Our team is hoping to buy a trailer to transport our bot and tools, etc. to competitions this year. We’re hoping other teams can offer suggestions about specs for such a trailer. We’d love to be able to tow it with a minivan (3500# towing capacity), but if you don’t think this is feasible, please say so. Thanks!
It’s definitely possible to tow a team trailer with a minivan - if the trailer isn’t too big. I’ve seen team trailers that are huge, and ones that aren’t.
The real question is what are your requirements? There are typical sizes for trailers:
Using this as a guide, collect together all of the stuff you want in your pit, get a nice open area, and tape out the dimensions. Then you can try arranging things and see what size you need to accommodate your stuff, then do some more detailed investigation into trailers around that size.
When looking at features, consider loading and unloading. Some trailers have a door that drops down to form a ramp, which makes loading and unloading a little easier, while others open like doors, forcing you to either bring a separate ramp or lift everything into the trailer. For my team’s trailer, we made sure to get the ramp kind, and then added a couple of small sections of diamond plate on hinges to help bridge the gaps and make wheeling things up easier. It works really well!
Also consider lighting - you’ll want some light in there. You can do that two ways - trailers can come with built in dome lights, wired up to the trailer connection to provide power, or you can get some relatively cheap, battery powered LED lights and stick them in places. You’ve probably seen the infomercials for such products
Some things to consider -
3500 pounds includes the weight of the trailer and the stuff you put in it. Determine what you expect to haul (robots, tools, carts and batteries add up quickly).
Check the Combined Gross Vehicle Weight (CGVW) limit of the mini-van. That limit includes the vehicle, passengers, cargo, plus the trailer and everything in it. You may not be able to load the trailer and then put several students and other gear in the mini-van and be under this rating. Being above this limit can cause safety issues with handling, starting and stopping.
Determine if you have to have trailer brakes and then what type the trailer has and if the mini-van can support them. Different states have different requirements for trailer brakes. Some trailers have surge brakes that are independent of the tow vehicle, some have electric brakes that require connection and control to the tow vehicle.
A team trailer is a great investment and really helpful, just make sure you can get there and back safely.
I see you are in MI - probably some hills. A minivan for #3500 is probably on the edge of being comfortable on hills and at highway speeds. I always like to have more then needed just in case of bad weather, high winds, etc. We have a 6x12 and we usually have it pretty full. It’s a single axle #3500 trailer and we tow with a Suburban which tows it easily, but have ran into snow and wind where I’m glad we had it. Especially on those 8-9hr trips. I think this is a case of no matter what size you pick, you will find stuff to fill it:)
Recommend one with brakes even at the lighter weight. Ramp doors and shelving definitely help. Make sure not to put to much weight at the rear - they can sway out of control if there isn’t enough tongue weight. Also things like tie down hooks on the floor, places to hang items of the walls, interior lights all help. We’ve been considering installing solar panels - enough to charge robot and tool batteries while on longer trips.
3500 tow capacity is likely going to limit you to a single axle trailer. Your best bet is to go to a trailer dealer in your area and have some conversations with them about what you are trying to do.
We (900) looked at this about 3 years ago and at that time what we determined we wanted was a trailer with a capacity of about 5000 lbs. That meant we needed two axles on the trailer. We also wanted it to be able to take a roll of carpet that was 16ft long. We also knew we wanted a trailer with brakes built in.
We talked to a couple of dealers and found something we were happy with and then took the specifications to our school. The school then went through the procurement process for the state and purchased it.
We’re VERY happy with the trailer so far.
we use this stuff in our 7x12 v front aluma trailer. It works great! Can be attached to the floor or walls of the trailer. http://www.etrailer.com/dept-pg-Trailer_Cargo_Control-pt-E~Track_Parts.aspx
Be careful about the minivan capabilities. The minvans ones I’ve looked at required the trailer to have electric brakes. You might find a trailer under 3500lb, but it won’t necessarily have built in brakes (of any sort).
Don’t tow with a minivan if you can avoid it. You need a truck and the trailer needs brakes, especially in Michigan.
