Import, Registration, and Initial Logistics

In my previous post, I mentioned that I had bought my trailer in Vancouver. Only after purchasing it did I realize that I might hit some challenges around importing it into the States. I’m not the best at planning these kinds of things… but it all worked out in the end!

Buying the Trailer

When I bought the trailer, the dollar was trading at 1 CAD = 0.74 USD, which gave me a nice 26% discount on the “listing price.” However, it turns out that converting several thousand USD to CAD is trickier than you might think – especially if you want to avoid excess fees and get a good rate on the conversion.

Starting out simple, I asked the seller if he’d accept USD instead of CAD; he said “no.” I then asked my bank (the Seattle Credit Union) if I could just withdraw money from my account as CAD; they also said “no.” The teller suggested I drive to Vancouver and withdraw the money in several transactions of $300 each – given the amount involved, I said “no way.” Finally, we were able to hit a solution in the form of a cashier’s check: My bank could give me a cashier’s check in any quantity of USD I wanted, and the seller’s bank was able to convert USD to CAD when they received the check. We finally agreed that on the morning of the purchase, I’d look up the exact exchange rate, get a cashier’s check for the correct amount, and bring some extra USD as cash just in case his bank disagrees.

Towing The Trailer

I had been so fixated on the logistics of the purchase, combined with the weight (logistic as well as emotional) of the decision to buy the trailer, that I hadn’t stopped to consider what would happen post-purchase. We shook hands, exchanged the check for the title, and all of the next-steps that I hadn’t planned for immediately hit me at once.

Next steps like, for one, how do I tow this thing? I’ve towed one or two small hauling trailers before, which are pretty light, but never something this large: wider than my truck, taller than my truck, and slightly over 1,000 lbs. I hooked up the ball hitch (after confirming online that my truck could even tow that much weight), and immediately discovered a couple of problems. First, I couldn’t see out my rear-mirror, and could barely see out the side mirrors. Second off, the electrical wires didn’t connect! My truck had a flat, 4-pin connector (used for hauling stuff) whereas the trailer had a round, 7-pin connector (used for RVs). The differences are not that big (the 7-pin connector allows for battery charging and electrically-controlled braking), but without a connection, I was unable to power any running or signal lights. More importantly, I also couldn’t use the trailer’s electrical brakes! I called a nearby O’Reilly’s back on the States side of the border, and was able to confirm they’d have the adapter I needed. I had no clue if the lights in the trailer would even work or not, but at least I’d be able to fix this issue before driving too many miles.

(Un?)Fortunately, the seller lived at the top of a big hill, which allowed me to immediately test the strength of my brakes. Not too bad: the trailer stopped just fine, though it took longer than I’d like, and I could definitely feel it pushing my truck forward if I braked too hard. Not the best feeling in the world… but hey, I’ve certainly dealt with worse!

Crossing The Border

Apparently, in the thirty minutes between me leaving the States and me heading back home, US CBP‘s computer system went down and wouldn’t come back online. This turned what should have been a ten-minute wait into about four hours waiting in a never-ending line of cars. Pretty mind-numbing, to be sure, but during this wait it dawned on me that I probably should have done some research on importing things like trailers into the States. I panic-Googled “how to import a trailer” from my phone, and got all sorts of answers online, from “CBP made me do all this additional work ahead of time” to “no one cares.” Lucky for me, when I finally got to the front of the line, my agent was firmly on the “don’t care” side of the spectrum. She made me pull over and take all my paperwork inside, where someone from CBP made a quick inspection, handed me a stamped form, and told me I was good to go. I think this is due to the fact that licensing and registration is handled by individual states, as opposed to the federal government, but I was incredibly pleased by how painless the process was.

Heading Home

By the time I finally got through with the wait and the crossing, it was almost eight, and I was beat from the day’s events. Even worse, the shop I was hoping to buy my connector from had already closed hours ago. I pulled over in the first town I saw, grabbed a burger and coffee at a local shop, and evaluated the situation: it’s getting dark, the trailer still doesn’t have any electrical connections, and I’m still three hours from home. The BC government makes you return the plate when you sell a trailer, so there’s no license plate on the back of this thing, and I don’t even know if I’m legally allowed to tow this vehicle here in Washington. I considered locking the trailer, unhitching it somewhere on the side of the road, and coming back tomorrow, but didn’t relish the thought of driving three hours home just to turn around and come back the next morning. I eventually decided to just go for it, play it safe, and see how far I get.

I spent the next three to four hours white-knuckling the steering wheel and constantly scanning my mirrors and blind spots. I’m not sure what I liked less, driving on two-lane highways or driving on the 5, but the process was exhausting. Slight changes in the road conditions would sway me (and the trailer) side to side, and sometimes require me to hit the brakes to prevent a harmonic resonance. The trailer being slightly wider than my truck made lane placement challenging, and made it remarkably difficult to see out of my mirrors. I stayed in the right lane, slightly under 60, with my hazards on, but even so, the lack of any lighting to the trailer made me paranoid of getting rear-ended, and the extra width made the occasional merge or lane-change a very focused effort. At one point, I figured out that if I angled my side-mirror down slightly, I could keep an eye on the trailer’s wheel to make sure it was staying in my lane, which certainly helped, but not by much.

Finally, slightly before midnight, I pulled up to my house. I shook off the drive, cracked a well-deserved beer, and just sat for a bit. I wish I could tell you how excited I was, but after the long tow, the predominant theme running through my head was simply “what have I gotten myself into now?”

License and Registration, Please

I woke up the next morning feeling better, but still intimidated. The whole project suddenly felt so big, as if I hadn’t really quite internalized what I was setting out to do until I was staring directly at it. First things first, we gotta get this thing legal and safe to own and tow.

