The Pros and Cons of Electric Forklifts
Integrated into a wide range of warehouse and retail applications, electric forklifts are the “green” option to their IC-powered counterparts. They offer substantially less capacity, capping out around 15,000 lbs (compared to 120,000 lbs with an internal combustion engine) but are highly compact and work well indoors.
Some of the pros and cons of an electric powered forklift include:
- Zero emissions. For indoor operations, this is often your only option. Unlike a internal combustion engine, electric pallet jacks and similar types of forklifts don’t produce poisonous exhaust. This enables them to be used in closed spaces like sales floors, stock rooms, and fulfillment warehouses. Plus, no fuel storage requirements!
- Economical fuel source. Electric lifts have a lower cost per hour of operation than IC models. In fact, the operating cost of an electric forklift is reportedly just 10% to 15% of an internal combustion machine. Depending on the price of electricity in your area, the cost of charging a standard industrial battery is about $3 per charge.
- Quiet operation. Additional advantages of electric forklifts include quieter operation – a huge benefit indoors.
- Longer lifecycle. With fewer moving parts, electric forklifts tend to have a longer lifespan and are usually more affordable when it comes to routine maintenance.
- Higher upfront cost. A lower cost of operation helps offset a higher price tag. Depending on the capacity, new electric forklifts can cost 20% to 40% more than their IC counterparts.
- Downtime for recharge. The batteries typically provide enough power for one standard eight-hour shift or about 6 hours of constant use. After that, you’re looking at 8 to 16 hours to recharge, plus 8 hours to cool before the battery can be used. Fast charge batteries can be restored from 20% to 100% in 60 to 90 minutes but reportedly cost up to 20% more than a standard battery.
- Battery changing station and transporters. If you need forklifts for two or three-shift operations, you’ll have to purchase extra forklift batteries and swap them out with a transporter, a process that requires a battery-changing station and takes 20 to 45 minutes. Typically installed in a large open space and set against a wall, this can eat into valuable warehouse space that could otherwise be used for racking.
Industrial Truck Association classes
If the benefits outweigh the drawbacks for your intended use, selecting a specific model is the next step. The Industrial Truck Association (ITA) has organized the different types of forklifts into eight classes, with classes 1, 2, 3, and 6 designated to electric forklifts.
Here’s how they compare as well as some of their most common applications.
Class 1: Electric-Motor Rider Trucks
Available in 3- or 4-wheel models, electric riding lifts often reach capacities between 8,000 and 15,000 lbs. They are a sit-down style lift that’s often powered by an 80-volt, brushless AC drive motor and AC pump motor.
Featuring electronic power steering and deck-mounted hydraulic control levers, all functions are easily controlled from a suspension seat – designed to minimize vibration and reduce operator fatigue. Electric riding trucks also commonly include solid pneumatic forklift tires, enabling them to be used on a number of dry, paved surfaces. Most come with a variety of customizable chassis, masts, and operator compartments.
- Common applications: indoors/outdoors (dry locations), loading pads, manufacturing plants, ports, logistic centers, warehouses
Class 2: Electric Motor Narrow-Aisle Trucks
These stand-up-operated lifts provide up to 6,000 lbs of lifting capacity through a 36-Volt AC control system. Designed to slide in and out of narrow aisles and similar tight spots, a Class 2 narrow aisle forklift has been engineered with the minimum turning radius possible and uses dual articulating load wheels and an anti-rollback braking system that provides reliable, safe operation.
Unlike the sit-down models, a narrow-aisle machine is typically controlled with only one hand through a multifunctional joystick. A non-slip floor mat also provides safety when getting on or off the lift and helps reduce fatigue.
- Common applications: indoors, warehouses, industrial plants, sales floors
Class 3: Electric Motor Hand Trucks
Sometimes known as walkies or walkie stackers, electric pallet jacks offer the ability to ride along at the rear of the load or walk behind the unit. Max weight capacity is usually between 4,500 and 8,000 lbs. They are often designed with a 24-volt battery and travel speeds that cap out around 3.4 to 3.6 mph. Similar to their larger counterparts, a walkie’s forks are customizable and easily adjusted to accommodate pallets of differing length and width. Yet unlike a larger truck, they do not require a license (or even much training) to operate.
Capable of performing 180° pinwheel turns, motorized hand trucks can operate in temperatures as low as -13° F and are often available with an optional galvanized treatment for the frame, critical components, and certain parts and shields to help extend the lifecycle of the machine in corrosive environments.
- Common applications: indoors/outdoors (dry locations), loading pads, warehouses, food and beverage manufacturers, sales floors
Class 6: Electric and Internal-Combustion Engine Tow Tractors
Tow tractors transport palletized goods or raw materials from one location to another with a tow capacity of up to 2,000 lbs. Unique among other electric forklifts, they have the ability to form a train, towing multiple trailers at once. Highly cost effective, it’s estimated that electric tow tractors can cost up to 70% less to operate than similar IC models.
Powered by a DC traction motor and available in three different types – walkie, walkie-rider, and sit-down rider – tow tractors usually have a top travel speed of 20 mph or less.
- Common applications: indoors/outdoors (dry locations), loading pads, airports, warehouses
Knowing your needs can help you quickly decide between an electric and IC forklift. And if you plan on operating the equipment indoors or around people in enclosed spaces, the decision is pretty simple: electric forklifts represent one of the few types of construction equipment designed almost entirely for indoor use.