By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Old trucker’s maxim: “You can go down the hill too slow many times. You can go down the hill too fast only once.”
Getting the RV down a steep grade safely is an art, one that all of us need to perfect. If you’ve hit the bottom of a long, steep grade and seen an RV beside the road, smoke pouring out from the wheels, you may have muttered something about the “Grace of God.” So just how do you make the grade on the downhill side?
A quick review of physics will help. Brakes work by causing friction (between the brake pads and the rotors or drums) to create heat. That brake action converts kinetic energy (movement) into heat energy. How much heat is produced is a factor of how heavy your rig is and how much speed you want to scrub off with your brakes.
Here’s the rub: If you convert too much kinetic energy into heat energy too fast, you’ll encounter brake fade. There are actually two causes of brake fade – one is when the brake linings reach such a high point that gas builds up between the brake lining and the rotor or drum. The brakes “feel” like they ought to be working, but the ability to scrub off speed is reduced. The other cause of brake fade, again heat related, is when the brake fluid in the system reaches such a high point that the fluid begins to boil, causing a loss of pressure between the brake pad and the drum or rotor. In this case, the brakes will feel “spongy,” and typically your heart feels a bit heavy in your chest.
To keep your rig under control, how you shake off heat from your brakes can make a big difference between making a slow, controlled descent, or one that could be your last. Back when we were kids in driver education (a few ages ago) we were taught, “When you go downhill, step on the brakes lightly, and keep the pressure on until you get to the bottom of the hill.” This is the so-called “controlled braking” method. The theory behind controlled braking is that brake heat is never built up suddenly, but in a gradual fashion.
Here’s the problem with controlled braking. Heat does indeed build up and, yes, perhaps gradually. But on a long grade, the brake materials are constantly producing heat, and never allowed an opportunity to cool down. What can result is damage to the brake system and, ultimately, failure. And if one brake in the system isn’t doing its fair share of the work, the rest of the brakes in the system have to take up the slack, adding even more heat to the mix.
For tractor/trailer combinations, this is an even more critical issue, as the physical design of the system uses a network of valves that use air to actuate the brakes. If the valves are not all set to the same pressure point to actuate, this imbalance may cause some brakes to operate while using a light application of the brake pedal, while other brakes aren’t operating.
There is an alternative to controlled braking, which is “snub braking.” When hitting a downgrade, the snub braking method calls for you to gear down appropriately, use an engine brake (if equipped), and have in mind the maximum safe speed for the grade. When that speed is reached, apply the brakes hard, and drop the speed by five miles per hour. Now let off the brakes and coast, keeping an eye on the speedometer. When the maximum safe speed is hit, repeat the process.
The theory behind snub braking is that while the same amount of heat energy needs to be created to slow down the same amount of weight, the time between “snubs” allows the brake system to cool down, thus alleviating the chances of brake fade. For truck drivers, snub braking, by its “hard on the pedal” nature, will force all the valves in the system to open, making it far more likely that all brakes on the rig do their fair share of braking. Depending on their brake controller, RVers who tow may find their trailer brakes actuate more in tune with the tow vehicle with a snub brake – again, creating a better share-the-load situation.
Snub braking doesn’t make up for bad maintenance or “pilot error.” The boiling point of brake fluid is reduced when it contains contaminants. Brake fluid has a great affinity for absorbing water, and water in brake fluid is a combination that can spell disaster. For that reason, don’t keep the cap off the brake fluid (or the vehicle’s fluid reservoir) any longer than necessary when servicing brakes. Even if you’re careful, though, moisture will just naturally find a way to worm its way into your brake fluid.
Follow the recommended fluid change interval based on your owner manual, and know that if you live in a humid climate, changing the fluid sooner, rather than later, is best. For less than $10, you can get a brake fluid tester (here’s one from Amazon): just dip it in your rig’s brake fluid and the indicator lights will tell you where you stand.
Ensuring that your brake pads and drums or rotors are up to snuff is critical. For those who tow a trailer, this means a regular maintenance routine. If your trailer axles are equipped with an “easy lube” system, forgo the “easiness.” Jack the rig up, pull off the wheels, and inspect the brakes. Make sure your brake controller is properly tuned – both the tow vehicle and the trailer should share the load. Drag out the owner manual and educate yourself on how to properly adjust the system. Manual vanish? Google-search it: You’ll likely find the instructions on the web.
And as to pilot error: That old trucker’s maxim applies to RVers of any stripe, be they motorhomers or dyed-in-the-wool fifth-wheelers. You can’t go down a steep grade too slowly. Keep in the slow lane, drop down the gears, and use common sense. The faster you drive, the more heat you’ve got to scrub off to slow the rig down to a comfortable zone. If you use the snub system and find you’re having to snub your brakes every few seconds, you’re going too fast. Drop a gear, drop the speed, and get to the bottom with a smile on your face.