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Old 02-10-2019, 05:05 PM   #1
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Freedom Express 246RKS - cracked frame repair (long with photos)

Ok, I decided to give this project it's own thread. Parts of this have come up in other discussions, but based on the number of follow up questions it appears there is some interest in the topic in general. This will probably a long thread on my part as there is a lot to cover.

Last year, we bought our 2015 Freedom Express 246RKS from the original owners, who were a couple in their 70's. Trailer was in great shape (or so it appeared), and we did get a good price on it since the owners had already purchased a new larger replacement trailer and needed this one paid off. It is just the 2 of us and this was not my first trailer. We liked the 246RKS and the floor plan is great for a couples trailer.






One day after returning home in the trailer, I noticed the front tires were shifted towards the street (entry side) about 1 to 1 1/2". Never noticed that before. Sort of hard to see, but you can tell the front axle is shifted outward in this photo.



Now in fairness I also never even thought about crawling around and inspecting the frame before either. So I get to looking and found the front axle hanger was bent, frame cracks, outrigger welds cracked, and the frame over the entry side front axle actually had a bend in the frame (the cross support weld had failed which let it flex). You could tell the cracks were old as there was rusting that would have taken a lot of time around the cracks in the paint and where the welds were cracked. Never hit a pot hole or ran off the road and we had never taken the trailer off a paved road, so I presume it was a combination of road forces, thin steel (for lightweight) and poor welds that led to these failures. All said I had 8 areas that were damaged like this.

This is the worst one. This is the frame near the front axle on the entry side. We added the yellow marker crayon so, no, it was not on the frame when we bought the trailer.



Some of the others....










After the initial shock and WTF moment subsided, I needed to figure out what to do to fix this. Of course my first stop was the internet. *NOW* I find posts about the 2013 and 2014 Freedom Express recalls for frame issues. On thing I noted was our Lippert frame was marked as a "Forest River Coachmen 220" and "TT2013", so it appears this same frame is used in a range of trailers rather than just the 246RKS. The other question that raised at least in my mind is to me "TT2013" would indicate the design of the frame may not have changed from the 2013 to the 2015 models. So if the 2013 and 2014 models had issues which were repaired under a NHTSA national recall, do I have an early 2015 frame that may be covered.



I found the NHTSA recall in this forum and using the phone numbers for both Forest River and Lippert I called to start a customer service case with each. Both requested I send them a fairly comprehensive set of photographs along with info on the trailer such as VIN, ownership, etc....

About a week later, I received notice from Lippert that although the unit was out of warrant, and I was the second owner, they would send out a factory field technician to repair the trailer and make it safe for use as a "goodwill gesture". The one caveat they included is their tech would need to inspect the trailer to ensure it had not been modified or abused. I for one am very glad they did this as after seeing what was involved this would have been a fairly expensive repair if I took it to a RV shop. They only asked that I remove the underbelly material before the technician arrived.

So I'm an old retired guy with my own set of health issues, but we got the underbelly off. Some areas were attached with steel self tapping hex head screw and others were attached with some sort of weird power nailer nail/screw sort of thing. It had a hex head like it was a screw, but looks to have been driven in like a concrete nail via a power hammer. It also had a spiral shank. These things are dang near impossible to back out. Dealing with them was the hardest part of the process. A couple of them were wrangled out with vice grips but a number of them flat would not budge. In the end we ended up just cutting the black coroplast materal from around them and taking the underbelly out in about 3' long x 67 1/8" sheet which were manageable. I'm going to use new material on the reinstall. If you have not looked at your underbelly, mine was a single large piece of what appears to be coroplast corrugated plastic. It looks to have originally been on a 67 1/8" roll and was installed as a huge single piece at the factory, likely before the axles and anything else on the bottom of the trailer. it's not heavy, but size and all the lines going through the material made it a hassle to get off. In addition to the self tapping screws and metal nails, the factory used a black poly foam as adhesive to stick panels down and seal around any penetration (think great stuff but in black).

Fast forward to the day the Lippert tech arrived. I did not take any photos that day as I did not want to distract him. Tech inspected the trailer and took a ton of new photos for their file. He said it was in excellent condition (other than the frame issues) and had been well taken care of with no signs of abuse.