Some other things. Longer than 14 feet and it won’t fit in a parking spot by itself, or fit in two parking spots attached to your vehicle. I am partial to dual axles, because I’ve had the spring on an axle snap on a single-axle job and ended up stuck in Lima Ohio for 5 days. With dual axles set up correctly, you can still limp to somewhere that can fix it.
Get a spare tire. A lot of bare-bones trailers don’t come with one. Check to see if the tailgate / liftgate of your tow vehicle can open when attached to the trailer. You WILL put a huge dent it in if it can’t because students aren’t always the most careful folks. This is mainly a function of how far the trailer lift post is from the hitch ball.
Get a side door and a ramp. The side door is nice so that you don’t have to lower the ramp to grab odds and ends, and the ramp will pay huge dividends loading and unloading.
Get extra tie town loops, and get them on the walls too.
Check to see how the trailer manufacturer does the wiring. Nicer trailers will run a power and ground to each light. Cheaper ones save money by grounding to the chassis or sheet metal. That style ground will galvanically rot the sheet metal around the light screws in about 5 years.
The biggest visual issue with trailers is that the tongue and undercarraige rust. Some places will do a spray coating to forestall that. It’s easy when the trailer is being made. I’ve heard of some people taking the trailer to a place that sprays on bed liner for trucks.
Get axles and hubs that allow greasing without disassembly. It’s not that you won’t enjoy repacking bearings, but you probably won’t enjoy repacking bearings.
Hinges on the ramp should also have grease zircs installed if they are quality hinges.
All of the information in this thread so far is fantastic. I’ll add my $0.02 since I’ve been here and done this.
Ours is a 6x14 tandem axle with a 7 foot ceiling height. I definitely recommend the tandem axle if you can swing it, for a variety of reasons, many of which have been mentioned above. If at all possible, get a 7 foot ceiling height. It’s the most annoying thing ever to have to duck, or lower something.
Our trailer has “surge” brakes (self-contained hydraulic brake system) that works okay. They take a second to kick in sometimes, and there’s still plenty of load and strain put on the tow vehicle’s own brakes. You definitely need some kind of trailer brakes. We went with the hydraulic surge brakes, which is kind of like a master cylinder activated off the trailer hitch, so that we could tow it with any vehicle, and didn’t have to mess with any wiring within the tow vehicle.
I find the 6x14 to be the perfect size. We’ve moved a lot of things in which a 12’ length just wouldn’t have quite done it for us. The width is manageable. I would not be comfortable driving anything wider. I’ve been through some narrow lanes. Also, the 6x14 is really a breeze to drive with some practice. With the right tow vehicle, sometimes it’s like it isn’t even there. And, you can get it and your tow vehicle into two tandem parking spaces, without sticking out into an aisle. I’ve put about 14,000 miles on ours, including a trip from Southern California to Indianapolis and back (through the Eisenhower summit, fully loaded with 2 FRC teams worth of stuff).
You need a jack that doesn’t suck. I’m currently using this one. The wimpy ~3k lb top wind we had to begin with barely had enough travel, and looked like it was going to buckle over at any moment. You need to size the jack for the height of your trailer and vehicle.
We laminated FRP (yes, like in the 09 game) to plywood to install as interior paneling to our trailer, so we have more than just the thin sheet metal skin it came with, and that has worked well, and it looks a lot nicer than just bare plywood.
As stated above, do not underestimate the need for a stout (and reliable) tow rig. You do not want to tow at or near the capacity of your tow vehicle. Trust me on that. Also, Chris’s comment about the combined gross vehicular weight rating is spot-on, and often neglected when it is actually very important. When looking at your CGVWR you need to look at all the people and stuff in the tow vehicle, in addition to whatever you’re towing. And people are heavy!
We are towing with a 96 Suburban C2500 (3/4 ton) with the Vortec 454 7.4L engine and 4L80E trans. I picked it up for $2200 with 99k miles, in need of the front seats to be recovered, hood painted, and an AC system leak. What was really attractive was a had whole tow package. On top of the already heavier 3/4 ton leaf springs, it had load-leveling air bags, a hitch, and a trans cooler. We got it to specifically not put the wear on our own personal vehicles (Ranger and Ridgeline) which were undersized for the task. Suburban 1500s (1/2 ton) with the 350 and 4L60E can be had for even cheaper. We looked for an F250 or F350 or similar truck for over a year, and could not come up with anything in our budget, that was not all beat to hell or had over a quarter million miles. That’s when we had the idea to start looking at SUVs.
