Understanding air suspension systems and a peek at the future with RideTech
By Todd Ryden
When it comes to suspension systems, especially when talking about air suspension, rodders always approach the technology with “stance” as their number one goal. Sure, stance is cool, but you need to remember your car has to get to the show, which means it should ride and handle as well as it looks.
Choosing upgrades or a complete suspension system is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make when it comes to outfitting your project car or truck. With the popularity of air-controlled systems on street rods and customs, we thought it would be helpful to talk to the pros at RideTech to learn more about choosing a system.
RideTech has been building air-ride systems for hot rods for more than 20 years, so it’s safe to say they’ve learned a thing or two along the way. According to RideTech President Bret Voelkel, you can have it all — ride quality, handling, safety, and stance. As he puts it: “Two facets of air suspension technology have improved dramatically over the years — electronic management and shock absorber technology.
“For existing air suspension users, shocks are the easiest way to upgrade their current systems,” Voelkel continues. “For new builds, a wide array of options are available, from universal air springs with paddle switches to complete bolt-in systems with computer controls that monitor both pressure and height.”
He also explains the importance of doing your homework before starting the project. Always research the components, their supporting parts, and even consider the company before making a purchase. There are a lot of “no-name” air springs that may not be designed as their intended use, which will likely result in reliability issues or failures down the road. When it comes to air, sticking with one brand or manufacturer is a good idea.
We pressed RideTech for some tips about making the move and narrowed things down to a list of five important items about air suspension systems.
Understand how it works
The basic air suspension system is simple, with an air spring and shock absorber located at each corner of the vehicle. An electric air pump pressurizes the system, while an air tank stores a reserve supply. A control system and valve block with solenoids distributes pressurized air to each spring by way of lines and fittings. control system can be as simple as paddle switches and dash-mounted air pressure gauges. Controls actuate solenoids, which open and close valves to pressurize and vent each spring (each spring requires two solenoids).
RideTech’s new top-of-the-line system, known as RidePRO-HP includes an ECM that combines both air pressure and ride height sensors to properly adjust spring rates and vehicle height. . A second version is available, RidePRO-X that measures pressure only and is fully upgradable to the HP version.
Air spring selection
Since air spring design and quality is directly related to vehicle safety, it’s best to buy the components from a trusted source. Installing improperly sized air springs will almost certainly result in poor, or even dangerous, handling.
Sizing air springs is complex. Parameters include vehicle weight, spring height, and volume, and even the type (convoluted vs. reversible sleeve). There is a serious amount of engineering associated with selecting springs relative to your car or truck’s dynamic characteristics. You can either earn yourself an engineering degree or get your air springs from a company that does actual R&D on spring selection.
Before you buy an air suspension system for your ’59 Impala from a random offshore company, ask yourself a simple question: What are the odds the manufacturer has even seen a ’59 Impala in person, let alone driven one?
As far as life expectancy, quality air springs are designed to outlast your car’s paint job and its pistons. Air spring failures are almost always attributed to heat-related installer error, such as close proximity or contact with high-temp exhaust surfaces or abrasion. Both issues can be avoided by employing common sense during the installation process.
As air springs are under pressure, it is critical to buy a system that measures pressure, or both pressure and height. For safe, high-performance handling, it is very important for spring pressure
to be nearly equal from side to side.
Fore/aft and cross-load pressure-percentages are also very important. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. This is a very important discussion, as some air suspension control systems only utilize level sensors without measuring pressure.
Variations in air spring pressure will result in erratic handling during dynamic driving scenarios. This is particularly true during quick directional changes (lateral acceleration), as well as sudden changes in load such as hard braking. The most basic air suspension systems dating back to the late ’90s have
manual momentary switches and analog pressure gauges to help you visually dial in and monitor pressure. We’re talking about air springs — pressure is imperative!
Shock absorbers matter
As is the case with any suspension design, shocks are critical for both ride quality and handling. Too many people assume air springs are primarily responsible for ride quality, when in fact, they are primarily responsible for holding the body.
Shock absorbers are responsible for settling down your car or truck’s body and optimizing handling when the drive gets interesting. Without high-quality matching shocks, your air suspension will feel as though each corner is oscillating independently.
According to Voelkel, “In the hands of the right suspension tuner, I am confident that a properly sized air suspension system, with well-calibrated shocks and sway bars, will handle and ride equal to or even better than a metal-sprung car.”
RideTech takes the shock equation one step further by providing custom-calibrated shocks, along with built-in adjustment, so you can fine tune the setup for your personal driving style and vehicle specs.
Controlling the air system
Now that we’ve addressed air suspension components under your car, let’s take a look at how to control it all. What does the most advanced air control system for rodding offer in these modern times? According to RideTech, it is a fully electronic system with both pressure and height sensors feeding data to an OEM-grade ECM.
Pressure and height management will occur transparently, as is the case with air ride-equipped OEM cars such as Mercedes Benz and Porsche. Readouts and diagnostics are readily available on demand by way of a smartphone app. This way, you can have your rod automatically rise up to a predetermined ride height with the turn of the key.
RideTech’s new control system, the RidePRO, is being introduced this week at the SEMA show and hitting the street soon. With input from many top builders, this new control system is barely visible and communicates wirelessly with an all new ECM, and the setup and diagnostics are relegated to a smartphone app.
Air suspension has come a long way during the last 25 years. With a greater appreciation for the importance of shock absorbers and advancements in computer and sensor technology, an air suspension system can deliver it all — a safe, reliable, and great handling system. SRL
SOURCE: RideTech, ridetech.com