The Anatomy of a Trailer

B&W trailer skin


There is a certain logic that goes into the construction of mobile homes. What that logic is still baffles scientists today. These engineered houses have followed a unique path on their way to becoming the scorn of society. Three distinct eras make up the tin can timeline. In each evolutionary shift, manufacturers found new ways to build a better house trap.

The Classic Era boasts the definitive trailer; the image most people have when “mobile home” is spoken. Spanning the post-war years to the mid-70’s, these homes belong moving 55 mph behind a semi: shiny, streamlined aluminum vessels, complete with turn signals and license plates, built for ease of transportation, but not durability or appearance. Ironic, as once anchored, these things rarely budge. Moving a trailer costs more than it’s worth. They become mobile only when a tornado sends them to Oz. The moment I moved into mine, I sang, “If I only had a brain.”

Underneath are iron trailer frames designed by good-old American ingenuity. They are adorned with structures designed by Tinkertoy Tech. Every wall, roof, floor, ceiling, and cabinet is framed with spindly excuses for support. In construction terms, they are 1″ x 1″ studs. In measurement terms, they are ¾” x ¾” sticks. In architectural terms, they are spaghetti. This linguini lumber is held together with two-foot long screws, which serve as the support system. Cheap aluminum siding makes up the exterior, cheap paneling takes up the interior. Sandwiched inside these less-than-sandwich-thick walls is just enough insulation to insult the occupant. These pathetic partitions hold nothing out, save for heat in winter climates. Often, the yards between trailers are warmer than their insides. The local utility company sent me a thank-you note for buying an energy-gobbling residence. Wafer-thin walls also allow free flow of sound. Neighbors often phoned to request I turn down the volume on my soup.

These prefabricated palaces have flooring akin to graham crackers. It was important not to spill milk; trailer floors form unique contours when dunked. A walk through my place caused ears to pop from altitude change. I handed out gum and barf bags at the front door. Once, a rather large guest had the floor give way underneath him. The carpet saved his fall, stretching to create a living room crater. My dog slept in it like a hammock.

Underneath the poor excuse for flooring is a poor excuse for weather protection called an underbelly, a cavity consisting of another insult of insulation supported by heavy cardboard. Inside this underside is a tangle of ductwork, drainpipe and water supply line. Water line of this era is generally the cheap, soft, pliable cousin to copper pipe that bursts open every temperature change. The quick decomposition rate of the cardboard base makes a perfect leak detector. If the house reeks like a dirty hamster cage, you’ve got a broken water line. It is important to repair not only the line, but also the wet, collapsed portions of pasteboard. To wildlife, these open putrid perforations are open invitations to enjoy the comforts of a mobile home. Every manner of pest, from mouse to meerkat, crawls into the insulated cardboard cave. Soon, hamster cage aroma gives way to a 3-day circus stench. The infestation can drive an occupant to extreme measures. One neighbor, plagued with an uninvited raccoon, fired several rifle shots through the floor. He hit a water line, a drain line and a clothesline, but no raccoon. They hauled him away in the same ambulance as Hotpoint-head.

It has often been mentioned what comfort a roof over the head provides. Not the case with a mobile home. Hanging over you is the same kite-frame-aluminum-wind-sail fabrication substituting for walls. Not surprisingly, it leaks like it was comprised of nothing more than twigs and tin; so a roof covering is needed. Whether it’s black tar, silver aluminum fiber, or white elastomeric sealant, the result is the same. Flimsy building material buckles, crackles and dents under each step.   A day is spent slopping toxic grade school paste over the roof, which slows water leaks to water drips. Repeat the process every two years. Buy a lot of plastic drop cloths.

Underneath it all sits the crux of the term “mobile” home: the axles. Tires removed, the trailer’s frame rests on stacks of concrete blocks. Metal straps attached to corkscrews drilled into dirt are meant to keep the home from tipping in case of heavy wind or heavy furniture. Trailers may be tied down to either concrete pads or a hope and a prayer. In Southern bayou country, the spongy-cake-ground swells and shrinks with the water table. Trailers staked to the quagmire are like a doomed safari tent waiting to be sucked into a sinkhole. Homes twist and turn with the tide, heavy rains have been known to cause seasickness. Many senior retirement communities are located in this area, the effect leaves senile residents thinking they are enjoying a cruise. The makers of Dramamine are heavily invested.

Decorative skirting surrounds the bottom of the trailer, to cover the axles and diminish any idea of moving. It’s designed to blow away in the slightest wind, which allows access for raccoons into the underbelly. Skirting is the delight of all landlords; strict rules cover the need for strict cover. Stiff fines for missing panels are handed out after every breeze.

In April 1965, two end-to-end Deluxe Model Hi-Vue Trailers were outfitted with a single bowling lane, and billed as the world’s first mobile bowling alley.

It closed shortly afterward, however, due to space limitations for shoe rental.

In 1976, the Department of Housing and Urban Development began regulating the construction of mobile homes when it was discovered they hadn’t yet been regulated. Major changes came during this growth era. Walls were thicker, built with standard 2″ x 4″ studs. These sturdier barriers to the elements slowly sink into graham cracker flooring.  The constantly lowering ceiling height makes it easier for short people to change bulbs in light fixtures. Roofs from this era are pitched, and sheathed with heavier gauge metal. They leak, but don’t buckle, so you slide off as you glop on sealant. Water lines are plastic, making it easier to crack and freeze. Also, the delivery and hook up of mobile homes underwent noticeable change. Not only were tires taken, but trailer tongue/hitches removed as well …a not-so-subtle “this-ain’t-going-anywhere” message from landlord to homeowner.

In 1980, Congress sought to end the stigma of trailer parks, officially changing the name from “mobile home” to “manufactured home.” (Much like “shelter challenged” solved homelessness.) By the 90’s, enough manufactured homes were sold that it was determined to leave wheels off altogether, ensuring both a stationary existence and eventual park ownership. Walls became even sturdier, in direct contrast to the still-flimsy s’mores floors. Graham cracker flooring proved so cheap, it was applied to roofing as well. A much thinner, shingle-covered sheet of teething biscuit became the standard for roofs. Contemporary owners now slide off and fall through the roof, enjoying the benefits of both classic and growth era trailers.

The doublewide has come into prominence in the contemporary era. Until the name change to manufactured housing, few wanted to ram two trailers together. The effect is quite roomy, and leads residents to believe they live in a true home. That is, until the two halves shift like the San Andreas fault. It is a good idea to take a course in bridge engineering. You may need it to get to the bathroom.

Moderate climates preserve mobile homes as mummy-like testaments to past civilizations, the Twinkies of shelter. In other areas, they require major repair every ten years. This was originally meant as the home’s lifespan, but reality altered this mindset. Thanks to American greed growing larger amounts of American need, owners have stretched the homes’ life expectancy beyond their limits.