The invention of trucking’s fifth wheel dates back more than one hundred years, when inventor Hermann Farr and his partner, Charles Martin, applied for a patent in 1915. Grease, of course, has been around far longer for thousands of years.
The two seem inseparable – grease is applied to the fifth wheel top plate to keep the connection between truck and trailer smooth and lubricated. But is greasing the fifth wheel top plate still the only option more than a century after the fifth wheel’s debut?
Based on a survey sent to more than 500 trucking fleets, 72% of truckers use grease.
Applying grease to a single truck does not take much time – only a couple of minutes. But depending on the size of the fleet and the frequency of application, companies can spend a substantial amount of time greasing every unit.
Protecting the Fifth Wheel
There is not a standard schedule for recommended fifth wheel greasing applications because of the multiple factors at play – the weight of the trailer and load, the driving conditions, and how often the fifth wheel and trailer face are cleaned.
Like many other professions, truckers may routinely find themselves under time constraints and deadline pressures. The temptation may develop to gloss over regular maintenance, but trying to stretch the length of time between grease applications – or simply failing to grease for long enough – can create significant safety issues.
“I do not believe we have enough grease on the fifth wheels most of the time as we drop and hook daily,” one assistant operations manager said.
Failing to grease the fifth wheel frequently will cause metal- on-metal friction that negatively impacts both the truck and trailer, as well as other components like suspension and steer-tire wear. It can cause problems in how the trailer pulls, but the potential risks extend beyond an inconvenience, wear- and-tear, or a driving hazard.
According to the safety manual of one truck manufacturer, neglecting routine fifth wheel maintenance could ultimately lead to tractor-trailer separation – a catastrophic scenario for all parties involved.
Automatic greasing systems are an alternative to performing manual applications. A relative newcomer to the industry, these greasing units are installed on each truck and ease the burden on technicians and mechanics.
The most significant downsides to the automatic greasing systems are the cost of each unit and the ongoing cost of grease, which is why some companies have explored other grease-free options.
When the fifth wheel is greased, sometimes the truck and trailer become stuck together because of the way the fifth wheel top plate interacts with the trailer’s upper coupler. The 5th Wheel Slick Plate helps reduce that risk, and it’s a benefit Hagen noticed when he switched friction sources.
Greasing the fifth wheel has been necessary routine maintenance for more than a century in the trucking industry, but technology is advancing to the point where it is no longer required. It is a messy job that often results in the grease running up the side of the truck, which can result in a less than professional image for a company.
Automatic greasing systems provide some relief, but with the cost of the unit, ongoing maintenance, and the cost of the grease itself, it is still not considered the best alternative to simple greasing.
For years, Teflon plates have been the standard industry alternative to grease applications, but they are complex to install and wear down quickly, causing many Teflon plates to carry a simple two-year warranty.