Trailers can be very useful additions to light commercials of all sizes and there is no shortage of products to choose from, but they can be a legislative minefield.
Trailers can be put to an almost bewildering variety of different uses and their designs can be adapted accordingly.
Take the case, for example, of a lightweight single-axle Ifor Williams BV64e trailer that's been trundling up and down the beach at Newquay in Cornwall. Fitted with wider-than-usual wheels and tyres to stop it sinking into the sand and a distinctively signwritten body, it's being used to help collect rubbish from 20 bins.
The vehicle used to tow it runs partly on biodiesel made from recycled cooking oil and the entire rig has been acquired by none other than celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
Oliver has opened a restaurant in the resort called Fifteen Cornwall. Based on the format of his Fifteen restaurant in London, it's being used to help train disadvantaged youngsters to work in top-flight kitchens. All the profits go to the 15 Foundation.
So why the trailer? “As well as serving great food from as many local producers as possible and offering young people the chance of a lifetime, we want to contribute to recycling as much as possible and do all we can to preserve the amazing natural resources of Cornwall,” replies Liam Black, a Fifteen Foundation director.
A major manufacturer of trailers, Corwen, Denbighshire-based Ifor Williams produces a huge range of products. On offer with either single or tandem axles, its box van trailers alone gross at from 500kg to 3,500kg, and offer load cubes of from 2.3m3 to 14.4m3.
Those gross weights equate to respectable payloads. Its 500kg gross trailer, for instance, will shift up to 300kg and it makes a 3,500kg gross trailer that can be used to haul a 2,600kg cargo; remember that all trailers grossing at above 750kg have to be fitted with brakes.
All sorts of extras and options are on offer, including lashing rings and aluminium treadplate floor coverings. Buyers can specify roller shutter or side-hinged doors and even a door that doubles as a ramp.
The business has been busy strengthening its dealer network. Among the latest recruits is J G Paxtons & Sons, now the new main distributor for Ifor Williams trailers in the North East.
It is selling Ifor Williams products from locations at Alnwick in Northumberland and Pity Me, not far from Durham.
Not to be outdone, Conway Trailers of Wigan is busy promoting its latest line-up of lightweight single- and tandem-axle box-bodied trailers. They use sides made from zinc-coated mild steel and a polyester powder-coated ripple finish for both the interior and exterior.
The floor is made from phenol-coated plywood and a jockey wheel for easy manoeuvrability comes as standard. So do rear drop legs for stability when loading.
Grossing at 900kg, and priced at £1,414 (excl VAT), the VTD907, for example, offers a 580kg payload and is fitted with a single braked axle. The load area is 2,210mm long, 1,295mm wide and 1,460mm high.
Both firms are competing with Bolton-based Indespension. Like Ifor Williams and Conway it makes a wide range of trailers, but its activities do not stop there.
It's a major producer of trailer components, owns 19 distributors spread nationwide — it's represented by a large number of independent stockists too — and runs its own trailer rental fleet. Its distributors fit towbars and its depots at Manchester, Bolton, Norwich, Glasgow and Edinburgh are now offering their customers a courtesy car for them to use while a towbar is being mounted on their own vehicle.
The past 12 months have seen it introduce a new range of open-backed goods trailers with fixed sides and grossing at from 750kg to 3,500kg plus a new tipper trailer line-up.
The goods trailer range includes the braked GT26105, with a gross weight of 2,600kg and the ability to shift a 2,076kg payload. Load length is 3,060mm, load width is 1,550mm and the sides are 39mm deep. Options include a ladder rack and a spare wheel and carrier.
So far as the tippers are concerned gross weights are either 2,600kg or 3,500kg. They are all tandem-axle and have either a manual or an electric tipping action featuring underfloor tipping gear. The sides are removable.
The legislation that governs trailers and towing is something of a minefield.
Taking the topic of the driving licence that's required first, if the trailer you're proposing to tow with your 3.5-tonner doesn't have a gross weight in excess of 750kg then a category B qualification will cover you. In other words, you can drive the combination using an ordinary car driver's licence no matter when you passed your test.
If it grosses at above that weight and the sum of the gross vehicle and gross trailer weights adds up to more than 3.5 tonnes, then you'll need a B plus E category on your licence. If it doesn't, then a B category is sufficient unless the gross weight of the trailer is more than the unladen weight of the towing vehicle.
