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Renze Display, a custom display and graphics specialist based in Omaha, Neb., is a big believer in the advantages of using propane-powered forklifts.
After purchasing and using two electric forklifts in the early 2000s, the company decided to explore other options for their heavy lifting needs. Renze purchased an electric forklift in 2001, and a second in 2004. But, the machines couldn’t meet the demands of the company.
Doug Buchanan, owner of Renze Display, explains that, “We had trouble going up and down ramps, and even burned up the engine in one of the electric forklifts trying to get it up a ramp. Plus, electric forklifts would run out of battery charge in the middle of a job. If someone forgot to plug an electric forklift in and it didn’t have a full charge on it when a truck showed up the next morning, it would die on us in the middle of unloading a truck.”
Renze Display’s Senior Exhibit Manager, Bryan Meusch, concurs. “Electric forklifts were not a good fit for us,” he says.
However, it’s been a different story since the company switched to propane-powered forklifts, according to Meusch. Limited downtime with Renze’s three propane forklifts helps the company achieve fast turnaround on projects. Refueling is simple, and doesn’t take a machine out of action for hours as was the case when the electric lifts needed recharging.
Meusch says he can tell when the tank is getting low or about to run out, so he’ll start driving back toward the propane cage. If he doesn’t make it, it isn’t a problem. Empty, the tanks are around 15 pounds. Full tanks are closer to 40 pounds, light enough that employees can take the fuel right to the forklift with the use of small carts.
Propane also fits with Renze’s goals to be environmentally responsible. They use Eco-System sustainable exhibits and recycle spare or unused materials. Propane tanks function on a closed-loop fuel system, so there are no extra demands from the Environmental Protection Agency for contamination or clean-up.
For the four employees, including Meusch, who operate forklifts, the machines provide safety to their daily work.
“There’s a lot more power, a lot more lift capacity to where we don’t have to worry about tipping over a forklift,” he says.
Another convinced user of propane forklifts is Mazo Hardware & Rental in Mazomanie, Wis., a small suburb of Madison. Owner Renee Zaman describes it as a “traditional, small-town hardware store.”
The independent, family-owned business includes its 6,700-square-foot hardware store, a full garden center and a sizable fleet of light-construction and landscape rental equipment.
Mazo uses forklifts to move materials such as bags of feed and garden mulch.
For the past decade, the company has used a propane forklift.
“Propane works really well for all of the pallet moving that we do around here,” she says. “Electric just wouldn’t do it.”
See why Renze Display is sold on the advantages of propane
Propane forklifts are commonplace in many warehouse settings, but they have yet to make a huge presence in the food distribution area, but there is opportunity. Jeremy Wishart, director of off-road business development for the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC), views food logistics as a big potential growth area for propane. He says misinformation is mostly to blame for the relatively low use in the food sector.
“There has long been a myth going around that propane forklifts are not allowed to operate inside a food distribution center,” Wishart says. “I don’t know how that got started because there are no regulations of any type nationwide that would prevent this. There may be corporate guidelines that would dictate otherwise, but there is nothing that would prevent propane forklifts from operating in a food-handling space.”
Wishart says one of the common uses of propane forklifts in food applications is loading a truck outside the warehouse with dry goods or beverages. He says they also offer a good option for cold storage situations.
Greater Berks Food Bank in Reading, Pa. is one example of propane-powered forklifts in the food arena. The nonprofit distributes more than 7 million pounds of food annually to more than 300 charitable food partners across Pennsylvania’s Berks and Schuylkill counties. At least half of the donations the food bank receives are fresh or frozen perishable goods, which require quick turnaround to be safely consumed by 110,000 people.
With a 45,000-square-foot warehouse in addition to outdoor waste collection, the food bank needed a forklift fuel that required virtually no refueling time and could meet the non-stop supply and demand needs occurring both inside and outdoors. An electric forklift wouldn’t suffice, because they require long periods of downtime to recharge.
“I definitely prefer a propane forklift, especially since at our facility we only have one forklift,” says Adam Winchester, operations manager. “It’s reliable. Day in and day out, it gets the job done.”
Propane has been used to power forklifts for more than 50 years, gaining market share in the Class 4 and 5 markets as gas and diesel forklifts have been phased out by regulatory emissions standards.
Wishart says the upfront costs are significantly less for a propane lift truck compared to electric. He notes there are recharging issues, which can pose a dilemma for companies. Furthermore, when all of the cost comparisons are considered, propane forklifts have an ROI of 12 to 18 months in most applications. That compares to 3 to 5 years for electric versions, he says.
“The lifespan of propane forklifts is every bit as good,” Wishart says.
Propane is also the best choice for companies desiring to operate with lower emissions, Wishart says. A comparative emissions analysis of forklifts conducted by PERC, in partnership with the Gas Technology Institute, found that although electric forklifts produce no emissions during operation, their full-cycle emissions profile is not so clean, he says.
Using propane forklifts can reduce SOx emissions by 76 percent compared to electric when total site-to-source emissions are evaluated. Site-to-source emissions include those produced in the manufacturing and transportation of batteries for electric forklifts. When compared with gasoline, propane was found to produce 15 percent fewer SOx emissions, 17 percent fewer NOx emissions, and 16 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
A PERC study indicates that most forklift operators operate both indoors and outdoors. Wishart says many businesses actually choose propane for its low-emissions indoor performance. In fact, well-maintained propane forklifts meet or exceed nationwide indoor air quality standards, while gasoline and diesel models produce higher amounts of carbon monoxide and other harmful emissions. As long as the engines are properly serviced and they’re operating in a well-ventilated environment, propane forklifts are perfectly suited to operate indoors, he says.
Propane-powered forklifts can also be used in temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit and are rated completely waterproof and safe for outdoor use. Wishart says propane forklifts are available in all weight classes to match the job at hand. Electric forklifts, on the other hand, may not be up to the task to carry the weight of large jobs, and diesel isn’t fit for small tasks.
PERC touts the new generation of propane forklifts as reliable, powerful, efficient, and affordable. Here are some features the organization cites:
Propane forklifts can work in all areas of warehousing and material handling applications.
What you see is what you get, meaning propane forklifts don’t come with hidden costs like other fuels.
Propane forklifts are less expensive at acquisition than electric, while Tier-4 requirements can add thousands of dollars to the purchase price of diesel equipment. Electric forklifts are costly when you consider the utility costs of keeping them charged. Battery life and power output for electric forklifts also diminish over time and lead to future costs that can go overlooked, including additional expensive batteries.
An investment in propane cylinders and storage cages, on the other hand, can last decades, PERC says. Beyond the initial equipment purchase and cost of fuel, companies are only responsible for buying and storing the cylinders, which can last about three times as long as the average forklift battery. •