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The Rise and Fall of Steel and Aluminum Horse Trailers: Why Z-Frame is Taking Over

steel trailerWhen the first modern horse trailers were built in the late 1950’s, they looked much different than trailers today.  Angled iron, cold-rolled steel and bare sheet metal were welded together before being rolled into a booth, primed, and painted.  The weak welded joints quickly succumbed to oxidation and these early trailers rusted out in the blink of an eye. 

Aluminum trailers in the 1980’s seemed like the perfect solution, but they quickly proved to be unsafe in accidents and too weak for long term use.  Public favor has remained with these two styles over the years unaware of a third and much better option.  We’re going to take a look at the problems with older construction methods and talk about the benefits of Z-Frame horse trailers.

What Has Changed in the Industry?

Brad Heath, Double D Trailers owner, explained that much has changed in the construction technology since those earlier designs.  “Sealant paints as well as coatings that were available back then are not nearly as good as what they are today.  In addition, other technologies like 3M VHB (better known as 3M tape) were not available or cost effective.”

Back then, the only way to attach a piece of steel sheet metal to a piece of steel tubing was to weld it.  Unfortunately, there’s not a way to seal off the moisture between the thin sheet and the tubing.  Once the moisture invades, rust begins to form.

(Photo Right:  Modern DDT construction methods use non-mechanical fasteners instead of welding for better durability.)

In order to combat the rusting problem, manufacturers turned to aluminum in the 1980’s.  Companies like Featherlite began to produce very shiny and rust-proof aluminum trailers.  They looked great, cost a ton, and public perception soon accepted the myth that they were the best kind of trailer out there. 

A large reason that people thought aluminum was so great was because it was so expensive compared to steel.  It’s a natural tendency.  Products that cost a lot surely must be worth the extra dollars, right?  In this case, no.  Compared to older steel models, aluminum trailers were much weaker and posed several safety hazards.  Still, more and more manufacturers joined the movement.

“Larger horse trailer manufacturers quickly jumped on the bandwagon and began promoting aluminum as a light weight, non-rusting option in comparison to steel which was heavy and rust prone,” Brad explained.

Fast forward to 2017 and the industry has seen some major advancements.  Today, paints, sealants, compounds, primers, and other technologies used to secure one metal to a different type of metal are much more sophisticated than 30 years ago.  We can secure the trailer skin to the framing without the use of bolts, screws, or rivets that are vulnerable to weathering.

Remember, the weakness of old steel trailers was in the welding points between the tubing and the sheet metal.  If manufacturers from that time had our modern bonding techniques, aluminum may never have risen to power.  Today’s modern steel trailers often take advantage of these new technologies for a longer lasting, albeit imperfect, solution.

(Photo Right:  Crack in aluminum frame welding.)

When it comes down to it, steel trailers are much safer than aluminum trailers.  “The fact is that a steel frame trailer continues to be very durable, very safe, and certainly a preference of mine in comparison to an aluminum chassis.”  Many manufacturers are just in ‘so deep’ with the aluminum construction that they are unable to back out and change designs.

Are Steel Horse Trailers Still Relevant?

A lot of folks out there are still purchasing steel trailers.  Consumers are attracted to the much lower costs and stronger design.  It’s not quite as simple as ‘steel or not steel’ though.  There are actually 3 different kinds of steel trailers being built:

1) All-Steel Trailers:  These older style trailers are still built by brands like Calico.  Cold rolled sheet metal is welded together and painted over.  “This method saves money on labor which reduces cost greatly,” Brad explained.  “The downfall continues to be the ‘thin’ steel sheets tend to rust in the welds and seams.”  These trailers can rust out in a matter of a few years in certain conditions.
2) Steel Frame with Aluminum Skin:  This type of trailer is like an ‘assembled’ product.  A steel frame can be primed and painted before thin aluminum sheets are attached using non-mechanical fasteners.  In today’s market, this is a common construction method and can be seen on brands like Merhow and Adam.  It’s a very durable trailer but ends up costing around the same as an all-steel or aluminum-frame trailer.
1999 Double D Trailer3) Steel Frame with Galvaneal Skin:  The final type of steel trailer design was actually used by Double D Trailers from 1997 to 2008.  If you stumble upon an older Double D model from this era, you’ll likely see that it’s still in pretty good shape.  The galvaneal skin is a galvanized material that is specifically made to not rust.  This manufacturing method saves money on labor and provides a durable product.