If at all possible, you’ll want something with a factory tow package that includes the proper frame-mounted hitch, and (very importantly) a transmission cooler.
Our 96 Suburban C2500 has served the purpose very well, but not without its faults. The Vortec 454 runs like a champ, smooth and pulls hard, but man is it a thirsty engine. We got 6.5 MPG coming back from Chezy Champs a couple weeks ago. Best we’ve ever done (no towing) is about 10 MPG. I averaged about 7-8 MPG out to Indianapolis and back, when our trailer was lighter, before the plywood went in. Also, the distributor gear that mates with the camshaft shredded all its teeth in the middle of a corn field in Iowa in July, 2013, and we managed to cook the trans on it coming back from Chezy Champs 2015, to the point where it needed a new trans. We also had to put a fuel pump in it on that same trip, at a cost of $1600. Apparently that’s very common around the 100k mile mark on mid-late 90s suburbans. We recently did a new AC compressor and condenser in it too, and we did new shocks a while back. So, we’ve definitely put some dollars into it. But, it still comes out cheaper than a new Suburban, and it’s just a great vehicle. It was quite the pinnacle of 1990s GM engineering.
Towing up a 6% grade, I still wish I had even more power sometimes. While I’ve never weighed it, I figure our cargo easily weighs over 3,000 pounds, and the trailer itself is probably up around 3,000 pound as well. Then, add 1200+ lbs of people inside the Suburban. With that load, I’m cruising about 50 MPH up a grade, even with the big-block tugging it, unless I want to drop it into 2nd, and be pushing about 3800k RPM the whole way up, which isn’t great either.
Everyone knows the towing speed limit is 55MPH, but try going 55MPH up I-5, and you’ll have miles of cars lined up behind you, and many angry folks passing you. On I-5 through the California central valley, 70 is more the norm towing, closer to 80 if not towing. You don’t want to be stuck with a vehicle where you have to keep the tach pegged in a low gear to hold 65 when towing.
A diesel Ford Expedition would be the hot ticket, but I’d settle for a V10, or even an E-350. I wouldn’t mind a newer 8.1L Suburban either. Plus, vehicles like Suburbans, Excursions, or 3/4 ton vans have the added utility of being able to carry 7+ passengers, which has been a real asset to our program.
I would never tow with a mini van. The suspension and especially transmission are just not up to it. You need something with a real frame, a real solid rear axle, a trans mounted long ways, not sideways, and some real displacement under the hood.
Remember, with the acquisition of a trailer, your program will grow, and you’ll find more things (and weight) you’ll want to put in it.
Also relevant in this discussion is weight ratings and tongue weight.
Useful page with some acronyms and definitions:
I suspect that one of the issues with a mini-van is that you’re going to want to put people and stuff inside the mini-van. Not that you won’t want to do this with a truck or SUV but they tend to have higher GCWR… though that depends on a lot of stuff.
Also, most mini-vans don’t come with factory installed hitches to my knowledge so make sure the hitch that is installed is capable of supporting the weight and it was installed correctly.
Also, this was recently on reddit and seems relevant. Basically, don’t overload the back of the trailer… you want to balance the load but you should favor the tongue:
Bottom line is this, do your homework and talk to a trailer dealer in your area and make sure that the people (parents/mentors/whomever) that is responsible for towing the vehicle understand all of the necessary legal requirements and steps for connecting and towing the trailer safely.
Don’t let any of this scare you. This stuff really isn’t complicated once you figure it out. Towing can be kinda fun (that’s the North Cackalackian in me coming out).
Also, make sure you’re in compliance as far as insurance goes. Some auto insurance can be funny about towing trailers… Make sure the tow vehicle is covered and the trailer is covered as well and the stuff in the trailer.
Lots of tie down points spread out over the inside surfaces, at different heights would be helpful.