After talking with the tech, I'm basically of the opinion that it's a trade off in thickness/weight of steel vs keeping a trailer in the light weight 1/2 ton tow-able range that is the issue. Thinner steel is used to keep weight down, and thinner steel is not as resistant to road forces as thicker would. Throw in extra road forces on the hangers and frame from the wide track axle spread and you get the picture. Plus once the paint starts to crack, salt water from roads will creep in and it just gets worse. Lippert only builds what Forest River contracts them to build, and light weight is what the customer wants. So there is shared blame by all here. But the repairs he made only added 100 to 150 lbs or so and it is way stronger than when it left the factory now. Why not do this when they build them?

Let me say this tech knew his stuff. He spent 2 days under my trailer grinding welding and re-enforcing everything. Welded the cracks, installed steel plating around all the crack areas as extra re-enforcement, and installed about 8' of 1"x2" 7 gauge square channel under the frame in the axle areas on both sides. Installed all new hangers (thicker steel than the original) and ran a thick angle bar from one side's hangers to the other in addition to a cross piece inside the hanger at the base. Once finished the alignment was only off 1/16" across the entire under carriage from being mathematically perfect. A lot tighter than factory and with the new thicker steel, I don't think it will ever move out of alignment. When he reinstalled the axles, he threw in a set of upgraded hangers and wet bolts as well.

So if anyone has frame cracking issues, it is at least worth the time it takes to make a call and see if there is anything Lippert or FR can do to help you.

Now I need to get my underbelly back on. I have called around and my local RV shop who sells FR and FE trailers can order the 67 1/8" wide stuff like was originally on there for about $1.05 a sq ft (which works out to about $5.87 a linear foot for that width). I need to decide if I want to wrangle a huge single sheet or use 4x8' sheets from Home Depot to reinstall my underbelly. One thing I noticed in the removal is the underbelly does not really have a lot of fasteners in the field and tends to bow downward across the bottom of the trailer. You can see what I'm talking about in this "before" photo.



Between rain, cold weather, and my aggravated nerve in my back I have not been under the repaired trailer to take detailed photographs of the repairs yet. I also want to document how the frame is laid out and what penetrations, wires, pipes are where all with measurements. I figure I will need this information again at some point and will also share with the community in case it will help someone else.

So Keep checking back on this thread, as I will continue to update it as this progresses.
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Old 02-10-2019, 05:18 PM   #2
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One thing I forgot to add was the tech did say my trailer has the changes that were made to fix the 2013 and 2014 recall issues. There are vertical angle bracing in the frame webbing and angle bracing inside the axle hangers. All of this was done to mine at the factory so the original recall did not actually apply.


You can see both in this photo (vertical bracing is next to the yellow crayon mark and you can see the angle inside the hanger base).


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Old 02-11-2019, 06:44 PM   #3
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WOW!! I have the 243 Catalina 2018 on that same frame. I will be crawling under there as soon as the present snow melts. My one year warranty runs out in May. Thank you for all the info. You did an excellent job explaining it. I wanted to pull my underbelly off so I could inspect, and document whats under there. But I saw that just taking the stuff off and back on by itself would be a MAJOR undertaking. I'am thinking just cut a circle around each fastener,, roll it backwards out of the way,, and when I reinstall, I'll just refasten it next to the original holes. Hell, they got glues that will hold that stuff up.
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Old 02-11-2019, 06:46 PM   #4
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All that rust damage in just THREE YEARS??
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Old 02-11-2019, 06:49 PM   #5
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I also think that trailer went over some hard bumps fully loaded. And I'am hearing,,,and witnessed the axle hangars failing. Especially on the longer heavier rigs.
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Old 02-11-2019, 07:23 PM   #6
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The cracks should be visible without removing the Coroplast.



Quote:
Originally Posted by Lee Pedrick View Post
WOW!! I have the 243 Catalina 2018 on that same frame. I will be crawling under there as soon as the present snow melts. My one year warranty runs out in May. Thank you for all the info. You did an excellent job explaining it. I wanted to pull my underbelly off so I could inspect, and document whats under there. But I saw that just taking the stuff off and back on by itself would be a MAJOR undertaking. I'am thinking just cut a circle around each fastener,, roll it backwards out of the way,, and when I reinstall, I'll just refasten it next to the original holes. Hell, they got glues that will hold that stuff up.
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Old 02-11-2019, 11:04 PM   #7
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They didn't even do the complete repair becasue they didn't add the supports between the hangers across from eachother at the spring hangers.


Look at this document:


https://manuals.heartlandowners.org/...e%20Cracks.pdf
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Old 02-11-2019, 11:29 PM   #8
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All of our damage was visible without removing the underbelly. Just squat down and inspect from outside the trailer. The underbelly was still in place when all of those photographs were taken.

