Towing a big trailer or fifth wheel can be tasking to a stock truck, even one with a high tow rating. While the OEMs may produce their trucks with a high tow rating they are often pushing the limits of what is reasonable, comfortable, and safe. Aftermarket tow equipment is often necessary to really get the most towing capacity out of your truck. If you’re ready to make your truck tow and haul better, a sway bar upgrade and airbag install should be on your radar.
What Is Tongue Weight?
Tongue weight is the load applied to the hitching point of the tow vehicle. Whether you have a gooseneck that puts the load directly over the rear axle for optimal bearing, or a simple receiver hitch with a ball, it is important to level your load. Tongue weight is not a negative thing, as an appropriate amount of tongue weight helps the stability, and handling of a trailer.
Why Is Tongue Weight Important?
With the correct amount of tongue weight, a trailer will behave in a predictable manner around corners, in braking situations, and especially in windy conditions. An improperly distributed load will adversely affect the tongue weight. The resulting characteristics will be unstable towing as the trailer either forces the tow vehicle’s rear suspension to compress or unload excessively. The distribution and orientation (engine forward or back) of a vehicle on a trailer are important to setting appropriate tongue weight.
An excessive tongue weight situation is easily identified by a low riding truck rear end. If the weight on the trailer is shifted too far forward the angle between the truck bed and the trailer bed will create a valley at the point of hitching. Inversely, if the tongue weight is insufficient the tow rear end may be unloaded as the trailer hitch actually applies an upward force on the ball or gooseneck.
Our Test Vehicle
An enclosed trailer like a fifth wheel toy hauler presents a huge side surface area that can be pushed around by excessive winds. Extreme lateral force may induce uncomfortable body roll driving situations not previously encountered. A quick and easy solution to this problem is to install aftermarket heavy-duty sway bars.
As an example of a truck needing a sway bar upgrade and airbags, we installed a set of Hellwig sway bars on our friend Donnie’s 2014 Dodge Ram 2500. Donnie tows a 2015 Voltage V-Series fifth wheel around the country. When loaded down for a trip, this load comes in at around 18,000 pounds, just a hair outside the maximum capacity of this already high-load truck. A family man and sports enthusiast, Donnie places a high priority on the safety of his family so uprating the stability of his towing rig is a clear decision.
Before we tore into this Cummins-powered rig, we talked to Donnie about some of the problems he’d encountered while towing. He explained, “I could feel how top-heavy the trailer was…it would sway me.” He further elaborated that the excessive tongue weight pitched the nose of the truck up, making a light steering situation, and a heavy rear — a disconcerting combination when a gust of wind would broadside that 41-foot trailer!
Time For The Sway Bar Upgrade
To unburden the gooseneck, and stabilize the handling of this combo, we carried on with the installation of Hellwig’s front and rear sway bars, and load-leveling air bag kit. As a baseline comparison we measured the distance from the bottom of his receiver hitch to the ground before and after the installation.
Hellwig’s Towing Package Includes Everything Needed
Hellwig’s kit includes airbags, steel mounting plates, air lines, fittings and everything else needed to put a little air ride in your tow rig. The front and rear sway bars are much beefier than the stock units and feature a durable silver textured powder coat finish. Bushings, grease, and links are provided to complete the install. According to Ben Knaus of Hellwig, “[the kits are] all heat-treated chromoly steel…all done in-house.” Hellwig retains all the subprocesses in the manufacturing of their products in-house.
Starting in the front end, we got the truck up in the air and began removing the OEM front sway bar. Two links, and two bushing clamps later, we were rid of the stock component and could compare the size difference between the Dodge and Hellwig parts.
With the supplied grease and bushings we prepared to attach the new sway bar upgrade. Just as easily as the old came off, the new one dropped right into place. Taking care to align the bar side-to-side, we tightened down the hardware and clamped the lateral movement limiting rings on the outsides of the bushing clamps.
Having wrapped up the front end we started the same procedure with the rear sway bar. Requiring a little more effort, we detached the sway bar end links at the top allowing the bar to hang off the axle. Loosening the bushing clamps we removed the OEM bar and compared it to the new Hellwig unit. The extra diameter in material will clearly reduce the body roll and suspension compression under cornering, and wind loads on the trailer.
