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What Is Air Suspension?

What Is Air Suspension?

If you know anything about the suspension on your car, you probably have a vision of a spring-loaded system attached to the wheels of your vehicle. That’s pretty much what traditional suspension looks like. However, air suspension is a common alternative to metal springs.

In this article, we’re looking at the specifics of air suspension, why it might be helpful, and if you should make the change. Let’s get started! 

What Is Air Suspension?

Air suspension uses an electric or engine-driven air pump or compressor to fill bags of air instead of spring resistance to absorb the shock of bumps in the road.  

To help you understand how it works a little better, picture a simple children’s medicine syringe. When you plug its tip and press down on the plunger, air pressure builds within the barrel and the plunger bounces back like a spring. 

This type of suspension follows a similar concept. Air is pumped in or released to level out the vehicle as it drives. Bumps in the road compress air bags and they bounce up and down allowing the wheels to move.

What Is An Air Suspension?

What Is the Purpose of Air Suspension?

Air suspension provides a smoother, more consistent ride in a vehicle. Sport suspension systems, typically fitted for racing and other competitive situations, can also have it. In racing, air systems help the vehicle corner at high speeds by adjusting the ride as the vehicle moves. 

A few examples of air suspension in action show the purpose quite clearly. Buses use it to lower the entry door to the ground for passengers to board or exit the vehicle easily. Semi-trailers use it to keep their loads from being tossed around so much. And passenger trains use air suspension to get that smooth ride over fast speeds.  

person boarding public transportation bus
Public transportation buses use air suspension to lower the entry step to the height of the curb, making it easier for passengers to board.

Types of Air Suspension

Air suspension comes in different shapes, sizes, and uses. Bellows air shocks are made from heavy-duty reinforced rubber. Sleeve-style air springs use a flexible cylindrical sleeve with a molded bead on the inside. These systems have different setups. Take a look at these explanations.  

Full Air Suspension Systems

A full air suspension system means that you don’t ride with any springs. You rely solely on pressurized air to soften the blow every time you hit a bump. Full air suspension systems give the driver more control over the operation of the system than other setups.  

full air suspension on ram truck
This is a full air suspension on a full size pickup truck. The truck rides only on these two airbags.

A traditional spring suspension just works all on its own. An air suspension setup gives drivers a whole control panel for adjusting various settings like height and pressure.   

Full air suspension systems are found on most diesel busses and class A motorhomes, semi-trucks, and many other commercial vehicles. This is partly because these vehicles usually use air brakes so the air systems are already in place. However, any vehicle can make use of full air suspension.

Air Bag Kits

Air bag suspension kits help for towing heavy loads. These kits are added in addition to the regular spring suspension to give the vehicle control over the ride height. They can also improve ride quality when a heavy load is applied.

partial air suspension helper bag ram 5500
This is the airbag kist installed on our truck camer. The air keeps the suspension from sagging and allows it to flex on the air instead of the spring, improving the ride quality.

Envision two balloons sitting on top of one another. Air bag suspension works like two balloons that hold up the frame of a vehicle to keep it from bottoming out when you attach a heavy load. With the correct pressure in the bags, the truck or car will remain level when loaded. 

If you’re towing a heavy RV trailer, there are several other add-ons that can help. Learn more here: 10 Ways to Make Towing a Big Rig Less Dangerous

Air Bag – Shock Absorber Kits

Airbag shocks are kits designed to replace existing sprung Coilover shocks in traditional vehicles with air suspension. These can improve the ride quality and give the driver some control over ride height.

Should You Run Coilovers OR Air Suspension?

Electronic vs. Manual Air Ride Management

When you consider the functionality of a manual system, know that you will be doing all the work. Manual systems are either a set of manual vales that control air to each airbag, or even air fill nozzles similar to a tire valve stem. Triggering the valves or using a compressor adds air to each airbag individually to raise the vehicle.  

A digital system does all the work for you automatically. You can program your vehicle to rise to a preferred point when you start it. Digital systems will also monitor the pressure in your bags at all times and notify you if there is an issue. 

Air Ride height control system
This control pan

Did you know you can install a digital system to monitor your tire pressure too? Here are a few of our top picks: The Best RV Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems

How Much Does Air Suspension Cost?

Air suspension costs vary a bit depending on what sort of setup is needed. The cost of the suspension kit itself will run you between $300-$700, but you’ll need to have it installed as well. Don’t try to install it yourself. Improper installation could cause terrible trouble down the road. 

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Air Lift 57204 LoadLifter 5000 Air Suspension Kit
  • Fully adjustable air springs to level your vehicle when towing or...
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You will also need an in-cab control kit. A manual one is less expensive than a digital one. Manuals run around $150-$300, and digital in-cab controls run around $300-$500.  

air suspension frontend ford F550 fox shocks
If you change the suspension you may need to replace shocks and even steering components.

To get the whole system up and running, you’ll have to budget for the kit and the control system. The total price depends on how you want the system to work.  If you want a manual system, you’ll pay a little more than a digital setup.  

