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Lift Truck Tips: Shallow end of the electric pool

Instead of diving into a battery-powered fleet, internal combustion forklift owners can gradually transition.
By Josh Bond, Senior Editor
January 01, 2013

It’s an electric market. And, most industry experts will tell you the roughly 60/40 split between electrics and internal combustion (IC) forklifts—a pendulum that has swung for decades—is not likely to swing back. The transition from IC to electric can be challenging, acknowledges Wayne Wilde, field technical sales officer for Nissan Forklift. But the same tools that have helped electric lift trucks penetrate IC applications can also make the switch somewhat less painful.

The addition of batteries into an application has always been the chief pain point, says Wilde. Few fleet managers are excited about the prospect of battery maintenance, even if it will be less cost overall than maintaining all the moving parts of IC engines. Then there’s the struggle to keep batteries charged and the overwhelming cost of the battery room. That’s where opportunity charging comes in. Instead of a one-time overhaul from IC to electric, fleet owners can gradually transition their fleet with a few batteries here and an opportunity charger there.

“The problem is that it’s hard to predict what business will be like in the next three years, and a battery room needs to be able to accommodate growth,” says Wilde. “We are seeing more customers make a gradual transition and avoid the battery room altogether.”

One customer has plans to convert a quarter of his IC fleet to electric each year for the next four years. Wilde has even seen some interest among those customers with an existing battery room. They remain hesitant to abandon the room given the large investment they’ve already made, but many are testing opportunity chargers, he says.

To find the right fleet composition of IC, battery change and zero battery change equipment, says Wilde, a comprehensive study of equipment usage – beyond the hour meter – is critical. He also encourages a hard look at a company’s long-term investment in materials handling equipment. “There will often be places where it will be difficult to get rid of IC because of the size of the load, ramps, attachments, or other reasons,” he says. “But if I can get the rest of the fleet over to electric, I can reduce the operating cost of that truck.”

Battery electric technology is chipping away at those advantages, but so are other factors. Wilde says more and more customers, due to product damage and safety issues, are capping the speed of their IC fleets to within the range of electric truck top speeds. And soon, says Wilde, 80-volt trucks will join 36-volt and 48-volt counterparts to provide a viable alternative to even the most stubborn IC applications.

About the Author

Josh Bond
Senior Editor

Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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