A note from Dave, founder of FWS: In recent years, the big three truck makers have really made waves with the extremely high payload and towing capacities. Additionally, the cost of buying these big one ton trucks have skyrocketed as well. For most RVers, the cost of medium duty trucks (MDT), even used ones, are hardly affordable. As you will read in the article below, a used and well maintained HDT can be the lowest cost to buy, and it's certainly the safest to tow any RV trailer available. Considering an HDT is a viable option. A specail thanks to John "Jack" Mayer for allowing me to publish his article.
Copyright © 2007-2016 John Mayer. All rights reserved. (Reprinted by permisson.)
First published in ToyHauler Magazine, August 2007
If you have been towing a heavy fifth wheel trailer for any length of time, I'll bet you've had one or more "white knuckle" experiences. Ever been pushed into an intersection by your trailer? Or gone down that mountain "slightly" out of control? Or maybe you just want to go up the mountain faster than 35 mph. You may have modified your pickup to perform better – power chip, exhaust, brakes, gauges, etc. It is easy to dump thousands into a truck to improve performance and still not have a safe and comfortable tow vehicle.
There is another option - buy a retired semi truck and convert it for RV use! There are some distinct advantages to towing with a Heavy Duty Truck (HDT), which is a class 7 or class 8 tractor. An HDT is designed for a 60,000 – 80,000+ gross combined weight, and has brakes and power for that weight class.
Safety, comfort, performance and utility are the major reasons you see more HDTs towing big trailers. Surprisingly, it costs less to buy a used HDT than it does for a new pickup. The most popular tractors for RV conversion, like a Volvo 610/630, 770/780 and Kenworth T2000, can be purchased for between $20,000 and $40,000, depending on age and mileage. They will have between 450,000 and 700,000 miles on them (most trucks average 8-12,000 miles a month). For most people, unaccustomed to the semi-truck world, these mileage figures are shocking. But a tractor is considered to be at about mid-life at 500,000 miles. An HDT in RV use will probably have less than 25,000 miles a year put on it. So a used HDT should last you your lifetime.
An HDT is far more comfortable than a heavy duty pickup. They are designed for drivers to spend long periods of time in, and an uncomfortable driver is an unsafe driver. Air suspension, cab's with air ride, and air ride seats are standard features. Integrated sleepers, refrigerators, microwaves, and comfortable bunks add to driver comfort. Tractors contain all the amenities of your typical pickup; cruise control, two separate heating/air conditioning zones, interval wipers, fully adjustable seating, etc. Plus, you can't beat the view. You are high above the traffic and the ability to see far ahead contributes to your safety.
HDTs have the brakes and power to haul heavy loads. Integrated engine brakes make downhill runs something you look forward to, not dread. In fact, an HDT hauling a heavy 5er down a mountain will not have to use the service brakes at all. You can control your speed by selecting which level of Jake brake to use, along with gear selection. In a panic stop, using brakes designed for an 80,000 lb gross load gets you stopped fast. When it comes time to go up the mountain, simply put on the cruise control and relax. The typical HDT will have a minimum of 400 horsepower and 1450 lb/ft of torque. As we know, it is the torque that gets you up that hill. With a 5th wheel in tow even the biggest mountains in the West are conquered at 55+ mph, and most at whatever speed you choose to cruise at.
Because HDTs are designed for heavy loads, their use for hauling deck cargo is hard to beat. Each of the two rear axles of an HDT is rated for 20,000 lbs. This gives you the ability to design your hauler for whatever application you want. Most people remove one rear axle and build a deck of some sort. Even with one axle removed there is typically still 12,000 lbs of carrying capacity on the remaining rear axle. Depending on the deck design (size), and the original wheelbase of the tractor, you can carry anything from multiple dirt bikes, a Jeep, multiple ATV's or even design a stacker system with ATV's on the bottom, and dirt bikes on the top. Need extra water storage? Drop a 100 gallon water tank under the deck, between the frame rails. Need space for a big generator? Put it in a side box under the deck. Kid's toys (and Dad's) can go into a vertical drom box (storage box) behind the cab. You are limited only by your imagination, ability to build things, and your pocketbook.
Sounds good, right? But they look so BIG! Well, they are tall, that's for sure. Overall height ranges from 10'10" to 13'3", depending on the model, so they aren't going into your typical suburban garage. But they really are not that much longer than a full size crew cab pickup, and the width is the same as a dually pickup. Plus, they do turn much better than a pickup truck because they have more front wheel "cut".
If you do decide to take a closer look at an HDT for your next hauler there are some things to consider. First, you need a place to keep the truck. If you are lucky, you have space at your home for it. Otherwise, you need a secure storage location – probably the same place you keep your trailer. If you intend to keep it at home, do you have city or community covenants that prohibit you from keeping a "commercial" vehicle at your home? Are your neighbors going to be accepting of a large truck next door?
Licensing and registration/titling will vary between states. In many states you need an upgraded license to drive a vehicle (or combination) over 26,000 lbs. Texas and California are two such states, but there are others. In some states this requires a CDL, but many states offer a non-CDL Class A license. You may be able to title the HDT as a motorhome if you meet the requirements of your state. This may allow you to drive on a passenger car license class, but the additional training of an upgraded license class is a good idea if it is available.
Most people who own converted HDTs are pretty handy. They enjoy doing "truck projects". But there are plenty of owners who shop out all or most of the work. A major issue with converting an HDT for RV use is that there are few "turnkey" upfitters. You need to be prepared to shop the work out on your own, or get your hands dirty. Converting from tandem axles to a single rear axle is typically done by a "frame shop". These are easy to find in most areas – in fact, you will be surprised about how many "big truck" service locations there are. It is not hard to get service anywhere in the country. One viable alternative to get a head start on an HDT conversion is to purchase an already converted truck from a private party.
Another issue with using an HDT as a hauler is that they do not have a pickup truck look. There are only two doors, and there are typically no windows in the rear sleeper. If you are hauling a family you will need to remove the rear bunk and add seating, and probably windows on the sides. Removing the lower bunk and adding seating for kids is a fairly simple project if you are handy and enjoy the work. It is easy to get in seating for 3-4 children. Adding some RV windows is typically easy, as well. Throw in some DVD's and LCD screens, and everyone is happy!
Clearly, an HDT is not for everyone. But its advantages outweigh the disadvantages for many people. They are very easy to drive, are safer than hauling heavy weights with a pickup, and lend themselves to customization. From a financial perspective a custom RV hauler based on an HDT will run in the $70,000 range – but you are doing some of that labor yourself. Once complete, it will last you for as long as you want to keep it. Performance and comfort is far beyond anything in the pickup category. So, the next time your trailer pushes you into that intersection, or you are crawling up that mountain, think about what life would be like cruising in an HDT.
For additional information on converting HDTs for RV use see: http://www.jackdanmayer.com and http://www.dmbruss.com. For questions and additional HDT information, the best place on the Internet is the Escapees RV Club Forum at http://www.rvnetwork.com/