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Electric Forklifts

Does an Electric Forklift Make Sense for Your Business?

Electric forklifts

In recent years manufacturers have made significant improvements in both internal combustion (IC) and electric (AC) forklifts. Both types of forklifts can contribute significantly to the productivity of the materials handling function; but if you have little or no experience with AC lifts, it's important that you understand the operating characteristics of the trucks to make an informed evaluation of their appropriateness for your operation.

Both types of trucks have the same basic mission; to raise or lower a load and transport it to a desired destination. As simple as that task sounds, the requirements in the field vary significantly and while all the requirements can be met with a forklift, not all forklifts can meet all requirements.

What follows is a breakdown of the advantages and drawbacks of electric forklifts that will hopefully assist you assessing their usefulness for your specific needs.

Operational Advantages of an Electric Forklift vs. IC

Generally speaking AC trucks are best suited for indoor work on level surfaces. Warehouses, distribution centers, wholesale foods, electronic components manufacturers and retail operations are the types of businesses that can benefit from the productivity benefits of an electric truck.

Some electric trucks equipped with pneumatic tires can work both inside and outside but most would suffer damage to the battery or motor from vibrations if consistently travelling over rough or uneven terrain.

So what do electric forklifts bring to the table?

  • No Emissions. Unlike gas or LPG powered trucks the AC lift has zero emissions making them ideal for indoor work particularly in tight spaces or areas with limited ventilation. Operators and other workers benefit from a clean air working environment.
  • Quiet Operation. Businesses using IC forklifts indoors basically have the equivalent of a small pickup truck cruising their aisles complete with traffic noise which is amplified by the closed environment. By comparison, AC trucks barely whisper their presence making for a quieter overall work place. Cell phone, radio or intercom communications are far easier to understand in a facility using electric forklifts.
  • Remarkable Reach. Based on their low center of gravity design, some electric trucks can raise and lower a cargo 50 feet or more maximizing high density pallet storage.
  • Task Specific Design. While some internal combustion forklifts are designed for specific tasks like container handlers and large truck tire changers, they are generally considered to be "specialty" models with comparably limited market demand. Manufacturers of electric trucks have designed lines that are task specific and occur in almost every facility that uses pallet racks. Reach trucks, order pickers, rider pallet jacks and very narrow aisle trucks are examples of that trend. They have also focused on operator productivity through innovative ergonomics and non-traditional operator spaces like stand up and side mounted stations.
  • Smaller Turning Radius. Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of the electric truck is its tight turning radius that allows it to work in narrow aisles which are becoming the norm in all facilities. Narrower aisles mean more stacks in the same space significantly improving productivity.

Forklift maintenance is another important consideration when evaluating performance. The AC truck's design provides distinct advantages over an internal combustion truck.

  • Fewer Parts. Fewer parts mean fewer things to break down. The result is a longer interval between scheduled maintenance resulting in less down time.
  • Fewer Waste Fluids. There is no need for coolant or transmission fluid in an AC truck. This eliminates the need to change fluids or dispose of them.
  • Less Wear. Because there are fewer moving components and less heat, parts wear longer increasing uptime and reducing repair costs.

Total Ownership Cost Advantage

Generally speaking internal combustion forklifts will cost less to acquire new than an electric truck but that's where the cost advantage ends.

  • Lower Maintenance Cost. As discussed above, an electric truck does not have the requirement for the extensive maintenance required to keep an internal combustion engine operating at peak efficiency. That means fewer maintenance costs and fewer hours lost to maintenance downtime.
  • Lower Fuel Costs. Even with the current trend of lower gas, diesel and LPG prices, electricity is still a far less expensive fuel. Every hour an electric truck is in operation it is saving fuel costs compared to an IC truck.
  • Reliable Source of Fuel. IC trucks rely on outside vendors to refill onsite storage tanks. Gas shortages or severe weather can delay the arrival of needed fuel. With an electric truck it's simply a matter of plugging in and recharging.
  • Mid and Long Term Advantage. The difference in acquisition costs between an IC and AC truck will easily be made up in the mid-term or long term thanks to lower fuel and maintenance costs as well as greater uptime.

The Downside of Electric Forklifts

Powering a forklift with an electric motor comes with some tradeoffs. There are basically two major limitation associated with AC trucks:

  • Capacity. Electric trucks have load capacities ranging from 3,000 lbs. to about 15,000 lbs. IC trucks can lift up to 50 tons or more. The heavier the load the greater the draw on the battery is. This may result in a truck requiring a recharge or battery swap before the end of shift.
  • Refueling/Recharging. For starters, you have to allocate space inside the facility for a recharging station and most likely a spare battery station as well. In addition, special equipment is required when "swapping" batteries. Fueling an IC truck takes minutes. Swapping a battery on an AC truck (a necessity if the truck is being used for more than one shift per day) can take up to a half hour and needs to be done by a trained technician. In older facilities, the electrical output may need to be modified to meet the voltage and amperage requirements for the charging station.

About Those Batteries

There are basically two types of batteries used to power an electric forklift, lead acid and maintenance free sealed. You're probably familiar with both types.

The lead acid battery is old, but reliable, technology that you used to find in automobiles. In forklift operations, these batteries need to be "watered" at the end of each shift to ensure they don't go below a 20% charge. A forklift will use two to six 12 volt batteries in series so the watering process can become time consuming. On the other hand, taking care of these batteries will give them a service life of 1500 cycles or more.

Sealed batteries are used in most automobiles today. They have a higher energy to weight ratio than lead acid. There is no requirement for watering because there is no water. Maintenance free sealed batteries have gel between the lead plates.

However, maintenance free batteries have a more limited range of charging parameters. Manufacturers recommend that they not be allowed to be discharged below 40% and not be charged to greater than 80%. While the downtime of watering is eliminated, you may have to swap out batteries before end of shift because you are only accessing 40% of the total energy compared to 80% with a lead acid battery.

A Snapshot of Specifications

There really isn't such a thing as a "typical" electric forklift so we have provided specifications for a few different types of AC truck.

TypeBrandCapacityReachTurning Radius
Pallet StackerLinde8000 lbs.160"94"
Reach TruckHyster4500 lbs.461"65.7"
Order PickerToyota3000 lbs.340"62.4"
Very Narrow AisleHyster3000 lbs.232"NA (turret mast)

In summary, if you have an indoor operation with smooth flooring then at a minimum you should explore electric forklifts further. We can assist you with that with our Forklift Pricing Tool.