Lift & Level: 2013 Pickup Suspension Buyers Guide
Air bags, leveling kits, helper springs, and suspension lifts can make hauling heavy cargo easier while making room for taller tires and more ground clearance
By Peter D. duPre & Bruce W. Smith
Pickups are the workhorses of the blue collar world of heavy construction, landscaping, road building and other outdoor work trades.
Their beds carry heavy loads of gravel, lumber, pipe, fuel drums, welding equipment, equipment parts, tools and supplies to jobsites near and far while the work crew piles inside.
Pickups are also tasked with towing trailers loaded down with everything from landscaping equipment and carpentry tools to skid steers and compact excavators.
Oft times the loads are heavy and the terrain these types of pickups are working in are rutted and rugged.
Over time our work truck’s suspensions start to lose their load-carrying muscle – or taller tires are needed for better ground clearance in and around the jobsites and the stock suspension doesn’t provide enough clearance under the wheel wells to run the taller treads.
It’s in those instances where suspension lift and leveling kits are a contractor’s go-to solution.
Such was the situation in which Bill Turo found himself. Turo runs a landscaping business in western Washington, operating a small three-pickup fleet to handle all his job needs.
Usually, extra-heavy loads aren’t much of a problem for him, as he mainly carries mulch and landscape bark in the cargo box, towing a trailer to carry the usual tools and equipment of his trade.
Recently, however, he has bid on a couple larger jobs that require hauling gravel – not so much that a dump truck delivery is needed, but just enough so that his three trucks are often fully laden.
“These gravel loads are killing me,” remarks Turo.
“My trucks sag at the rear, the tires rub on the inner fenders and don’t seem to be able to handle the extra weight. I am thinking of doing some suspension mods so my trucks can handle the weight better. Adding air bags should give them another 2,500 pounds of payload capacity.”
When we mention the ’05 F-250s in his fleet are only rated to carry 3,000 pounds of payload and an air-spring suspension or a set of helper springs are only intended to help level heavy loads, he says, “Isn’t that the same thing as increasing the payload capacity?”
“No, it isn’t.”
INCREASING LOAD CAPACITY
According to Bruce Beck, marketing manager of PacBrake, a Vancouver, BC, company (www.pacbrake.com) that manufactures air brake and air-suspension systems worldwide, it is a common misconception that adding a load-leveling suspension or heavier-duty springs increases a vehicle’s carrying capacity (GVWR).
“People put in air bags or helper springs and think the mod increases load-carrying ability,” says Beck, but it’s the vehicle manufacturer that determines that based on the axles, brakes, engine, and other components.
“Once that truck leaves the factory, its GVWR can never be legally changed,” says Beck.
“Although adding an air-bag or air-spring suspension won’t legally allow your truck to carry more weight,” continues Beck, “installing one will level out your vehicle, so that it handles more like it does with a lighter load.”
ABOUT AIR SUSPENSIONS
Several methods can improve a pickup’s ride, attitude and handling. Using the lifting ability of air via air-helper springs or an air suspension is one method.
So what exactly is an air helper spring or an air suspension?
Simply put, a heavy-duty rubber “bag” that is inflated to maintain a desired ride height.
The bag is constructed of a multi-layered material similar to that of a tire sidewall and usually has steel cable rings around the outside, for added strength and stability, giving it a coil spring-like appearance.
Many air spring suspension systems are installed in place of the factory jounce stopper that protects the suspension from bottoming on the vehicle’s frame.
Returning the truck back to its level factory ride height changes the weight balance fore and aft.
That, in turn, helps lessen other handling issues such as wallowing in the turns, light front end steering, bottoming out of suspension, rubbing tires and rear sway.
Another benefit of an air helper or air suspension is many of the air springs are individually controlled, so it’s easy to make side-to-side and front-to-rear height adjustments, where an absolutely level ride can be achieved, eliminating the feeling of instability.
The basic helper air-spring kits are typically easy to install and relatively inexpensive.
The more sophisticated the air suspension systems, which may or may not replace the factory springs front and rear, the more installation time and cost. But they all make a big difference in how your pickup “handles” those heavy loads in the bed.
Although a set of rear air springs or overloads can restore a loaded-down pickup’s stock ride height, sometimes the truck’s suspension still needs a little extra help to restore the handling. That’s where aftermarket anti-sway bars enter the picture.
Upgrading to aftermarket sway bars front and rear on a heavy-duty pickup makes a huge difference in stability and control – especially when loaded, lifted or both.