Are there alternate tow vehicles that can be used? What are their towing and GVW capacities? Are there more powerful tow vehicles available to your team? Towing near the limit of the vehicle was pretty miserable, especially on mountain roads with no passing lanes to let other vehicles by. I never got used to the feeling of surge brakes pushing on the tow vehicle.
MakeShift has a 6x12 single-axle with electric brakes and a ramp door that weighs about 1500 lbs empty. I often pull it with my 2014 Ford Escape, which is a small SUV with a 3500 lbs tow rating. I’m only really comfortable towing it when it is lightly loaded, however; as was already mentioned, 3500 lbs is on the low side for towing capacity and I don’t like pushing it to the limit (you definitely feel the car straining when you do). This means that when we go on road trips to regionals with all our stuff packed in there, we like to find someone with a beefier vehicle to tow it, which hasn’t always been easy.
If your trailer has electric brakes, then it will have a 7-pin (round) electrical connector. This isn’t as common on smaller vehicles even with towing packages, which more often have a 4-pin (straight) connector. I had to have both a 7-pin connector and an electric brake controller installed in my Escape to make use of it.
I second the utility of E-track for tiedowns - it’s super useful. What we did was install one strip on each side wall right down at floor level, and then another strip above them about 2’ up. Since you can move the tiedown rings around on the track you can pretty much fasten whatever you want with that high/low combo. Another thing you can buy for E-track is hanger brackets for 2x4 wood. This allows you to make some cheap load bars to keep your cargo from rolling around without necessarily strapping it down.
If everyone throws in their two cents, pretty soon you’ll be rich.
As mentioned, the height. 7’ is great if you have a vehicle that can pull it, knowing that the “wind drag” going down the highway is just as bad as the weight. ::ouch::
Length and number of axles go hand in hand, almost. The longer trailers almost always go tandem. Check the different manufactures.
Weight distribution is easier to accomplish with a tandem axle (you don’t have to be as precise as you do with a single axle). A tandem axle is automatically adding weight. ::safety::
So somethings to think about,
- Do I really need it 7’ high, or can I have the short students load it?
- How much do I really need to travel with? (overall capacity)
- Is there someone else with a larger vehicle that can pull a trailer?
Only you and your other mentors know what you really need, however this thread has provided a lot of important points to think about.
If all you plan to move in the trailer is the robot, pit, and promotional items, you should be able to do this in well under 3500 pounds gross trailer weight. We went with a much larger (16’x7’) trailer because we are using it as on-site storage as well as mobility.
If you’re going to invest in the money for a trailer, seriously consider going the extra mile and making it loud. We found a local guy to wrap our trailer based on a student-generated rough design and his artwork for a few hundred dollars (he did the work at cost). (OBTW, the tiger tearing slits in the image is a recurring Slidell High element/meme; see our 2016 gonfalon, e.g. my current avatar, for another example.) As the trailer is stored on school grounds, it is a regular billboard helping promote awareness of the team.
For power, we went a somewhat different route. We installed solar panels on the roof, and a combination 12V battery charger/110VAC inverter system from a local dealer in solar systems.
Consider how you will secure items in the trailer. There are a number of pre-fab systems, or you could just put in padeyes and use cargo straps or lines, but the easier it is to use, the more likely it is to be used, and the less likely that you’ll lose a load.
That video above about proper loading is absolutely true. About a dozen years ago, I loaded an 8’ long sofa into a trailer made from a 6’ long pickup bed. Moving off of the interstate onto the low roads wasn’t enough, even without random sideways forces - I eventually realized that I had a negative tongue weight, and the ball was coming unscrewed from the nut. After re-securing the ball, I had to relocate the sofa to a rather unusual situation (tailgate closed, sofa propped up at a weird angle and strapped down rather than forward), but it got me home safely. The tongue weight of a trailer should normally be 10% of its gross weight - pushing DOWN.
As a way to get a handle on your tongue weight without special equipment, watch how far down the towing vehicle moves when a person who weighs about 175# stands on the ball. A trailer with a gross weight of 3500# should push the back of the towing vehicle down about twice that far. If it doesn’t move down far enough, re-balance the load!
