Importing Airstreams/ American trailers to the UK

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Importing American Trailer Caravans to the UK

There is a lot of myth and rumours surrounding the importation of American travel trailers such as Airstreams to the UK and the legalities of these trailers for towing in this country.

First lets deal with the weights and dimensions

American trailers are measured in imperial weight. (lbs) There are 2240 lbs to the ton
European trailers are weighed in metric (kgs) and there are 1000kgs to the tonne.
The imperial ton and the metric tonne are different.
Easiest is to convert the imperial lbs to kgs to work out your weight for towing and the nose weight of your trailer.
1kg = 2.2046226 lb
Therefore an Airstream weighing 2250 lbs with a nose weight of 250 lbs would be:-
Weight 2250 lb = 1020.5828 kg
Nose weight 250lb = 113.39809 kg

You need to get this right so that you can work out the vehicle you need to tow it with.

The most important check is the vehicle manufacturer's recommended towing limit, which should be in vehicle manufacturer's handbook and on the VIN plate on the chassis.
A good rule of thumb, for safety and stability, when towing a caravan, is the 85% figure recommended for caravans by the Caravan Club. This suggests that you should not tow a caravan that weighs more than 85% of the towing vehicle's kerb weight. (as long as 85% does not exceed the vehicle manufacturer's recommended towing limit. (The kerb weight is defined as the weight of the vehicle plus a full tank of petrol and 75kg (for the driver and luggage)

Police Forces use the manufacturer's recommended towing limit as their guide.Under no circumstances should the vehicle's gross train weight be exceeded.

The Americans mostly measure their trailers from bumper to hook (i.e. overall). And their tape measures seem to differ in size from year to year and state to state!
We have had the same year and model of trailer that have been quoted as 22 ft differ by as much as 21ft 10ins for the smallest to 22 ft 9ins for the largest so don't believe the spec sheet get out a tape and measure it yourself.
Here in the UK the measurement that counts is the floor of the accommodation. Everything outside of this does not count for the purpose of legal towing dimensions. There is an exception to this rule though, Overhang. But trust me, if you have so much of an overhang as to fall foul of the law then the trailer would probably not be towable in any case so we will ignore this. Those of you who wish to know maximum overhangs can get this information on the web.

Maximum towing length and width is dependant on the gross vehicle weight of the tow vehicle.

Towing vehicle up to 3500kg GVW
Length (excluding the coupling and drawbar) 7.0 m (22.965879 feet)
Width Maximum 2.3 m (7.5459318 feet)

Towing vehicle over 3500kg GVW
Length (excluding the coupling and drawbar) 12 m (39.370079 feet)(min 4 wheels)
Width Maximum 2.55 m (8.2020997 feet)
Length of towing vehicle and trailer combined 18 m (59.055118 feet)

Towing electrics

First you will need to check your trailers DC electrics and ensure that they are the same earth system as your tow vehicle. Most European vehicles now use the Negative earth (-) system although earlier vehicles may be positive (+) earth. In our experience the Americans don't seem to care and we have come across both on all ages of trailer.

There are a variety of connectors used State side to connect the trailer to the tow vehicle whatever the connector on the trailer you will need a plug to fit it and a standard 7pin Euro connector and have a 'SUZI' made up to link the trailer with the tow vehicle. Any competent auto electrician should be able to handle this job.

You may, depending on the age and type of your trailer, have to alter the wiring to the rear tow lights as early American trailers combined the indicator with the stop lamp. But again a competent auto electrician should be able to sort this. Another alternative is to have extra rear lights fitted.