Companies that specialize in suspension and load control, such as Hellwig, have anti-sway bars that replace or upgrade the OE offering. Anti-sway bars are easy to install, taking but a few minutes to position the axle brackets and bolt the bar in place to its end-links.
Also, heavy-duty aftermarket end-links are a good upgrade as well. OE end-links on 4×4 Ram and GM HD pickups are prone to breaking and/or bending when used hard in off-pavement conditions. – Bruce W. Smith
PICKUP LEVELING KITS
Leveling kits are another way to change the stance of a pickup – especially those laden with heavy-duty winches and bumpers. Leveling kits are also a very economical way to gain needed fender clearance to run tires 2 to 3 inches larger in diameter than stock.
Typically leveling kits consist of spacers that go on top of the front coils, or they replace the OE coils with ones that have a higher spring rate (or are longer), so when installed they jack up the front end a couple inches.
Some of the higher-end kits also include longer shocks, which prevents topping out when the front wheels are at full droop. The aftermarket shocks are also valved to provide better suspension control.
The result of installing a leveling kit is a lifting of the front suspension by 1-1/2 to 3 inches, depending on the kit.
That is just enough to provide adequate clearance at the rear of the fenderwell to run the larger diameter tires.
Leveling kits can also help keep the front of the truck at “stock” height when adding a heavy-duty bumper and winch combo.
Otherwise, the additional 200-400 pounds of hardware can cause the front suspension to drop one to two inches, decreasing the frontal approach angle that is often needed around off-road construction sites.
Most leveling kits are easy to install, taking minimal shop labor and basic tools and equipment. They may, however, require having the truck’s front-end be checked for proper alignment.
MODERATE LIFT KITS
When a more substantial need for larger-diameter tires or a higher overall vehicle stance is the goal, then helper springs and leveling kits bow to true lift kits where the OE suspension components are replaced with aftermarket versions.
Lift kits come in as many varieties of engineering quality and design as there are pickup makes and models.
Suspension lift kits range between 4 to 10 inches, although contractors really shouldn’t look at anything more than 6 inches because of vehicle handling and towing considerations in real-world work situations.
The moderate (4- to 6-inch) lifts are designed primarily to accommodate 35-inch tires on full-size pickups, which are a popular size when a truck is used off-pavement.
These taller tires add several inches in ground clearance and improve approach and departure angles – both important benefits to work trucks used around heavy road construction and timber management, or as emergency vehicles.
Remember, the true gain in ground clearance under the differentials is half the difference in tire diameter between the stock tires and the upsize version.
In other words, a 36-inch tire will provide 3 inches more clearance under the lowest point of the truck when compared to a 30-inch-diameter tire.
LIFT BLOCKS VS. LEAFSPRINGS
Most lift kits level out the truck’s rear suspension with either replacement leaf spring packs or blocks that go between the stock leaf pack and the top of the axle housing.
Try to avoid using lift “blocks” in the rear that are more than 2 inches tall. Although spacer blocks are far cheaper than replacement leaf springs, they don’t handle side loading nearly as well as a leaf spring pack.
Spacer blocks also increase the fulcrum point that leads to spring wrap-up and wheel hop under severe traction loads.
So if performance outweighs price, go with replacement leaf springs for that rear lift.
Doing so should avoid any potential negative effects the lift exhibits when towing heavy trailers, carrying heavier loads in the bed, and/or driving in demanding off-pavement conditions.
Also, if the lift manufacturer offers optional springs and/or shocks that give softer, more controlled ride, it pays to take advantage of the more refined technology.
The same holds true for suspension lift kits in general: You get what you pay for when it comes to parts, design, and installation.
The better the engineering behind the kit, the better the ride and handling – and usually the installation goes smoother as well.
Suspension kits that require cutting or welding should be avoided if you plan on returning the truck back to stock at some point in time. Cutting and welding also adds time (money) to the installation costs.
But on lifts greater than 4-inches, you can expect to make such modifications.
Lift kits that don’t include new upper A-arms and shocks on 4-inch or higher lifts are trying to cut corners that you really don’t want cut.
Redesigned upper A-arms, such as those from Cognito Motorsports and BDS help keep the OE suspension and axle geometry intact, reducing chances of alignment, handling and broken axle component issues.
If you like to know more about what you’re getting into before buying a lift or leveling kit for your pickup(s), there’re a number of how-to install articles on the ProPickup website.
Those include leveling kit installs on half-ton 4x4s and 6-inch suspension lifts on heavy-duty GM, Ford, and Ram diesel 4x4s.
If you are in the market for a lift or leveling kit for your pickup or fleet vehicles, check out the showcase of new suspension products below…