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The Most Common Causes of Semi Breakdowns and How to Avoid Them

Every year, thousands of truckers are stranded on America’s roadways when their rigs break down. While there is no way to completely avoid that possibility, many of these incidents are due to a lack of maintenance, preparation, or both. 

The good news is that in many instances, it’s possible to identify potential problems before they leave you stuck on the side of the road waiting for emergency roadside assistance. Below, we’ll explore the most common causes of semi-breakdowns and how you can avoid them.

Tire problems

Tires are perhaps the single most common cause for semis being sidelined. They’re also one of the easiest problems to avoid. Here are a few quick ways to help prevent tire-related problems from adding an unexpected stop on your next route:

  • Check the tire pressure every single time. Both underinflation and overinflation cause issues.
  • Check the tread condition before getting on the road and replace tires before they become threats.
  • Inspect your tires for signs of damage, particularly to the sidewall, which is the weakest area. Damage can include gashes and cuts, cracks, bubbles, and more.
  • Look for signs of accelerated tire wear. This could indicate that you have a misaligned axle, which will require a more in-depth repair than just replacing a worn-out tire.

Make your tires a regular part of every single pre-trip inspection and then conduct your inspections religiously. 


The second most common problem is one that can’t really be avoided. It’s age. The older a truck and its included systems and components, the greater the likelihood of something going wrong. Does that mean that businesses need to ditch all their semis older than a few years? Not at all!

It does mean that you need to take more care during inspections, and it also means that preventative maintenance is even more important than with a newer truck. It also means that your maintenance needs and related costs will increase beyond what a business using newer trucks would spend. 

However, older trucks can be both cost-effective and reliable with the right preventative maintenance and the understanding that repairs cannot be put off until later. 

Electrical issues

Your truck’s electrical system affects every aspect of operation and a problem with a single component could mean a costly breakdown and repair. Of course, the electrical system is complex and includes multiple possible risks, including:

  • Battery
  • Starter 
  • Wiring
  • Alternator
  • Fuses

While some of these can be caught during a pre-trip inspection, drivers may notice issues while the truck is in operation. For instance, failing gauges or flickering cab lights are signs that there’s a problem with the electrical system. 

As a note, electrical problems are notoriously difficult to track down, particularly when they involve in-cab accessories and/or wiring, rather than a component like the battery. Truck mechanics must be certified for electrical work, as this assures that they have the knowledge and experience required to diagnose and repair the issue.


You probably knew this one was coming. There are few systems aboard a semi as critical to safe operation as the brakes. This is particularly true when hauling a trailer, but even without a trailer, semis with brake problems are major safety liabilities. 

The trick to avoiding brake-related problems and potentially devastating accidents is to inspect them during every pre-trip check. Of course, getting a good look at the brakes can be pretty challenging even for disc brakes. Drum brake systems are even more difficult. 

Of course, brake pads, rotors, and shoes all wear over time and through normal use. You’ll need to keep a close eye on them and replace all components when necessary. It’s also important to have the brake system serviced regularly. This should include a complete inspection, as well as service of components. 

Some of the most common problems with semi-truck brakes include air leaks in the system, wear (both normal and accelerated), corrosion, internal water contamination, and freezing during winter weather.


All internal combustion engines create massive amounts of heat, including diesel engines like those used in semi-trucks. If left unabated, heat buildup would damage the engine beyond the point of repair. To deal with all that heat, radiators and hoses keep coolant moving around the engine. It absorbs heat and then moves it to the radiator, where air moving over the radiator’s fins dissipates the heat, and the coolant is then sent back into the engine to start it all again.

Radiators, coolant lines, and hoses are all subject to wear and tear. Radiators can corrode if the wrong type of coolant (or plain water) is used. Thermostats can stick open or closed. Hoses and lines can burst, allowing all the coolant in the engine to drain out. All these issues can lead to engine-killing overheating.

Regular cooling system inspections are the key to avoiding this fate. Trucks should have their radiators, hoses, and lines inspected often.


Like their gasoline-powered counterparts, diesel engines need oil to lubricate moving parts during operation, but also to help with cooling the engine. The problem is that oil leaks can develop over time. 

The most likely areas for leaks to develop are at the weak points in the system, usually gaskets and seals. For instance, the oil pan gasket is one of the most common points for a leak to develop. Other common locations include the rear crankshaft seal, the timing chain cover, and the valve cover gasket.

Again, preventative maintenance and regular inspections are key. Once an oil leak develops, it’s important to repair it as quickly as possible. Keep an eye on the leak if repairs are not made immediately.

In conclusion

These are just some of the reasons that you might find yourself stuck on the side of the road instead of moving toward your next destination. However, if you inspect your truck regularly and invest in preventative maintenance, most of these problems won’t be issues. 

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