Considering Forklift Choices

Shop owners discuss forklift capacity, tire type, propane versus electric, and related considerations. August 31, 2010

Don't know anything about forklifts, other than I need one. Primary use will be to unload plywood and lumber a few times a week. Travel distance between shop and truck is about 50 feet. There is a very slight incline involved. Can anybody compare the relative merits of electric forklifts vs propane?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor M:
I'm no expert, but electric is more friendly if operated in the building for extended periods. Breathing exhaust fumes can get old fast. Also turn radius and lift capacity need to meet your requirements regardless of type. Another consideration is tires, if driving on unpaved surfaces or a mixture of both. Some forklifts don't do well on grass, muddy dirt or uneven or steep inclines.

From the original questioner:
Good point about the wheels for different driving surfaces. Is lift capacity affected by electric vs propane? Maximum load might be 500 feet of lumber or 40 sheets of 3/4 plywood.

From contributor J:
Tires are a good point, as well as lift capacity. I have an older Clark with 1500 lb capacity and it is too small for a lift of 3/4 melamine. I need a bigger one. I would recommend 3,000 lb lift as minimum. Mine is propane and has been very reliable, and the fumes are not a problem. Don't know anything about electric.

From contributor M:
After thinking about it, I agree that fumes from propane would not be a problem for the average business. I once worked with a company where we had a lot of them running all day long - quite a different scenario. Our electric lifts usually had smooth solid type wheels. When the new drivers ventured off the pavement to unload trucks, they would usually get stuck, while loaded. It made for a more dangerous situation even when they were able to get the load back to pavement. The propane lift had different tires and more pulling power. The owner would send it out to the field at times to put up shooting houses for deer hunting. Not relevant, just shows the versatility of some forklifts.

From contributor G:
The smaller hard solid rubber wheels are paved area only. The pneumatic tires will handle a gravel parking lot (or worse according to their diameter).

Your insurance or local codes may require extra propane to be stored outside only. A bargain on a used electric should be checked out by a good service mechanic for his opinion on the remaining life of the battery, because the replacements are surprisingly expensive.

From contributor L:
We've got a 5000lb Cat with 14' triple mast. It has the bigger solid tires, which look like the pneumatic ones but are solid (no flats). It can only go off the pavement on very hard dry ground because the steering wheels are small and the counter balance is heavy. You need 4000lb. of lift capacity for a unit of 4x8 P Bd or melamine. The rating of a lift is without mast accessories or extended reach height. Ours has side shift, which is really nice to have, but that plus the triple mast makes its actual lift about 4500lb. If you get in 5' wide board, your lift capacity goes down because they are rated at 24" load center.

We are in a cold climate so we have to unload outside in the winter. The bigger tires help a lot when there is packed snow, and we have a slight incline. If you are in a warm climate and only operate on concrete, the tighter turning of the small wheels is nice.

I don't ever notice our propane lift smelling bad. But it doesn't run a lot. Like said, batteries are really expensive for the electric lifts. The propane tanks are provided and exchanged by their truck (the propane delivery company). Propane tanks for lift trucks have a different valve than BBQ tanks and won't interchange. We keep our tanks inside and chained to a building column out of the way. Been inspected by OSHA 5 times; no gripes about tanks. If you get a lift you can increase your storage by putting in cantilever arm racks, so you need to consider that when deciding how high it needs to lift.

If you have employees you also have to have OSHA approved training at least every 2 years. There are also inspection requirements for the lift. Great tools!

From contributor P:
We bought a used electric a couple of years ago and it has been excellent. Our shop is about 5,000 sq ft with a paved area out front for offloading from the side, and a dock on the side for transfers. It has smooth hard rubber tires and will not move off the pavement. We primarily offload 5X8 skids of melamine and it handles easily. Have not had to buy replacement batteries yet, but as someone stated, I understand they are pretty expensive.

From contributor B:
I have an electric 5000# Hyster. Had a propane before and wouldn't consider it again; electric is much nicer. You can get pneumatic tires on an electric lift. They're hard to find used, but they are out there. If the surface is a problem and you only have 50 feet, why not fix it? My hard tired electric will go in the gravel if it is packed. I travel around the outside of the shop with it.

From contributor U:
Make sure your shop floor can handle the weight of the lift truck. A truck with a capacity of 4000lbs on a 24 inch load center (in my opinion, the minimum required capacity) weighs 8000 lbs. I would hate to see you go to that kind of expense just to turn your shop floor into rubble.

From contributor K:
I have a 4000lb lift, and a typical 50 sheet 3/4 inch pallet of plywood is its limit. Don't think there are many lifts in this range that are electric, and if you are using it on a limited basis, propane is okay. If you go off pavement, pneumatic tires are a must. I've gotten mine stuck several times.