Going Electric in the Warehouse: Electric Forklifts

By Jonathan Susser | June 1, 2020

Forklifts, or lift trucks, are used in a variety of industries — from warehousing and storage to manufacturing to big-box retail to construction — to handle materials and load, unload and transport goods.

Traditionally, this equipment has run on an internal combustion engine, powered by propane, diesel, natural gas or gasoline fuel. But forklifts that rely on electric motors and industrial batteries — electric forklifts — have been deployed for years, are growing in popularity and are offered by many forklift manufacturers. Recent improvements and advancements in technology have allowed them to compete directly with their internal combustion counterparts but with lower operating and maintenance costs, fewer emissions and quieter operation.

Electric Forklift
Source: Dieter Arndt

Forklifts are classified by their power source and design. Classes 1-3 are battery-powered, while Classes 4-5 use internal combustion engines. Today, Class 1 electric forklifts can perform the same work as Class 4 internal combustion forklifts, as well as many applications of Class 5 equipment.

Benefits

Electric forklifts share many of the benefits of other forms of electric transportation. For example, they cost less to run and maintain over their lifetimes because they have fewer moving parts than internal combustion versions, and electricity is cheaper than conventional fuel sources.

They are also clean, quiet and vibration-free. The noise and emissions benefits provide a safer and more comfortable workspace, and employees don’t have to worry about exposure to fumes or spills associated with other fuels. In addition, outdoor forklifts use pneumatic tires to improve handling and have enclosed motors and electronic systems for safety.

When it comes to charging, multiple setups are available to align with particular facility characteristics. Fast charging solutions are becoming more prevalent and offer increasing flexibility, allowing for quick partial charges during lunch and other breaks. To determine the most appropriate charging technology for your facility, a needs assessment will likely be required.

From a utility perspective, the switch from internal combustion to electric forklifts adds new load and can help strengthen relationships with end-use customers.

Areas for Improvement

Electric forklifts are safe and reliable for many applications; however, tasks that require very heavy lifting (40,000+ pounds) may still be better suited for internal combustion forklifts.

Furthermore, despite their lower operating expenses, electric forklifts cost more upfront than internal combustion forklifts due to battery prices and the need for charging equipment. Government or utility incentives and rebates may be available, though, and costs should drop as the technology continues to improve.

Cost Comparison Example

Electric ForkliftPropane Forklift
Upfront Cost$67,200$44,200
Fueling Cost$1,260$10,930
Maintenance Cost$3,060$5,000
Total Annual Operating Cost$13,020$21,660
Net Present Value$100,530$167,220
Assumptions: 8,000-pound forklift; 10-year life; 2-shift operation; 67% utilization; electricity cost = 8¢/kWh; propane cost = $2.20/gallon; 5% escalation rate