Motorhome advice: Levelling up
Words: Peter Rosenthal
No matter what your motorhome, there’s usually room for improvement, particularly with the ride comfort and handling.
The good news is that it’s easy to improve this with an air suspension set-up and the improvement in ride quality, stability and safety is dramatic. Various systems are available from basic manual systems at a budget price, to all-singing-and-dancing models that will actively monitor and adjust ride height.
A self-levelling system is different and works when you get to a campsite by levelling the motorhome in seconds at the touch of a button, making it rock steady. It has many other benefits, too, which we’ll detail later.
But first back to air suspension and to understand how this could work for you, it helps to know about the original suspension.
At each wheel on a motorhome there are two components: a spring and a damper (often wrongly referred to as a shock absorber).
The job of the spring is to support the weight of the vehicle and absorb bumps, while the damper reduces the oscillation of the spring, controlling its compression and rebound (dampening the oscillation, hence its name).
While the springs can take various forms – such as coils, leafs and torsion bars – the dampers are usually an oil-filled unit pressurised with gas.
Often on motorhomes there is an additional spring assistor – usually found between the rear leaf spring and chassis on many Ducato models – which works in partnership with the spring to give additional resistance and cushion the ride (these often touch the chassis and MOT testers should not confuse them with bump stops – devices designed to prevent the suspension bottoming out).
Most motorhomes use a combined strut at the front with the spring wrapping around the damper and attached to the steering arm – this is a MacPherson strut.
On older motorhomes, the springs can tend to sag so it’s worthwhile fitting uprated springs and renewing the dampers if they’re not in the first flush of youth.
The issue is that all motorhome suspension is a compromise – while the base vehicle makers work closely with motorhome builders, they will supply a fixed range of suspension settings. This might work for the majority of vehicles, but not all.
This might mean that your motorhome drives more firmly than you would like, or is too softly sprung. So, if your motorhome rattles your fillings out over bumps or it wallows like a drunken hippo when cornering, what can be done to improve it?
Basic air-assisted suspension (Semi-Air)
(From £450 per axle plus fitting)
If you’ve ever been stuck behind a tipper truck on the motorway, you’ll probably have noticed the two large rubber bellows fitted between the rear axle and the chassis.
These air-filled bags are what supports the weight of the truck and they allow it to drive smoothly both laden and unladen, by simply varying the pressure inside the airbags.
It’s tried and tested technology that has been used for years and the good news is that these adjustable systems are available for motorhomes.
Sometimes referred to as semi-air or air assistance, this type of unit can be either professionally installed or a competent DIYer can fit them.
I fitted a set of Air-Lift airbags to my last campervan and the difference in ride and handling was astonishing – it reduced the roll in corners, stopped the family feeling seasick and made a huge improvement to comfort.
The air bellows are usually fitted to the rear axle only – often between the axle and the chassis in place of the bump stop (or spring assistor).
They can also be fitted to the front axle of many vehicles, sometimes by adding an airbag in the centre of the front coil spring. On most Ducato/Boxer/Relay-based vehicles, front air suspension replaces the entire front MacPherson strut with a new unit.
The most basic air suspension is pumped up using a simple Schrader valve – just like on a bike tyre – and the air pressure inside it can be increased to firm up the ride, or decreased to allow a softer ride.
Although they can be pumped up manually with a bike pump or a 12V compressor, it’s far better to have a built-in on-board compressor, which usually comes with built-in pressure gauges that are mounted in the cab.
The pressure in the bags can then be monitored and adjusted without you having to leave your seat.
Air suspension not only reduces body roll when cornering, it also improves stability when passing trucks and helps improve ride quality.
Being able to adjust the suspension to maintain a level ride height is a big plus, especially if you have different loads or more people in the ’van.
Air suspension also allows the ride height to be raised to prevent the body sagging when fully laden and can also increase the ground clearance and prevent the rear bodywork scraping.
This distributes the weight between the front and rear axles, making it more dynamically stable on the road. There are also systems that allow users to vary the pressure in each side of the vehicle to compensate for uneven load distribution.
To give an idea of the fitted cost, Glide-Rite can fit rear air-assistance to a Ducato-based motorhome for around £1,100, including 8in Firestone airbags, a digital gauge in the cab and a three-year warranty. If a motorhome has an Al-Ko chassis, it costs a little more – around £1,900 – while tag-axles will need one system per axle, increasing this to £2,700.
Not all semi-air systems are the same – the differences mainly lie in the way they are controlled.
This starts from a very basic manual adjustment, which is handy for those who always travel at or around the same weight. The compressor versions give more flexibility over adjustment.
Finally, there’s electronically controlled systems that automatically control ride height regardless of weight, which is suitable for those who frequently take trips with different numbers of people on board or different levels of kit.
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Full air suspension
(From £3,000 per axle fitted)
Full air suspension replaces both the spring and damper with an airbag – and can be fitted in place of the rear leaf springs on most vehicles and in place of the front MacPherson strut on many base vehicles.
It’s more complex than semi-air as the suspension components have to be replaced with new parts to suit the airbags so the cost is higher.
These full air systems can’t be fitted at home – it voids the warranty – as they’re far more sophisticated than semi-air and more complex to fit.
Full air systems can be fitted to the front, the rear or on both axles (the latter is the most popular for campervans).
Often with upgraded front springs and dampers, this can offer a much higher level of adjustment to a semi-air system. It’s often linked with a ride control system that can maintain a constant ride height, which is set by the owner, by rapidly adjusting the airbag pressure.
Most ambulances have this sort of system fitted – all the on-board medical kit makes them heavy and it increases the safety of the occupants.
As well as being able to keep a ’van level at all times, full air suspension also offers a much wider range of ride heights.