Something that hasn’t been mentioned yet: most minivans are front wheel drive. For towing, this is not good, as a trailer will add more weight to the rear, which can cause fishtailing at high speeds and/or with more weight. This is probably why your minivan can only pull 3500 lbs. It would also suffer traction loss from the weight at the rear lifting the drive wheels up. Additionally, stopping distance will increase on any vehicle. You don’t always need a big V block to get a high towing capacity; a 2010 Volvo XC70 AWD with a 3.2L non-turbo inline 6 and 6 speed auto can pull 6300 lbs. A Tesla Model X can haul 5000 lbs(yes, you read that right! :yikes:), 5200 for a Chevy S-10, and 6100-6300 for a TrailBlazer.
As for solar panels on the trailers, I think that’s a great idea!
Not to derail the thread, but do you have potential sponsors in the area that are not able/cannot give a cash donation? Believe me, it seems unlikely but after some time being content with loading our gear into random trucks and borrowing trailers from parents/sponsors, we were ready to purchase our own trailer.
And then we were able to find a new sponsor that could not commit hard cash but were more than happy to provide a trailer. We were after this sponsor for a couple of years, and once they learned that we were in the market for a trailer, they saw a niche that they could fill and they stepped up BIG time.
Here is the imgur link of the trailer. The weird dots and white marks are stars, galaxies, and other space oddities - this company went all out on our design! That is one of our department leads shaking the hand of the president of said company.
It seems highly unlikely to most teams, but there are many potential sponsors that are in this type of situation. For one reason or another, cash sponsorships are not available, but they are able to help in this manner. Believe me, the company was more happy to help us this time than we were to receive it (and we are still hard over heels with our new hardware!). He even made certain to upgrade to aluminum wheels (in his words: “because they are sweet”) and threw 4 cases of pop (soda or coke to you heathens) so that we can stay awake during our long build sessions.
Cast a wide net - you never know!
We’ve towed our teams trailer with a variety of vehicles over the years (including mini-vans) without any issues (other than driver skill). Unless you have a LOT of stuff, you don’t need to go crazy on trailer size either.
Our trailer is a ~6’x12’ single-axle without any sort of trailer breaks, and it has more than enough room to fit all of our pit equipment plus space for up to 3 robots, and, on top of that, the rear door doubles as a loading ramp (swings down instead of out). In the 12+ years we’ve had it, we’ve never had any issues driving cross-country (and into Canada) in all kinds of weather with all kinds of vehicles pulling it.
We’ve always been lucky enough to borrow a trailer for our travels, and we’ve dealt with a variety of sizes. It all depends on how much you actually want to take to comp. Your trailer doesn’t need to be very big unless you want to take alot of stuff, and you can usually find a decent sized one for $1-2K.
If you do end up towing with the minivan, my guess is that you won’t be able to load it seven-seats full. Be sure to check the owners manual, because it will tell you if you get a decreased GVW when towing.
Also, with most front-drive vehicles (most minivans), you can count on a requirement for lighter tongue weight so you’ll need to load the trailer accordingly and actually try to measure this if you can, even if just by lifting it. Important for stability.
I’ve towed our one-axle 14ft team trailer with my minivan a short distance, not at full weight and it was fine, but not fun. I actually don’t recommend it. I just took four seats full. Also, my minivan has an add-on transmission cooler. I recommend.
I know you haven’t had an issue without trailer brakes, but the one time you need them you will really, really need them. I can give you several for-instances that have happened to me - I’ve towed large weights long distances my entire life - the benefits of spending my childhood on a farm I suppose.
Within the last 3 months, I had a trailer detach from the ball. The latch inside the hitch failed. The S-hooks did not stop the trailer (one snapped a link and one bent the S straight) and it came fully loose from the vehicle. If not for the trailer brakes that have an automatic engage feature when the trailer detaches the trailer would have gone into a house.
While towing a boat (7,000+ lbs) through Ohio early in the morning, we went under an overpass. The shadow from the overpass had prevented the salt from melting ice on the road. Instead of following nicely behind, the trailer swung to one side and before I could react I was sliding at 45 degrees to the road. Gently holding the brakes yanked the trailer back behind me and allowed me to pull over and clean out my underwear.
That one time you need trailer brakes will be the only time you ever need them. Especially on snow and ice where the trailer can push the truck very easily. I can’t emphasize it enough.