I gathered up all the paperwork I had and headed down to the local DMV. I explained the situation (“I just bought an old trailer from British Columbia, here’s all the paperwork BC gave me, can you make this work?”) to a remarkably helpful DMV employee, who had no problem issuing me a title… until we got to the make and model.

“What was the make and model again?”

“Boler. I don’t think there’s a model name, exactly, but it’s their 16-foot one.”

“Yeah, I can’t find that manufacturer in our system.”

“Well, it’s probably because they’re Canadian and went out of business thirty years ago. Can’t you just type it in?”

“No, that’s not going to work…”

As it turns out, the Washington State DMV has some arbitrary system that’s used to calculate the value of a vehicle, for tax purposes. I pointed out that we did, in fact, know the value of the vehicle, as it was on the bill of sale, but Washington explicitly does not accept the bill of sale as an estimated value, due to how easy it is to commit fraud. (In their defense, literally every Californian I know lies on the bill of sale when they buy a vehicle, so they aren’t exactly wrong.) Either way, the rule was clear: if it wasn’t in the system, I’d have to get it appraised by a licensed dealership. Only then could I pay tax on the appraised value and move forward with a title.

Ten calls to dealerships later, all I had confirmed was that none of them worked in appraisals anymore. One guy laughed at me when I told him the make and year: “1977? I don’t even have to look at it to tell you it ain’t worth nothin at all!” When I eagerly asked him if he could write me a letter to that effect, he declined.

I returned to the DMV with this news, and hit a major stroke of luck when they assigned me to the exact same worker, who recognized me from the previous week. I explained the situation, and she pointed me towards yet another potential solution. “Tell ya what: this is really just a tax thing, so there’s one more way I can move forward. Go talk to the Department of Revenue – they specialize in this kind of stuff, and can collect the sales tax directly. If you can give me a letter from the Department of Revenue saying you already paid the sales tax, we can absolutely move forward on this.”

Once I found this loophole, the skies opened up and everything moved forward. The Department of Revenue office was staffed by a very bored woman who looked at my bill of sale, did a quick Craigslist search, took my money, and wrote me my letter. A final trip to the DMV and I was finally registered and legal.

Hooking Up The Truck

Once I got my license plate, the next task was to fix all the towing-related issues. A four-to-seven-pin adapter for my truck was relatively easy to purchase, but installing it turned into quite the logistical challenge – and would have been impossible on the side of the road, anyways. Connect the adapter, test the pins with my multimeter, disconnect, re-connect… the project took me all morning, and involved drilling several holes, patching the connections into my left rear light, and some creative grounding off of the bumper, but I eventually got five of the seven pins all wired correctly. I hooked them up to the trailer, turned it on… and all the lights worked flawlessly! Brakes, running, turning, hazards, everything!

The final two pins, the battery charger and electric brake controller, turned out to be a much more involved project. Unlike the light wires, these would carry such a large amount of current that they required a separate, heavier-gauge wire routed all the way to the truck battery. Install a fuse, mount it in the hood, drill some holes through the firewall, and neatly run cable all the way to the back bumper.

In addition to running cable from one end of my truck to the other, I also had to purchase and install an electric brake controller. It’s kind of a silly device, but remarkably effective and simple to install. You can basically think of it as a three-way-transistor that amplifies the current from the brake light to the trailer electric brake system.

First, you connect your brake signal light to the controller – that’s the signal that lets the controller know when you’re pressing the brake. You also, in much heavier gauge wire, connect the battery to the controller and the controller to the trailer connector, so that when you push the brake, the controller uses these wires to send a much larger amount of current to the trailer’s electric brake system. The controller has a couple of knobs you can tune, including how fast the brakes kick-on, and how strong the maximum braking is.

The top downside of this system, in my eyes, is that normal hydraulic brakes are a physical feedback system (step on the pedal harder, it brakes harder, you feel more resistance), whereas there’s no way for the system to figure out how hard you’re braking – either the brake light is “on” or “off.” After I connected everything together, I took the trailer for a test-drive, and confirmed that the electric brakes were indeed quite effective, almost too much so. I haven’t really dialed-in the brake controller settings yet, but I’m deeply reassured to know that I’ll have some extra braking power on my travels.

Home For The Winter

Once I got my documentation settled, it was time to put the trailer somewhere. Those of you who’ve been to my house know that we’ve already got a twenty-some-foot airstream in our backyard, but definitely room for some more. We all chatted briefly about the best location for this trailer, deciding on a right-angle approach. Given the towing logistics and door location, we debated a bit about whether we’d tow it in or back it up: backing it up would get the trailer far closer to Stef’s airstream, but the door would be on the wrong side of the yard.

I eventually decided to tow it front-wise, face the door to the yard, and just get it as close as we could to her trailer while still letting my truck back out in an awkward eleven-point-turn. I expected the whole situation to be stupid and somewhat challenging… but what I didn’t expect was how light the trailer actually is! Turns out, we were over-thinking the whole thing: two people can easily move the trailer by hand, with one person lifting the tow-hitch as they pulled, and the other pushing from behind.

Finally, we had the trailer in the yard and off the street: fully legal, safe to tow, and ready for some serious work over the winter. Aside from the driving lights, I still had no idea if anything worked in it or not, or how deep we’d be gutting it. The real work hadn’t even begun, but something about seeing it in the backyard was deeply reassuring. All my insecurities from the first night seemed miles away, replaced with a feeling that this whole process was just right somehow.

Published by Spencer

Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington. I work on expanding Internet access and connectivity worldwide.

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