(Photo Right: A Double D Trailer from 1999 with a steel frame and galvaneal skin.)

Why All-Aluminum Are Trailers a Bad Idea?

Trailers that have an aluminum chassis with aluminum skin can present a number of dangerous problems.  Double D actually built these trailers for a very short period of time in 2009 before quickly deciding to change course.  “We quickly realized that it wasn’t an avenue we wanted to pursue for horse safety reasons,” Brad admitted. 

There are several problems with aluminum trailers today:

aluminum horse trailer* Aluminum is a great conductor of heat so it transfers heat up from the road and down from the sun to create a very hot trailer interior.  We tested one aluminum trailer and found the interior ceiling to be around 130 degrees.  That's hot enough to cook an egg!  On the same day we tested a Double D Trailer and found a significantly lower heat.  Check out this video to see the whole test. (Photo Right:  A mill finish aluminum room like this one can get very hot in the summer time.)
* Dividers made from aluminum twist and tear when under stress from a panicked horse.
* Horses can rear through an aluminum roof.
* Because aluminum is brittle, it is more likely to break, tear, rip or splinter in a high stress environment.  This could be a problem if your horse spooks or you are in a rear end collision.
* Floors made from aluminum can corrode from horse urine and allow the horse to fall through.

Many people think that a huge advantage to aluminum trailers comes from its lightweight design.  Brad explained, “Weight really isn’t a large factor and it’s more of a misconception than anything else.”  During testing, Double D Trailers found only a 10% variance between an all-aluminum trailer and a steel frame/galvaneal skin trailer of the same model. 

Learn About the Benefits of Z-Frame Construction

Now that aluminum and steel trailers have both had their moment in the spotlight, it’s time for the next generation of materials to take over.  That new material is Z-Frame Technology.  “It’s an awesome technology which every horse trailer manufacturer in the US should be using,” Brad declared.

The process behind this Double D patented technology actually increases the tensile strength of tubing.  The material is impregnated on the inside and outside with zinc and chromate to create an incredibly strong and light weight material.  It is resistant to corrosion and slows heat conduction even during the high days of summer.

Z-frame horse trailer“Most folks reach out to us looking for a trailer that is safe, strong, light-weight, and non-rusting.  Aluminum may accomplish light weight and non-rusting, but as we’ve discussed in previous articles, it can be unsafe.  From a strength perspective, Z-frame beats aluminum hands down in tensile rating.  Plus, there isn’t the issue of ‘cracking’ in the welds which aluminum is prone to do over the years.”

(Photo Right:  A partially built horse trailer using Z-Frame Technology is shown in the foreground at the Double D Trailer factory.)

What about weight?  We compared one of our (briefly constructed) DDT all-aluminum 2 horse bumper pull trailers with dressing room to a Z-frame 2 horse bumper pull with dressing room.  The difference was only 80 lbs. 

Z-Frame is strong AND lightweight!

Extensive testing has been done to show that Z-Frame materials perform better in terms of heat, noise, vibration transfer, and strength.  “As a designer, I am going to use the technology that provides the best durability and safety,” Brad explained.

The focus for Double D Trailers has always been on providing the very top safety features and construction methods.  That means using Z-Frame Technology to construct a strong and durable frame with a Galvalite double insulated wall system.  Our trailer floors are made of either treated lumber or Rumber flooring for easy cleaning and long-lasting benefits.  The trailer’s interior is kept cool with our fiber composite SafeBump roofing system. 

Z-Frame Technology is the base of it all. 

It’s like having the very best foundation on a home before building the rest of the floors.  It provides a reliable, protective, lightweight, and long-lasting trailer structure that will protect your horses during travel.  Z-Frame horse trailers have all of the benefits of both steel and aluminum designs without any of their faults.

Any trailer that doesn’t use the very best materials is taking short cuts that may compromise your horse’s safety. “You do get what you pay for in this industry, so a less expensive price results in ‘less’ trailer for sure,” Brad explained.  “I can do a comparison to any trailer on the market and tell you exactly what ‘corner they cut’ in order to achieve a certain price point if it’s less expensive.”

For comparison, Double D focuses on creating the safest trailer for the best value for our customers.  We also strive to provide impeccable service as noted by our customer reviews.  If you are interested in learning how to finance a Double D Trailer, reach out and start a conversation with Brad Heath today.


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