If that's the case, then a B plus E qualification is required. Keeping up so far?
If you passed your driving test before 1 January 1997, then you'll almost undoubtedly hold that qualification automatically. If you passed it after that date, then you'll need to take a separate test, the Freight Transport Association (FTA) stresses.
So far as Drivers' Hours and tachographs are concerned, if the permitted gross train weight — ie the maximum weight the towing vehicle and trailer combined can operate at — of the rig you're driving exceeds 3.5 tonnes gross, then you're within scope. There are a number of statutory exemptions, however; vehicles being used by the armed forces, for example.
Turning to O (Operator) licences, if both the towing vehicle and trailer have ministry/manufacturer's plates and the trailer's unladen weight is over 1,020kg, then you'll need one if the vehicle and trailer gross weights add up to more than 3.5 tonnes, says the FTA. If the trailer's unladen weight is less than 1,020kg, but the towing vehicle grosses at above 3.5 tonnes then you'll need one too, the association warns.
If the vehicle/trailer don't have ministry/manufacturer's plates, the trailer's unladen weight is over 1,020kg and the sum of the vehicle and trailer unladen weights is over 1,525kg, then yet again, an O licence is needed. If the trailer's unladen weight is below 1,020kg, but the plate-less towing vehicle's unladen weight exceeds 1,525kg, then an O licence is required under these circumstances too.
Again, all sorts of specialised vehicles are exempt from the O licence rules points out the FTA, including those operated by the fire, ambulance and police services.
From the trailer viewpoint it's worth noting that pulling a road roller with a 3.5-tonner won't bring you into O licence scope. Nor will hauling a trailer not primarily designed to carry goods, but which does so incidentally because the operator is involved in road construction, maintenance and repair.
Remember that different speed limits are in force if you're pulling a trailer.
They are 60mph on unrestricted motorways, 60mph on unrestricted dual carriageways and 50mph on other unrestricted roads. If the gross weights of the trailer and towing vehicle combined exceed 7.5 tonnes, then the limits are 60mph, 50mph and 40mph respectively.
Car drivers who passed their test prior to 1 January 1997 are allowed to drive a 7.5-tonner hauling a trailer grossing at up to 750kg. If you passed your test after that date, then you'll need to take another one before you're allowed to become a 7.5-tonner jockey; with or without a trailer.
Bear in mind that trailers require periodic maintenance. This includes checking the tyres, lights and — where fitted — the braking system.
Beat in mind too that overloading a trailer is as serious an offence as overloading a vehicle, with fines and penalty points awaiting you on conviction.
If you're proposing to pull a trailer, then your vehicle will have to be fitted with a good quality towbar made by a manufacturer such as Brink, Dixon-Bate, Witter or Bosal. Once it's in place, make sure that it's not allowed to deteriorate.
Earlier this year Towequipe, the largest supplier of Bosal towbars in the UK, checked the state of health of 48 towbars in service. Its findings were not encouraging; a staggering 41 per cent of them showed defects that required immediate attention.
They included bolts that had not been tightened sufficiently and faults with the electrical connections.
Admittedly these checks were carried out at the National Boat, Caravan and Outdoor Show at the National Exhibition Centre, and involved car owners. But would van and pick-up owners fare any better?
Trailer security is a major area of concern. A hitch-lock can be used to frustrate thieves — when it's in place a trailer cannot be towed away — as can wheel clamps, not to mention posts cemented into the ground to which a trailer can be secured when unattended.
Ways of ensuring that a trailer can be traced if stolen include hidden tags with the identification on, not to mention microdots bearing the same information. Hopefully details of the trailer's ownership will be held by the manufacturer so that the trailer and its lawful owner will eventually be re-united.
All braked trailers built on or after 1 October 1982 must be fitted with a safety device in case the towing vehicle and the trailer part company.
Typically a breakaway cable is used. Usually made from steel, and often plastic-coated, it's attached to both the towing vehicle and trailer.
It goes taut and applies the trailer's brakes if it separates from the tow hitch. Once it has done that it is designed to break so that the trailer comes to a halt some distance away from the towing vehicle. It should not be allowed to become taut during normal use.
Trailers are very versatile and are available in a dizzy array of configuration. They can often negate the need for a second van, especially if used in conjunction with a double cab towing vehicle, but the legislation is a complicated nightmare. A bit of research is required before purchase as take it from us, moving into O licence territory is to be avoided whenever possible.