Her is an extract from the trailer lighting regulations

Trailers must have on the back two red sidelights, two red stop lamps, an illuminated number plate and two triangular red reflectors plus amber indicators designed to flash between 60 and 120 times per minute. If they are more than 1.3m wide, they must also have at least one red fog lamp. All trailers built after Sept 30th 1990 require front reflectors. They must have front reflectors and, if they are more than 1.6 metres wide, front position lights. Requirements:
If, in the case of direction indicators, it is not possible to meet the maximum height requirements, this dimension can be increased to 2300mm.
If, in the case of the rear position (tail) lamps and stop lamps, it is not possible to meet the maximum height requirements, this dimension can be increased to 2100mm.
On trailers manufactured after 1 October 1985, the maximum height of the red triangular reflectors can be increased to 1200mm if necessary.
Trailers manufactured after 1 October 1985 require numberplate's, illuminated by an 'E' or 'e' marked lamp. If a clear window in the rear position lamp is approved, this can be used instead of a separate numberplate lamp but must be fitted to the manufacturer's instructions with regard to distance from the numberplate.
At least one rear fog light is mandatory on trailers over 1.3 m wide. Two lamps are preferred but, if only one is fitted, it must be to the offside or on the centre line of the trailer.
No maximum distance from the outer edge of the trailer is stated for a fog lamp(s) but there must be a minimum distance of 100mm from the stop lamp.
The distance of the direction indicator from the side of the trailer may not exceed the actual distance of the rear lamp by more than 50mm.
Trailers manufactured after 1 October 1985 which are more than 1600mm wide, (except boat trailers) require front position lamps (clear lens).
Certain trailers must have side position lights which show white to the front and red to the back. In addition, trailers over certain lengths must have amber side reflectors.

Brakes & Hitches

This is a very controversial issue. Many folks are of the opinion that electric brakes fitted to many American trailers are illegal. This is not true. Electric brakes are perfectly legal but they do require the fitment of a breakaway switch that will operate the trailer brakes in the event of separation from the tow vehicle. They also require the fitting of a parking brake that is capable of holding the trailer when it is uncoupled from the tow.

It is possible to fit an electric brake controller to the tow vehicle that will comply with EU/UK regs. However this does mean that if you change your tow vehicle then you would have to reconvert each time you change so for some folk this is not a practical way to go.

More practical for most folk is to change the hitch for a standard EU style that has the provision for an inertia (over ride) brake system built in. It is then a relativity simple engineering matter to hook this up to your trailers original brakes. This also gives the easy addition of a hand or parking brake thus complying with all regs.

The myth about having to completely change your axle for an EU one is entirely that.........a Myth.
The only reason for changing an axle would be if your original axle was so worn out or damaged as to need complete replacement............We have never yet seen this although I suppose there is always a first time.

The standard American hitch on most of these imports is 2 inch (although there are others) This is slightly larger than the European standard of 50mm and so if you are retaining the original hook on your trailer you will need a 2 inch ball on your tow vehicle. A 2 inch hook does not sit well on a 50mm ball although it will go on it will cause a lot of 'hitch chatter' , will cause undue and accelerated wear of the ball and could, in theory, cause the ball to break off under extreme conditions. So we would not recommend using a standard 50mm European ball with a trailer retaining it's original 2 inch hook.

Domestic systems

Pure fact of the matter here is you do not need to do anything by law. However, We would urge you to strongly consider making upgrades and modifications to your domestic systems.

Your American trailer is a large and valuable investment. How would you feel in the event of an accident if your insurance assessor said that they would not pay out because the trailer did not comply with EU/UK code?

Many folk think that just putting in a building site transformer to convert 240v domestic mains electric to 110v American system is enough. Building site transformers give dirty power. That is to say it is not stable and often does not give the right frequency. This may be OK for running lights etc. but can damage more sensitive equipment like Microwaves etc. and they buzz like hell. Also you have metal pipes for both Gas and plumbing that are not earth bonded

You will also need EU/UK compliant hook up cables for 240v electric.

Gas systems are often not up to EU/UK standard and need checking and possible modifications

Sewage is also not often up to EU/UK standard and also needs checking and possible modifications

Some form of battery charging system for your domestic batteries is also desirable

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