Is our trailer on fire!?

Words you don’t want to wake up to: “I need you to get up. Our trailer’s smoking pretty bad. Could be on fire.”

Adam’s so calm in these situations! He then stepped out and head to the back of the truck with a flashlight.

I unbuckled myself hurriedly, threw on my shoes, opened the bunk and reached for the fire extinguisher. Just in case.

In school they taught us it was a DOT violation to NOT have an extinguisher on the truck. It also must be charged. And secured. But nobody ever showed us how to un-secure the darn thing. It’s such a stupid, simple thing you don’t think about until you want it – or need it – pronto!

Thankfully, by the time I got to the point of finding the latch to release it, Adam jumped back in and said the trailer was not on fire. It was just smoking really bad.

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I thought the brake pads were melting like plastic. Turns out that's just grease drips. Learning stuff!

So what happened?

Oftentimes, driving a truck down a steep grade, you can get going too fast. If you’re in too high of a gear, all you can do is use your engine brake and stab brake – meaning you get to a certain speed, hit the brakes pretty hard, but sort of gradual, then when you get to 5 or 10 mph below the speed you want to go, you let up and basically coast until your speed picks up again and you need to stab brake again.

Braking too much can cause the brake pads to get too hot, and they’ll start burning up and smoking.

So it would seem like that’s what happened, but it didn’t make sense to us. We were puzzled. We were driving down a grade in California that we drive down every week. Adam was driving the same way he does every time, and we’ve never had a problem before. The speed limit is 55mph in California for trucks, so he was trying to keep the truck at about that speed. Not too fast.

We eventually got a roadside mechanic to come out and take a look. This guy… first of all, he shows up in coveralls, knee pads and get this – flip flops! I know he probably had to roll out of bed to attend to our [super-annoying] problem, but his footwear choice made me nervous for him. I couldn’t watch. I was almost embarrassed for him. But anyway…

After being totally rude to us about why our brakes were smoking – before asking what happened or even saying hello – he says, “you weren’t using your engine brake and you were going to fast.” Ouch, dude… not even a chance to explain anything. Okay… He then got underneath and looked at our trailer. After he realized we needed a slight adjustment, and we had the chance to tell him that we actually WERE using our engine brake and going no faster than 60mph, his tune changed a bit. “Well, you shouldn’t have had a problem going that speed.” Yeah, thanks. You’re still a jerk.

It doesn’t help our situation that our engine brake is more of an “exhaust brake” as he put it, which in simple terms means it’s kind of wimpy. But we sort of already knew that from experience. But we’ve still never had this happen – wimpy engine brake and all.

It was determined, I think, that the brakes needed to be adjusted a half turn. There’s like a big screw that can be turned to even out the brakes. If one brake isn’t pulling its weight the others have to make up for it. So they end up overworked and they can smoke. After the quick fix we were back on the road, rolling down the rest of the hill.

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The slack adjuster and push-rod that gets adjusted.

Being a truck driver is so humbling and kind of disheartening, as Adam put it. It’s true. Everything and anything that happens can always be traced back to being an avoidable situation somehow. And it sucks, because you can look over this truck 5 times in one shift (which we truthfully do sometimes) and miss the ONE tiny thing that’s going to bite you in the butt down the road.

We adjust our brakes automatically on a pretty consistent basis, too, darnit. You just hold down the service brake hard for a second, let up and repeat a few times. You can sometimes physically feel them adjust. Adam had just stopped at a required brake check pull-out and did just that. We’re not sure if it wasn’t enough, or if the brakes were a little too out of adjustment for our auto-adjust to work on them. We have an almost brand-new trailer, too, so the thought was maybe they didn’t get adjusted quite right in the factory – from the start.

Either way, we leave thinking, “could we have caught this on our pre-trip? We should have somehow, right? How do we next time?” The answer is to have one person crawl under the trailer with a ruler to measure the push rod’s travel (all four on the trailer, all four on the drives and two on the steers) while the other person applies the brake. Oh, fun. It’s dirty work and takes time, but I suppose it’s necessary.

“All’s well that ends well, right?” One thing is for sure – I now know how to release the fire extinguisher. Oh, and I’m pretty happy that our trailer wasn’t on fire.


Tonight I love nice people. It’s difficult to turn something like this into a learning situation when someone’s being condescending, impatient and just plain mean. So I just really love nice people. Thank you for being nice. :)

And… here’s some pretty pictures.

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Sky art!

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A backroad in Nevada where I took a walk.

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Mountain scenes that keep me dreaming but make my heart ache a little. They're RIGHT THERE!

Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!

With love,
Toots Magoots
(Robin Grapa)

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4 thoughts on “Is our trailer on fire!?

  1. In addition to driving truck, I also used to be a truck mechanic for UPS. You can make yourself a tool that will easily allow you to check the movement of your push rod. It looks like a big tuning fork but is made from a flat piece of steel with a groove cut out that just fits right in front of the little fork on the push rod, right where the cotter pin is. It’s only a one-person job to check them with this tool. You set the truck brakes and release the trailer brakes then crawl underneath the trailer and pry with your tool. I don’t remember if it’s an inch or just half an inch of travel you want, but you’ll pretty quickly learn to ‘feel’ the right adjustment. Then set the trailer brakes and release the truck brakes and you can check the truck the same way. You can also carry a 9/16″ wrench and adjust the brakes yourself if you felt comfortable doing that, once you got someone to show you how it’s done.

    When I was driving mail ‘my’ truck went into the shop one day and I had to use another guy’s truck and trailer for my run. He had a short daily run that was very easy on his brakes, no hills or anything. Well I was coming down a huge hill on my 4-hour return trip, and there was a car turning left at the bottom of it, and I HAD NO BRAKES. None! They were that far out of adjustment due to the regular driver’s easy run, he never needed them for a hard stop so never knew they were out of adjustment so bad. Luckily for me there was a large berm that I was able to barrel around the car with my heart hammering in my chest so hard I thought I would have a heart attack if I did not manage to kill anyone first. (It was a two-lane road, too! Utterly scary beyond words.) and at the first available pull out I got out and adjusted the truck and trailer brakes as best I could with a big screwdriver and a small crescent wrench. I never EVER went on a run without my 9/16 wrench and a pry bar again though!

  2. Yay for walkable back roads … I get the feeling you needed that one!

    And boo for people who can’t take a minute to be kind. If you’re out helping people it just means someone had a day even worse than yours. Try to be gracious, you never know when it will be your turn to need help, guy.

  3. A few weeks ago I had to drive into Reno super early in the morning (I live 60 miles away in Fallon). As I came into Fernley, I was behind a truck pulling two trailers. I was groggy and trying to stay awake, so not really paying attention at first. As we came up to the roundabout, I realized I was catching up to the guy fast and had to brake kind of hard. But I hadn’t seen any brake lights on the truck. At first, I didn’t think anything of it – just figured he was downshifting or something. And then it dawned on me, his back trailer had no lights – no lights AT ALL. No marker lights or anything. It was dim, early morning and I figured this guy really needed to get those lights on. I actually followed him into a truck stop to tell him about his lights. All of the truckers at the gas station were staring at me and looking weirded out as I walked up to his truck. The guy himself was a little shocked I was approaching him but when I told him about his lights, his face lit up and he said, “Oh my God! Thanks.” Maybe he would have figured it out during his inspection but I felt I needed to do something.

    • That’s cool that you let him know! We had our trailer lights go out once right at dusk. Thankfully I noticed it as I made a turn into a truck stop where we were able to fix it. The electrical line got yanked out somehow.

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