Any car or truck owner should make sure his or her vehicle is in top shape before heading out on the road. Making sure tires are properly inflated, having the wheel alignment checked and carrying the right amount of weight in your vehicle will help ensure a safe ride and potentially avoid costly repairs. For people who need to tow a payload, steering is an especially important consideration, because the extra weight behind a vehicle will cause its steering system to act differently. Sometimes, adding steering stabilizers to a tow vehicle is a good choice to provide extra insurance against towing accidents.
While steering stabilizers help your tow vehicle drive or handle better out on the road, you won't be able to -- and shouldn't try to -- drive figure eights or doughnuts around the parking lot in your tow vehicle after installing new steering stabilizers.
There are four major types of steering stabilizers that drivers can use in their tow vehicles: coil springs, coil-hydraulic hybrids, hydraulics and gas springs. Unlike some other towing systems, steering stabilizers aren't required by law on trucks and recreational vehicles, but many drivers choose to use them for better steering, more security and peace of mind. Using spring technology, hydraulics or some variation of the two, steering stabilizers act a bit like the shock absorbers used for car suspension. While shocks are installed almost vertically as part of the car's suspension system, steering stabilizers are typically mounted horizontally near the steering knuckle.
So how do they work, and how is each one different from the next? Read on learn about towing steering stabilizers.
Coil Spring Steering Stabilizers
A coil spring is simply a long metal bar that's been bent into a slightly flexible coil that looks like the railing on a spiral staircase. There are actually two types of coil springs -- tension coil springs and compression coil springs. Tension coil springs are built to resist stretching and work a lot like a bungee cord. A Slinky, in fact, is technically a tension coil spring; if you stretch a Slinky apart, it wants to pull itself back in.
The type of coil spring used for steering control is a compression coil spring. This kind of spring resists compression, so that when you push down on it in an attempt to keep all the metal parts together, the spring bounces back into place the moment you let go. Coil spring steering stabilizers help control the steering by keeping a "memory" of the wheels' center position. When you turn your steering wheel, the coil spring is pushed together. If you let go of the steering wheel, the tension in the coil spring will release, and the steering wheel will return to its original location.
How do coil-hydraulic steering stabilizers differ from the coil spring design? Read about the extra juice hydraulics give to traditional springs on the next page.
Coil-hydraulic Steering Stabilizers
Although hydraulic machines generally are associated with heavy-duty construction machines like bulldozers, forklifts and cranes, you can find hydraulics in smaller, simpler machines, too. Even the brakes in your car use hydraulics to operate. When you press down on your car's brake pedal, you're actually causing a piston to push against an incompressible fluid. This action is transferred to slave pistons located at each wheel, which cause the brake pads to press against the brake rotors and slow down the car.
Coil-hydraulic steering stabilizers work in a similar manner to normal coil springs -- compression coils try to resist when you turn the wheel of a tow vehicle, so that when you let go of the steering wheel, the springs bring the wheels back to their original position. The only difference in a coil-hydraulic system is a piston in the center of the spring that resembles and acts like a shock absorber in your car's suspension. Working with the coil spring, the hydraulic piston provides extra stability for the system by keeping the spring from snapping back into place too quickly.
What about purely hydraulic steering systems -- what happens without springs? See the next page to learn about hydraulic steering.
Hydraulic Steering Stabilizers
Coil-hydraulic steering control is an assisted system in which hydraulic power helps a separate mechanical system. A fully hydraulic steering control system, on the other hand, differs from a coil-hydraulic system in that the vehicle receives its steering stability solely from hydraulics.
Hydraulic steering stabilizers work similar to the coil-hydraulic system -- minus the coil spring. Rather than using a compression coil spring to bring the wheels back into place and a hydraulic piston to dampen the action, in this case, hydraulics are doing all of the work. As mentioned earlier, other than being mounted horizontally, a hydraulic steering stabilizer looks like and acts similar to a shock absorber in your car's suspension.
Hydraulic steering stabilizers are typically used for large tow vehicles. They provide greater steering stability, better control and smoothness, all under the stress of extra weight.
The newest steering stabilizers on the towing market use gas springs. Learn how they work on the next page.
Gas Spring Steering Stabilizers
Many different kinds of machinery use gas springs for operation -- you can find them in everything from hospital bed and fitness equipment adjustment systems to vehicle and aircraft applications. Gas springs don't look like typical coil springs. Instead, gas springs are cylinders that look and act similar to a syringe. Within the cylinder is a piston, which works to compress the gas and provide a force to aid in keeping the wheels straight. Oil is circulated around the piston to keep the area between the piston and the cylinder wall well-lubricated and to allow smooth movement.
The type of steering stabilizer you consider depends on the type of tow vehicle you own. If you want extra safety during your towing trips, make sure that you look into each specific system before you pick out the best steering stabilizers for your tow vehicle. Doing so will give your steering components longer life, save you money on expensive repairs and maybe even prevent a little driver fatigue on the highway since you won't be fighting the steering wheel to keep your vehicle on the road.
For lots more information about steering stabilizers and other towing systems, see the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- iCARumba.com. "Suspension and steering." (Sept. 29, 2008) http://www.icarumba.com/cobrands/contentmodules/resourcecenter/encyclopedia/ icar_resourcecenter_encyclopedia_suspsteer1.asp#top
- Industrial Gas Springs. "Technical info." (Oct. 5, 2008) http://www.indgassprings.com/pages/tech_intro.html
- Magnus Mobility Systems "How gas springs work." 2005. (Oct. 5, 2008) http://www.magnusinc.com/mus/products/gassprings/index.asp
- Stover, Robin. "Hydraulic steering tech." FourWheeler.com. (Sept. 29, 2008) http://www.fourwheeler.com/techarticles/suspension/129_0611_hydraulic_steering_tech/ index.html
- Towing World. "Steering controls." (Sept. 29, 2008) http://www.towingworld.com/articles/steeringcontrols.htm