Electric vs. Internal Combustion Engine Forklifts
The great debate – electric forklifts versus IC (internal combustion) forklifts. This decision is not only for new companies. Established companies may also weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each fuel, especially if there is a shift of priorities to “go green.”
The forklift industry has experienced a shift in sales, with electric forklifts now accounting for nearly 60% of the forklift market. Electric forklifts are rising in popularity due to advances in technology that are allowing them to operate more comparably to internal combustion engine forklifts in regards to performance and run time. The emergence of fast-charging capabilities, higher-voltage outputs, and new and improved battery, pump, and motor technologies are some of the reasons for these breakthroughs.
Electric forklift advantages include:
- No exhaust emissions: Electric forklifts are powered by electrical energy sources such as batteries or fuel cells, which eliminates an employee’s exposure to potentially harmful exhaust emissions.
- Reduced maintenance costs: Electric forklifts use no disposal waste (i.e. engine and transmission fluid) and a high percentage of battery lead can be recycled.
- Operator ergonomics: Less noise and vibration is generated by the electric forklift, reducing operator fatigue.
- Decreased repair costs: Electric forklifts have less moving parts to maintain and repair. AC motor technology further eliminates brushes to create no spark hazard and better speed control.
- Lower long-term fuel costs: Batteries for the electric forklift can be recharged. Although the upfront costs for batteries and chargers can be expensive, the return on investment over time is typically higher than when using fuel.
With these advantages come other factors to consider. Although electric forklifts have lower lifetime fuel costs, the initial cost is higher. In addition to the cost of the battery, an area for charging, watering and cleaning must be arranged. Certain electric forklifts can be at a disadvantage when using the forklift in an outdoor application, depending on the design of the forklift. Many forklifts today, including Toyota’s 3-Wheel Electric and 80V Pneumatic models are designed to protect critical forklift components from potential damage due to water intrusion. Downtime can also be experienced if the battery is not charged or equalized properly.
The market is still strong for IC forklifts. They account for about 40% of the forklift market and are viable solutions for both indoor and outdoor applications. IC forklifts tend to be more popular for outdoor, high-capacity applications and for specialty applications such as paper roll handling and container handling.
IC forklift advantages include:
- Flexible application: IC forklifts are good indoors and outdoors. They operate well in rain and other inclement weather.
- Multi-shift use: The fuel savings associated with electric forklifts is greatly diminished or negated when multiple batteries are required to keep an operation running. These batteries also take up additional space in a facility, reducing efficiencies and increasing operating costs.
- Lower initial cost: On propane powered forklifts, only the investment of propane tanks and their storage area is needed to operate the forklift. Gasoline, diesel, and CNG powered forklifts are usually purchased when refilling stations are conveniently available. The infrastructure for these stations, however, can be very expensive if they don’t already exist at your facility.
- Easy to refuel: IC forklifts running out of fuel do not require a lengthy charging period. An operator can easily replace the propane tank in 5 minutes and then continue production. Gasoline, diesel, and CNG powered forklifts can also be refueled in a matter of minutes depending on their location. This is especially important with a multi-shift operation.
Other factors to consider when purchasing an IC forklift include providing ventilation in the warehouse due to emissions, operator fatigue due to noise and vibration and the physical requirements of changing propane tanks. Finally, if the operation does not require an IC forklift you should consider the lifetime costs of maintenance, repairs and fuel cost when compared to an electric forklift.
LP vs. Gasoline vs. Diesel vs. CNG Powered Forklifts
Once you’ve made the choice to go with internal combustion engine powered forklifts for your operation, you now need to decide which fuel type is best for you. The following tips should help to point you in the right direction.
Liquid Petroleum Gas (LP) – LP is ideal for customer locations that do not have gasoline, diesel, or CNG refilling stations readily available. If you’re purchasing forklifts for a new facility, LP has the lowest initial cost since all you essentially need to purchase are LP tanks and a place to store them. LP tanks can also be swapped in a matter of minutes, which can reduce your amount of downtime when refueling. LP forklifts are available with both cushion and pneumatic tires and are ideal for both indoor and outdoor operations.
Diesel – Diesel fuel is highly efficient and can provide longer run times in general compared to other fuel types. One by-product of the combustion process with diesel is soot, which can accumulate in the exhaust system of a forklift and needs to be removed. Most Toyota forklifts are built with diesel oxidation catalysts so that this is slowly burned off over time, but there are some forklifts out there that use diesel particular filters that need to go through a manual regen process to burn away these deposits. This can lead to more downtime since the forklift must be parked and not in use for the manual regen process to complete. In general, diesel engines also have higher torque than their LP or gas counterparts, which can provide increased gradeability and acceleration. While fuel pricing is subject to change, diesel currently costs more per gallon than gasoline, providing a better return on investment over years of use. Diesel forklifts are generally only available with pneumatic type tires and are designed for outdoor use. This is mostly due to the fact that they are louder machines and produce more emissions than LP or gas powered forklifts.
Gasoline – Gasoline only powered forklifts are pretty rare in the material handling industry due to the popularity of dual fuel forklifts and the general lack of gasoline fueling stations, but they do serve a purpose. For customers that have refueling stations readily available, conveniently placed, and able to accommodate the size of their fleet, there is little reason to use LP or dual fuel configurations. Gasoline powered forklifts also do not have an LP tank and bracket on the back of the forklift, which can increase rearward visibility. They are also typically more powerful than their diesel alternatives and can provide increased travel and lift/lower speeds.
Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) – Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) powered forklifts also require the appropriate refilling equipment in order to operate, but this type of fuel provides some distinct advantages. CNG is better for the environment and for overall air quality due to the fact that it produces less emissions and the natural gas dissipates into the air as water vapor and carbon dioxide in the event of a leak. Unlike LP forklifts, the CNG tank is never removed, but is actually refilled which can reduce downtime and operator strain. Infrastructure for CNG refueling stations, however, can be expensive due to the large amount of land required and general cost of equipment and installation. This, along with other barriers to entry such as obtaining the proper permits and having an adequate natural gas supply make CNG an unpopular choice in the current material handling market.