Mark Cole, managing member of USRider Equestrian Motor Plan, a member-based organization providing roadside trailering assistance. These “commercial standards” include regular oil changes and tire rotation but go far beyond just basic care.
One key piece of advice:?Take the time to actually read your vehicle’s owner’s manual and refer to it when you have questions. The manual is handy for keeping up with your truck’s hidden parts. This little black book holds the secrets to proper vehicle maintenance and can help you make educated decisions in the event of a breakdown.
In addition to being familiar with the owner’s manual, tow-vehicle drivers should have knowledge of several areas, including:
• Your Mechanic. While national chain-store mechanics have good prices and convenient appointment times, these grease monkeys don’t always know what’s best for a tow vehicle. National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)-certified mechanics with good reputations and knowledge of heavy-duty trucks are USRider’s professionals of choice.
Ask around to find a mechanic that offers both quality customer service and knowledge of your type of vehicle. Then get to know your mechanic before something goes wrong with your truck. The two of you should develop a maintenance schedule and have an open line of communication. “The most desirable scenario would be similar to that of a doctor-patient relationship, which is based upon trust, where the patient comes in for, at minimum, an annual checkup,” says Cole.
• Oil Changes. Tow vehicles generally require more frequent oil changes than the average car, and the requirements for diesel and gas trucks differ, as well. This is why your owner’s manual and a trusted mechanic are important—this is not a one-size-fits-all situation.
To begin with, today’s wide range of oil types can confuse even the most engine-savvy drivers. “Regarding lubrication, we like the new full-synthetic oils. They are designed for vehicles that perform under extreme operating conditions, such as tow vehicles,” says Cole. Full-synthetic oils hold up under high-heat conditions and lubricate engines better than traditional oils. Your owner’s manual will state the recommended oil grade.
At the same time as the scheduled oil change, other components should also be checked and replaced or refilled, if necessary, including the battery and battery charge, wiper blades, air filters, oil filters, tire pressure and wear, spare tires, transmission fluid, brake fluid, windshield washer fluid, steering fluid, engine coolant and all belts and hoses. And for diesel engines, “we suggest adding a can of fuel conditioner every time the oil is changed,” Cole says. “This will minimize moisture [as well as damaging fungi and bacteria] and clean the fuel system.”
When using your truck for towing, check the oil, engine-coolant and tire-pressure levels before each trip.
• Tires. “The most common reasons for disablements involving tow vehicles and horse trailers are tire-related,” says Cole. So keep an eye on those tires. “Except for excessive or unusual wear, rotate every 6,000 miles, and consult your owner’s manual,” he says. The details for rotating and changing tires are different for each vehicle, especially when it comes to dually truck tires, so the owner’s manual is again the best place to turn to for tire advice.
Checking tire pressure should be done during oil changes, and you should do it periodically between changes. The pressure in the tires fluctuates with the air temperature as the gases in the air expand and contract. Some mechanics will therefore fill tires with nitrogen instead of air, as nitrogen’s volume fluctuates less.
Tire alignment should be checked by your mechanic annually; more often if you notice your truck pulling to one side. Incorrect inflation, low treads, and poor alignment will all lead to uneven wear and eventually to tire failure.
While tires can last 40,000 to 80,000 miles with proper care, Cole says, “age is a tire’s enemy,” and tires should be replaced every three to five years on both your truck and trailer.
• Battery. Vehicles that tow trailers have a lot of electrical demands, and simple maintenance can save a lot of battery-related headaches. In addition to the battery-charge test at oil-change time, the American Automobile Association (AAA) recommends having your battery and charging system inspected at least once a year.
Dirt and grime that collect on the battery can actually drain power, so keep the battery case clean by wiping it with a moist paper towel and mild detergent. If corrosion builds up around the battery connections, use a stiff brush and a water/baking soda solution to remove the buildup; then rinse the battery with water. Always wear eye protection and gloves when working on the battery, and wash your hands immediately afterwards.
When it comes time for a new battery, don’t buy the economy brand. Find one that matches your vehicle type and purpose to get the best performance for your money.
• Tuneups. A tuneup today is nothing like it was a decade ago. Vehicle parts are mostly controlled by computers and sensors; there’s very little to actually “tune.” This semi-annual checkup is still a good idea, just to have a more in-depth inspection than an oil change offers. By now you know to check your owner’s manual for exact recommendations, but expect to need one every 30,000 miles or so.
Some of the things to expect from a tuneup are new spark plugs and wires (for gasoline engines), a new fuel filter, and a new PCV valve. In addition, fluids, belts, hoses, and the air filter should be checked and flushed, replaced, or refilled if necessary.
A proactive approach to vehicle maintenance is essential to heading off problems before they begin. Not only will proper maintenance save you trouble, it will increase your fuel economy and boost the vehicle’s resale value. And remember, the recommendations here are just a starting point. Cozy up with your owner’s manual, make a call to your trusted mechanic, and do something nice for your truck.