How Trailer Balls and Switch Balls Work

I know, it's such a small thing, but you need a trailer ball so your tiny pick-up can safely bear the weight of hauling that huge boat.
I know, it's such a small thing, but you need a trailer ball so your tiny pick-up can safely bear the weight of hauling that huge boat.
Ivan Cholakov/iStockPhoto.com

You've got your boat mounted on your trailer, and you're getting ready to hook it up to the receiver hitch on your pickup truck. Suddenly, a problem arises that could derail your trip before you leave the house: Do you have the right trailer ball?

Trailer balls and switch balls are hitch accessories mounted on your receiver hitch's ball mount. It's the piece of towing equipment that couples the trailer to the towing vehicle and bears the load of the trailer's weight.

Trailer balls, also called hitch balls, are rounded to allow for lots of vertical and horizontal movement. After all, the hitch connection will be bouncing around a lot due to the motion on the road [source: Sierra Nevada Airstreams]. However, depending on what you'll be towing, it's important to make sure you have the right trailer balls equipped.

Sometimes, you may even need to swap out your ball for a different one, especially if you have to tow something you normally wouldn't. This is where switch balls come in - they can be changed on the fly in case you have to tow a small trailer one minute and a boat the next.

In this article, we'll discuss how to properly buy and hook up a trailer ball, so that you'll know exactly what you need when it's time to start towing.

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Choosing Trailer Balls and Switch Balls

Make sure you know your cargo's gross trailer weight and tongue weight before you start.
Make sure you know your cargo's gross trailer weight and tongue weight before you start.
Richard Hartt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

So you're ready to buy a trailer ball. But how do you go about choosing the right one for your vehicle? There are four factors to consider here: trailer weight, the diameter of the hole on the ball mount, the thickness of the ball mount platform on the receiver, and the size of the trailer coupler [source: etrailer.com].

First, let's get to know a little more about weight - specifically, gross trailer weight and tongue weight. Gross trailer weight is the fully loaded weight of the trailer you're towing, including any and all gear placed on it. Tongue weight is the downward pressure that the trailer exerts on the ball [source: Truck Stuff USA].

The most important factor in choosing a trailer ball is its gross trailer weight rating. Each ball lists its own weight capacity. Be careful here: Your trailer receiver may be rated to carry up to 10,000 pounds, but if your ball is rated at 5,000 pounds, that's the maximum you can tow. In addition, always make sure the hitch ball's weight rating is greater than the gross trailer weight so you don't overload the towing equipment.

Trailer balls are classified by the dimensions on the different parts of the unit. There's the diameter of the ball itself (the distance around the center of the ball), the shank's diameter, the shank's length, and the size of the circular piece of metal between the ball and shank. The most common ball size is two inches in diameter, but heavy-duty industrial trailer balls can go up to 2 1/4". The diameter of your ball mount's hole must be no more than 1/16" greater than the ball shank diameter in order to fit [source: etrailer.com]. The necessary shank length is determined by the thickness of your ball mount platform - you don't want to get a ball whose shank is so small you can't lock the nut in place. You'll also need to buy a ball to fit into your coupler.

In short, you need to buy a ball that's 1/16" smaller than your ball mount's hole and that can support an amount of weight greater than your trailer, has a long enough shank to fit into your ball mount platform, and whose diameter also fits into your coupler.

In this next section, we'll learn how to properly install hitch accessories like trailer balls and switch balls so you can start towing.

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Installing Trailer Balls and Switch Balls

You should have a easy trip as long as you have the correct trailer ball to match your receiver hitch.
You should have a easy trip as long as you have the correct trailer ball to match your receiver hitch.
Tim McCaig/iStockPhoto.com

Installing trailer balls and switch balls is a relatively simple process as long as you have the correct ball size for your receiver hitch. The receiver hitch is made up of several parts: a ball on top, a long, cylindrical threaded shaft, the lock washer, and the nut, which keeps the ball secured on the receiver's ball mount.

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First, insert the shaft into the receiver hole so the trailer ball is facing upward. Place the lock washer and the nut onto the bottom of the shaft, and then move them up all the way so that they touch the ball mount. Now, screw the nut on very tightly, and keep the ball on top from moving around too much. One way to do this is to grip the ball with a pipe wrench or a large set of pliers. Then, use another wrench to tighten the nut on the bottom until it's locked in place. Every time you tow, make sure the nut and washer are securely fastened.

There are many different types of switch balls. Usually, these have locking pins or grooves inserted into the shank that allow you to unlock the ball from the rest of the unit [source: TrailerHitches.com]. After unlocking the ball, you can swap it out with a different-sized one in order to fit your towing needs. Many switch balls come with multiple ball units included, so you don't have to worry about finding a new ball that fits. Remember, it's very important to install the ball properly, and to have one that's the right size. That little metal ball bears the weight of your 10,000 pound boat, so it's not something to mess around with!

For more information about trailer and switch balls, take a peek at the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources:

  • eTrailer.com. "Tips on How To Tow a Trailer." (10/17/2008)http://www.etrailer.com/faq_trailertowtips.aspx
  • Jackson, Jeff. "Mount & Tighten the Ball of a Trailer Hitch." (10/16/2008)http://www.expertvillage.com/video/118282_mount-tighten-ball-trailer-hitch.htm
  • Jeep. "Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailer Towing." (10/16/2008)http://www.wjjeeps.com/trailer.htm
  • Sierra Nevada Airstreams. "Hitch Parts." (10/16/1008)http://sierranevadaairstreams.org/owners-guide/maintaining/hitchparts.html
  • TrailerHitches.com "Switch Ball - 2 and 2 5/16 Inch Hitch Balls." (10/17/2008)http://www.trailerhitches.com/hitch-balls/specialty-&-heat-treated-hitch-balls/switchballtrade2and2516inchhitchballs.cfm
  • Truck Stuff USA. "Trailer Hitches & Towing." (10/16/2008) http://www.truckstuffusa.com/hitches---winches-hitches.html

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