For the past 7 months I have been collecting food waste from Reno restaurants by bike and trailer which then gets turned into compost at local gardens. The Reno Rot Riders, our name for this effort, has so far been a great success and a lot of fun.
Not a day goes by during my pick-ups when I don’t get a thumbs-up, a “thank you” from across the road, or questions from interested passersby. Most of the questions have been about the first trailer I built – a very functional though cumbersome contraption I put together at the Generator, a Reno makerspace which evolved out of the annual Burning Man festival just to our north.
Daisy, the First Trailer
First Attempt Building a Bike Trailer
I am not a welder, so for the first trailer, I used a salvaged steel rectangle for a base, ¾-inch conduit for the tongue and wheel wells, 20-inch bike tires, and a lot of wood for the frame. The wood was fence slats painted schoolbus yellow, which I salvaged from someone’s Burning Man camp. All of this was attached using lots of bolts and lock nuts.
It could carry two full bins of food waste (we use these nifty 21 gallon bins with wheels) and got the job done transporting over 13,000 pounds of food waste in 6 months.
However, as we expanded and I learned a thing or two about transporting heavy bins, I decided it was time to for a new-and-improved trailer.
Ursula, the Second Trailer
Lessons Learned and the Second Trailer
I started out by doing extensive online research on trailer design. There are lots of forums with people comparing notes on DIY projects, several small bike trailer building operations, and scores of individual blog entries chronicling bike cargo trailer construction projects. There are trailers made from shopping carts, ladders, wood, steel, bamboo — you name it and it’s out there.
Most folks who build their own trailers are carrying smaller loads like groceries or gear for camping. There are a few who go for weight including Bike Compost, a small operation spun off from a bike-powered compost service in Florida, and Surly, a serious bike and trailer fabricator whose “Bill” model trailer I borrowed from. A “Bill” would be have been great but my sense of adventure coupled with its $1,200 price tag put us on the DIY track.
As I continued researching, I debated whether to go for an axle or seat-post mounted design. I had no experience with seat-post mounted trailers but had for years been lugging my kids around in axle-mounted Burly and Chariot trailers (“Daisy” is also axle-mounted and uses an old Burley hitch).
They seemed to do great but both Bike Compost and a friend with Oak Park Soil (another bike composting operation outside Sacramento) use the seat-post mounting. I came across some good online debates about the merits and drawbacks of each but decided on the seat-post mounting in the end.
Once that decision was clear, I needed to figure out how to actually connect the trailer to the post using some sort of hitch. Again, there were tons of examples online but I put that on the back burner, thinking I’d figure it out as I went along.
The other major change for this second trailer was that it would be welded together. Enter John Jesse: John is a friend who is a true craftsman cut from a cloth reminiscent of a Renaissance guildsman. He is a fabricator and designer extraordinaire who also happens to be an avid cyclist and all-around bicycle enthusiast. He was an immediate “yes” to helping make this trailer and the main reason I feel ok claiming it as the best bike cargo trailer...ever.
Cargo Trailer Design
We got to work using a mix of salvaged and new steel. he deck is ¾-inch expanded steel (the stuff with the diamond pattern) welded to parts of an old bed frame. We used four crossbars underneath for support – one at each end and two in the middle. I wanted to minimize height of the sides because they don’t need to be very tall to hold the bins. Their height is also just under the tops of another type of plastic bin we may use in the future.
I was very intentional about designing the trailer for the exact dimensions of the bins we’d be using. This customization makes it leaner, meaner, and uber functional.
We decided to use 16-inch wheels with independent axles for several reasons. First, they made for a lower trailer that would be easier to load and very stable. Second, we assumed the independent axles would be strong enough to support a 400-pound max load and didn’t have to bother with an axle spanning the width of the bed. Fortunately, I had a pair of old In-Step trailer wheels lying around that fit the bill.
The body of the trailer is a combination of salvaged metal (including parts of a bed frame) and leftover 1/16th-inch thick square steel tubing that John had in his shop. Although I am a big fan of using salvaged materials, all of the metal I found had a powder coating which we had to grind off so the welds would stick well and which still gave off some nasty, noxious fumes. If we ever make another we’d likely use all new steel tubing.
As the build progressed we had not solved the hitch challenge or even given it much thought. When the time came I posed the issue to John and in about 30 seconds he had an answer – rubber heater hose.
Heater hose is used in cars and is super strong, flexible, cheap, and easy to work with. It took all of 15 minutes to drill a hole through the hose and tubing and thread a grade 5 hardened bolt through it all: a simple and elegant universal hitch better than anything I’ve found online.
We chose to just keep the seat and seat-post with the trailer and change out for another seat when I just want to cruise on my bike without the trailer. We also added a bit of steel cable tied around the seat to prevent the heater hose from sliding down the post.
All told I think we spent about 10 hours putting it all together – welding, cutting, grinding and problem-solving. Total cost for materials was around $250 including $50 for a fresh tank of Argon gas for the welder.
After several weeks in use, Ursula is incredible! She turns on a dime, rides great, is quiet, holds four bins easily, and looks awesome! I am also able to stay in the middle chain ring for probably 60% of the time – even when loaded with bins.
Kyle Chandler-Isacksen is a tinkerer, natural builder, and community organizer in Reno, Nevada. He and his family run the Be the Change Project, a fossil fuel, car, and electricity-free urban homestead and learning space dedicated to service and simplicity. They were honored as one of MOTHER’s Homesteaders of the Year in 2013. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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