So, the ’van can be fully lowered for easier access or raised to improve ground clearance – this can be useful when boarding a ferry with a steep ramp.
Some systems use a single airbag per axle, while others have twin airbags for the ultimate in comfort, adjustability and load bearing.
The costs vary depending on the vehicle, but to give an idea, a full rear air system for a Renault Trafic costs around £3,000 fitted including an intelligent ECU that allows the ride height to be infinitely adjusted to maintain a constant ride height irrespective of load.
For a Ducato, the costs are around £4,000 to fit a system to the rear axle.
The traditional method of levelling up a motorhome involves a set of ramps. These bulky plastic wedges can go under the front, rear or side of the motorhome’s axle and two people are usually needed to safely drive onto them.
They can be fiddly to use and, if you don’t have good clutch control or a delicate right foot, it’s easy to roll back off them, or drive off the end.
Even when levelled on ramps, there is still the issue of rocking on the suspension, which can be annoying, especially if your ’van has softer suspension, or lacks air assistance.
American RVs and coach-based A-class models have used a much better system for many years, in the form of an automatic levelling system and these are available for all sizes of motorhome at different price points.
These systems come in many guises – using either hydraulic or electric rams – and allow the motorhome to level itself automatically on any surface at the touch of a button, or an app on a smartphone.
The TESA Autolift electrical system, sold by RoadPro, costs from £2,495 plus fitting and uses four electrical actuators linked to an electronic brain. It can lift vehicles of up to 5,000kg and is quite a lightweight system at around 50kg in total.
Most levelling systems use hydraulics, with the principle that a fluid can’t be compressed. It’s a similar technology that is used on excavators and most heavy plant machinery.
The motorhome systems feature a compact pump, valve box and hydraulic reservoir, linked by pipes to four rams located close to each of the vehicle’s axles.
The hydraulic pump unit can be either located inside the ’van, or underneath it, depending on the layout and where the user wants it.
Many of the hydraulic systems also include a manual pump, as an emergency backup, so it makes sense to locate this somewhere convenient.
Compared to levelling ramps, a self-levelling system is a joy to use. Most take under two minutes to level a ’van and, thanks to large-diameter pads under the rams, they can be used on most surfaces – from grass pitches to hardstandings.
Once the vehicle is lifted up on the rams, it becomes as stable as a domestic house and will keep the fridge perfectly level (absorption fridges – the common three-way found in most motorhomes – do not like being tilted).
The other big plus is that levelling systems can be used over winter lay-up, or any period when the motorhome is sat idle for some time, to keep the weight off the tyres, reducing the risk of flat spots and extending their life.
Most systems allow the rams to be adjusted from side to side and front to back, so they can be fine-tuned to suit and can level a ’van on most surfaces.
They can also be used to lift the motorhome off the ground safely, allowing flat tyres to be changed without having to use a jack.
Some systems also allow you to work underneath the ’van as the legs lock in position – but check with the manufacturer first. We’d advocate also using axle stands.
Many levelling systems can also be programmed to include additional modes, such as tilting the vehicle to one side to aid water tank draining, or setting it at a slight angle to help shower water reach the plughole.
Most systems will automatically retract when the ignition is switched on, but you do need to wait a few seconds until they’re fully retracted before driving off.
Before fitting a self-levelling system, make sure there is sufficient payload to add one – they range in weight from around 50kg upwards. Look for either aluminium rams, or an electric system if you’re really short of payload.
The Ma-Ve automatic hydraulic levelling system weighs around 50kg and costs from £4,750 (including VAT) fully fitted, complete with a three-year warranty, separate control panel and a Bluetooth app for phone activation.
It can level a motorhome on almost any ground in seconds and has a manual override system to retract the feet if the pump ever has an issue (a lock-out feature in the legs prevents the rams dropping should a pipe fail or be cut, too). Ma-Ve also has a full-time mobile technician the UK to back up its warranty.
LNB Towbars are the UK distributor for HPC systems, which weigh around 46kg and uses aluminium rams combined with galvanised brackets.
It costs around £5,250 for a Ducato and around £5,995 for other vehicles (depending on layout).
As well as the normal full levelling system – which takes around 90 seconds – it also features a Quick Level function that partially levels the motorhome in around 35 seconds. It also offers a three-year warranty and has a dedicated call-out team.
Whatever system you go for, it’s worth pointing out that they can often be transferred when you change to a new motorhome – being such a high-value system, many people choose to do this.
How to get it fitted
First speak to a retailer of the product you’re interested in and then go for a consultation – there are lots of suppliers around the UK.
The costs and most suitable products will vary with the vehicle – the retailer will point you in the right direction.
While a basic semi-air kit can be fitted by a competent DIYer, it’s not something we’d recommend – this is heavy-duty kit that needs to be fitted correctly.
Some of the simpler kits can actually be fitted remotely – some firms even install them at motorhome shows by prebooking – so you may not need to leave home for a simple system.
Air suspension benefits every motorhome and is available at a price to suit most budgets. It can transform the ride and brings safety and handling benefits. It is already standard on many high-end motorhomes and liners and is a cost option on many others.
Equally, a self-levelling system is a useful and convenience-enhancing addition to any motorhome or campervan and really does take the hassle out of levelling up.
It removes the need for carrying bulky levelling ramps and allows the ’van to be stored without resting on its tyres, increasing their life.
A levelling system also makes changing a wheel far quicker and safer than using a jack.
TOWtal Motorhome Accessories Ltd
Unit 15 Aynsley Mills
TEL: (01782) 333 422
Jacksons Leisure Satellites
Goldschmitt (Erwin Hymer Centre)
Lincoln Towbar Centre
Ma-Ve Automatic Levelling systems
VB Air Suspension
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