The new end links from Hellwig are much more stout than the relatively puny Dodge factory end links. Assembling the links was just a matter of threading the lower half into the upper, and using a vise to press the bushing and sleeve into each end.
Attaching the new bar we worked in reverse order of the removal by first loosely clamping the saw bar to the axle with the bushing clamps. With the weight of this massive steel bar out of our hands, the links are installed on the outside rather than inside of their original locations.
After a step back and a little measuring, we centered up the sway bar upgrade and installed the rear lateral movement clamps. Finally torquing everything down, we were ready to set the end link length to adjust the sway bar at ride height. Lowering the truck on the ground we were already in the ballpark and just had to turn the links a few threads to level the sway bar to complete the installation.
With the sway bar upgrade complete, we turned our focus to the airbag assembly. Hellwig’s kits stand apart from competitors in that they use the largest airbags possible to fit under a truck. Ben Knaus explained that the 2,800-pound bags in our kit are larger than the competition so they require less air pressure to level a load, which means a better ride quality. The kit comes with a variety of brackets with different hole patterns, countersunk hardware, studs, nuts, bolts, and even thread lock compound to make your life easier. While working at a bench, we installed the supplied air fittings equipped with push-lock quick-disconnects.
Paying close attention to the clocking and hole patterns, the mounting plates are attached to the stock bump stop location on the truck and airbags, using the supplied studs and countersunk hardware.
One packaging issue the kit must resolve is an interference with the passenger-side-mounting bolt that holds the pan hard bar to the frame. In the stock orientation the bold head is toward the rear and the threads would protrude into the airbag. To prevent this chaffing situation the bolt must be flipped. Take care doing this as the pan hard bar can be preloaded and may jump out of its mount.
And now, finally…you can seat the air bars on the bump stop perches! Using the supplied nuts, the studs on the top of the airbag protrude through the bump stop plate and are clamped together. The bottom plates are clamped around the axles care of some u-brackets and long carriage bolts. And that’s it, the airbags are in, all that remains is to run the air lines.
With no onboard air compressor, this truck will be equipped with a simple Schrader valve setup for inflating and deflating the leveling bags. The location of where these Schrader valves are placed is up to you.
We decided to hide ours just beneath the bumper, out of sight and away from potential road debris. Should an owner decide to upgrade to automated controlled air, Hellwig has options. Ben told us “We do offer upgrade kits…auto level system, in cab system.”
The last step was to inflate the bags to 40 psi and check for leaks. No leaks detected we decided to hook up the fifth wheel and experience the difference with the Hellwig kit. Immediately, the leveling bags showed a huge improvement, even with minimal air pressure. With a maximum capacity of 100 psi these bags will level the heaviest load.
Drilling our holes in bed support sheetmetal, we connected our push-lock fittings to a length of plastic air line and ran our plumbing. A few zip ties to secure and the system is 100 percent complete less a little air!
We weren’t anywhere near the limit and could see a profound leveling change. Donnie was thrilled with the visual change, as we were too.
Getting the tape measure out we decided to compare the before sag number to the new and improved air ride number. A gain of over 4 inches in rear suspension height means that this trailer will apply appropriate load to the gooseneck and tow with stability and safety.
Conclusions Of Our Sway Bar Upgrade
We followed up with Donnie about a month after receiving his truck back with new sway bar upgrade and airbags. Donnie’s reaction was an overwhelming thankfulness for the sense of security and safety the new Hellwig products lend to his rig. Donnie explained that while his truck was rated for what he was towing it still felt like a safety liability. “It was a safety hazard…this equipment should be standard on all manufacturers.” He went on to explain the security of the sway bars in defensive driving situations: “No floaty front feeling. I can whip this thing to another lane if I had to, if somebody locked up in front of me.”
We are glad Donnie and his family can travel with more peace of mind. Future plans include installing an on-board compressor for in-cab control over airbag pressure. Donnie is looking forward to an upcoming lake trip and a year of traveling to sports with his family, and fifth wheel safely in tow.