The Trailer Saga Continues

I spent much of Saturday evening reading about electric brakes. Everything I read online about this style of brakes said that the condition I’m seeing means they’re due for replacement. The magnets are a wear item and can be replaced with ease. After replacing the magnet, the magnet surface is now flat/smooth and would not effectively transfer energy when pressed against a rutted drum. This means the drum should either be ground down to a smooth surface again, or replaced. Grinding down the side walls is common and shops have the means of doing this. Grinding down the rear, however, is harder and requires equipment not easily found.

It was starting to look like I might be replacing these after all. I started pricing out a repair. At $20 +shipping for a magnet, plus minimum of $30 per drum to grind it down if I’m able to find someone who can do it, and then I still have to clean the whole assembly to get it smoothly moving again. An entirely new hub, bearing, and brake assembly kit goes for $100 /wheel on eBay, shipped. For and extra $50/wheel, the time saved is probably worth just buying a new set. I was going to be placing an order for a new set anyway for the front axle that’s currently brake-less, so why not just double the order. I resigned to solving this problem the way I solved most problems in the days leading up to our move to AK: throw more money at it.

I switched gears for the day and decided to start working on wiring up my new lights. I bought a simple light kit that came with a new wiring. Given the state of the plug/connector into the truck and the no longer attached connections near the lights, I decided to just rip out everything and start over. Just for posterity though, let’s recap some of the issues encountered.

The connector was missing the set screw that keeps the cover on. So when you grabbed it to pull it out of the truck, the cover slid off and the connector terminals stayed in the truck. The previous owner’s solution was to throw a piece of copper into the connector and attach it to an open terminal inside the connector. So don’t grab this thing while the truck is in reverse, because it’ll have 12V on it and you’ll probably be bracing yourself against the truck or trailer frame (ground) with your other hand.

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The inside doesn’t look much better. The screw terminals are all bent, the wires don’t have spade lug terminals that would make good contact underneath the screw. Instead the thin wires are kinda sorta screwed down and after about 3 seconds, it has moved and current is flowing through only about 2 strands of copper… until it just falls out all together and then brushes against whatever other terminal it happens to make contact with. I’m sure it’ll be fine … not.

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The right brake light wire just straight up came disconnected from the butt connector that was used (without electrical tape, or any actual waterproofing like heat shrink tubing/connectors).

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But I think my absolute favorite was this gem:

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That’s the back side of the hitch coupler, where it mounts to the trailer. The electrical tape wrapped wire goes to the plug shown above (you can see the copper “handle” in the bottom left of the photo). That 20-22 gauge red or orange wire is the ground. In automotive applications the frame is grounded; it’s connected directly to the negative terminal on the battery. It’s then very common to run one wire to a device (say, a brake light) to provide positive voltage. The ground/negative is achieved by simply running a wire from the device straight to the frame.

In trailer applications, the concept is the same. One of the pins in the connector to the truck is a ground. This wire is taken from the truck connector, and attached to the trailer frame. Each light on the trailer then has a positive voltage wire coming from the truck connector and grounds to the frame, reducing wire needs. What does this mean? It means the ground to the trailer frame should be through a large gauge wire (at least 12 gauge) and it should actually contact the frame. The rinky-dink wire above is smashed into a bolt going through a painted surface. So the only connection to the actual metal underneath is wherever the paint has been scratched away. Which probably doesn’t matter because the connection is so terrible, I doubt that’s the weakest link.

So I ripped out everything that was there, and started from a clean slate. I planned my wire route, and quickly realized I was going to need a lot more wire. I plan to buck conventional wisdom and not use the trailer frame as a ground conductor. It works and it’s cheap, which is why people do it, but it doesn’t last. Connections to the frame work really well inside an enclosed / environmentally protected area (like somewhere in the passenger compartment of a car). In an area exposed to the elements, they rust (sometimes completely off). I’m doing this from scratch, I might as well just run a wire to every light. I’ll run a 10 gauge wire down the center of the trailer, and then branch off from there with smaller gauges for each light. Each connection will be made with a water tight, heat shrink connector.

After another trip to O’Reilly, I was reminded how ridiculously expensive wire is, and how much more so that’s true in retail stores. I gave up and decided I was buying other stuff online anyway – why not add some wire to the list and get exactly what I want. Back home, long after Little B went to sleep I was building up my shopping list: 4 new brake assemblies, 4 new hub/drums, spare bearing kits to have on hand, extra grease seals (they’re damaged when removed to inspect the inner bearing) to have on hand, plenty of electrical connectors, new wire, a set of Bearing Buddies. I was placing orders left and right, and things were looking good right up until the last eBay purchase. Somehow my eBay profile was reverted back to a MN address. With a MN address the “entirely new hub, bearing, and brake assembly kit goes for $100 /wheel on eBay, shipped” I mentioned before is true and available for purchase. With an AK shipping address, however: no dice. The seller simply will not sell to AK residents.

Great. So then I started exploring who else sells the kits, and what they charge to ship them to me. About 75% of the sellers simply will not ship to AK, as the wheel hubs are ~23 lbs each and the brake assemblies are another ~10 lbs each. I looked into who sells the hubs/brakes in Alaska. I found NAPA and Six Robblees’ Inc. The cheapest option with the brake assembly that I wanted was etrailer.com. The harsh reality of how far away we are from the rest of the populated world was driven home in this line item on my invoice:

Shipping (Ground): $181.92

It sickens me to see that number again as I write this. And to think, we’re on the road system! In terms of shipping items to Alaskans, we have it far, far better than many. But at the end of the day, that’s the cost to get the goods up here. I either pay for a shipping line-item from a company based in the Lower 48, or I pay higher per-item costs with shipping rolled in. When it was all said and done, it went from being $100/wheel to $157/wheel. More than I wanted to spend, but we have more projects than time and bolting on a new set of hubs and brakes is going to be way faster than cleaning up those old brakes.

There are ATV trails to find and ride. Hiking trails to find and hike. House plans to find and modify. Gardens to plan. A bus to convert into an RV. Beaches to explore. Whales to photograph. So many interests, so little time!

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