Benefits of an Air Suspension System

You can enjoy many benefits from installing an air suspension system. First off, you will have a much smoother, more comfortable ride. You will have reduced bouncing and jostling around, which will reduce the amount of wear and tear on your vehicle as a whole. 

Air suspension gives much better control over the ride for changing loads and especially helpful for vehicles that change weight like trucks. Air suspension can level and increase or decrease stiffness as needed. It can even be changed while driving to help counter wind or uneven road conditions to help keep the vehicle going straight.

Trailer Air Suspension
Trailer air suspension reduces vibrations and the damaging effects of rough roads, increasing the life of the trailer and its tires.

For cars, air suspension adds an element of safety if you want to take those corners with some speed. If you have it on a trailer, it makes it last longer. However, let’s look at some of the drawbacks you’ll have to consider.  

Drawbacks of Air Suspension

Some things you want to think about before making the switch are the cost of materials, installation and management, toughness, and how you use your vehicle. 

First ,switching to air suspension isn’t going to be a cheap transition. You will likely spend thousands on the setup.

Also, how you use your vehicle makes all the difference in whether or not this system is the answer. If you need to raise your truck or SUV for off-roading, or you need to lower your sports car to reduce drag, air suspension might be worth it. Otherwise, you could be wasting your money on an upgrade you don’t really need.

One drawback is the complexity. In general there is little to go wrong with a fixed metal spring in a vehicle. Air suspension on the other hand has lots of complicated parts that can fail. If you get a puncture, your air compressor quits or the electronics go haywire its possible you can end up driving without suspension or be stranded. For this reason many misssion critical vehicles still rely on springs.

Air suspension requires diligance to check for leaks and water in the system. As the compressor runs water vapor can build up and needs to be drained ocasionally. The added maintenance is a drawback for many.

Jeep Gladiator off-road
Air suspension can provide more ground clearance and a smoother ride while off-roading.

How to Use Air Suspension Compressors

The compressor attached to your air suspension system is just like any other air compressor. It pumps air in and out to adjust to current conditions. 

However, you have to tell it when to inflate and deflate the bellows, which means you need an in-cab control system of some kind. You can choose to install an electric or manual management system, as we have previously discussed.  

oasis onboard air compressor
Keep in mind all the costs including adding an air compressor if your engine does not have one. This is an oiasis air compressor or air suspension.

If you have an electric control system on your air suspension, you can input predetermined behaviors, and the vehicle will adjust as told. With manual controls, you have to use the keypad to adjust each wheel independently.  

Air Lift 25980EZ WirelessONE (2nd Generation) with...
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If you’re about to drive over a curb to park in your yard, for instance, you would press the appropriate buttons in the cab to lift the vehicle to the right height to clear the curb.  

Air Suspension for Towing

Air suspension is a luxury when towing. A solid air suspension system will help you manage your tongue weight better and keep your payload from bogging down the rear suspension. 

When the rear gets too heavy, your steering won’t respond as well. This type of suspension will help with steering troubles by keeping the ride height level even when towing a heavy load.

Chevy truck towing a fifth wheel
Air suspension helps prevent the rear end of a truck from sagging while it’s towing a heavy trailer.

Towing a travel trailer? Find out if you could also benefit from installing a weight distribution hitch: Why Your Travel Trailer Needs a Weight Distribution Hitch

FAQ: Is Air Suspension Good for Daily Driving?

Air suspension is just fine for daily driving, but you have to keep yourself aware of a few things. Summer driving with airbags shouldn’t pose a problem. However, you’ll need to remain vigilant during colder months. 

During the winter, make sure you have a water trap and some kind of antifreeze. Water or condensation in your air tank can cause trouble. Also, make sure that none of your lines hang down to avoid the risk of rolling over an ice chunk that tears a line. 

FAQ: Can You Drive Faster with Air Suspension?

Air suspension has no effect on how fast your vehicle can go. Fast or slow, driving on this system will always provide a much smoother ride. Educate yourself on how to manage it before testing its limits.  

Tesla Model X with Air Suspension
Daily drivers, like the Tesla Model X, have air suspension, allowing owners to customize their ride height as needed.

Is Air Suspension Worth It?

Air suspension is worth it, given the right situation. It could give you a sweet advantage if you’re working on building a top-notch racing ride or overland vehicle. It’s also a good option for towing heavy loads.

Not every situation calls for air suspension though. Upgrading a coil spring setup might not be the best idea for someone who mainly drives to work and the grocery store in an average sedan. Ultimately, your choice should be based on your needs and driving style.

Balancing beads or weights—what’s the right choice for your tires? Find out here: Tire Balancing Beads and Automatic Tire Balancers What Are They Used For?

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Johnny

Sunday 12th of December 2021

We had an onboard compressor and air suspension on our previous New Horizons 5th wheel. Just flick the power toggle switch and on came the compressor and down the road, we went. I literally would look up to make sure we were still connected. It was that smooth of a ride and if I forgot to turn on the compressor, it didn't take long to realize it and pull over I did. Turned the compressor on and smooth-riding it was. Still considering adding one to our Grand Design. Have fun in the sun.

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