Yes, 3 years is all it took (or even less?). Trailer was made in February 2015 and sold to the original owners at a North Georgia Dealer on June 27, 2015. Trailer was new and I have a copy of the certificate of origin from FR from the original registration packet at the DMV. So that happened in roughly 3 years and 6 months at the most. If the original owner traveled up north or over "salted" winter roads any water intrusion with salts would accelerate if the paint was cracked due to the steel flexing. Rusty steel is weak (and thin steel does not have much there to rust to start with). I don't know which came first, the cracks or the rust, but that is what I found in late December, 2018 after returning home and noticing the axle shift.

Let me clarify one thing. I had a friend who actually did the 'crawling around' part under the trailer to pull the underbelly. So until today, I have not crawled under there myself due to my nerve pain. I sort of presumed the cross supports would be the same size in height as the side I-beams. They are not. They are a few inches shorter in height than the side I-beams. What that means is there is no flat plane to screw into across the entire underbelly. Apparently the original underbelly screwed into the bottom of the cross beam at a higher point than the true "plane" of the trailer frame (if that makes sense). That would also explain the visual appearance of the coroplast being bowed downward as the center fastener was higher than the side ones so it in fact was bowed by design. I may fashion a metal stock spacer to get the coroplast in a flat plane. I'm still on the fence about this mod as apparently the design is to attach the center fastener a few inches higher on the cross support.

I did receive a call from LIPPERT today. The tech said he would see if they could sell me a replacement underbelly direct. Today they confirmed they could and it was only $131 (including shipping apparently). I jumped all over that. So if you need to replace your underbelly, call Lippert and see what the direct price is from the Lippert Store. The underbelly material is not on their website, and I don't know if I got a special price as part of the repair, but I'm happy with this. Their CS phone number is (574)312-7531.

I can't say enough how pleased I am so far with how this was handled by Lippert (and FR, but Lippert did all the work). Hopefully my perception will continue after I get up under there my self and get a better look and get some good photos to share.

Here are some "meh" photos of the repair. It was cold and my nerve was still acting up in my back and leg so I did not do much looking under the trailer. Getting better and with the underbelly now on the way, I expect to get under there and measure and document everything soon. I also want to wire loom and group the wires logically.

One thing I'm considering is disconnecting the LP gas lines from the distribution block that mounts between the axles on the entry side. Unless there is something special about those connections I will do that to make the installation of the underbelly easier. Everything else is wires inside the underbelly and a couple of penetrations for the dump lines, drain lines, and of course the LP where it goes to the appliances and furnace. There is also an open port on the distribution block so this would be a good time to add a quick disconnect line for a grill connection (our TT did not have the slide out grill option and I have a Weber Q we use). The distribution block is visible in one of the photos below.

The original underbelly was attached with black poly foam used both as adhesive and to seal any penetrations. I can get a similar UV resistant black poly foam from "Great Stuff" and Dap, so I'm ordering a few cans. I'm also going to add at least one more coat of black paint to the frame before buttoning it all up.

So pending the arrival of the parts, I'm closer to getting this back on the road.

Better photos to follow.

Plated and stitched welded with 1x2" 7 gauge square tubing under side frame I-beam

Another photo of the tubing

Under belly - cross beams are not full height and wires just laying around

New hangers, angle steel going from one side of trailer hanger to hanger on other side, and angle on the inside of the hanger base, also wet bolt and new shackles added
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Old 02-11-2019, 11:37 PM   #9
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Here are the two UV resistant waterproof poly foams that appear to be perfect for what they used to seal around the underbelly material at the factory. They both come in single use "consumer" cans or the professional cans for multi use on a foam gun. I'll just get the single use cans. Both "Great Stuff" and "Dap" have products for this use. None of the box stores around me stock it, but it's on Amazon and not super expensive. It is a minimally expanding foam so it should not run amuck under there.

https://youtu.be/DIr1M2waN3k

https://youtu.be/CjjTSrkV8jQ

You can see the original black foam around the dump drain lines where the penetrated the underbelly material.

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Old 02-12-2019, 12:07 AM   #10
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My old trailer had wood that spanned the I-beams. Screws for the underbelly went into that. The wood wasn’t affixed. Having everything screwed into it held it into place.

I remember how much of a nightmare it was taking it fully on and off of our 40’ rig!
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