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Know Your Numbers for Narrow Aisle Forklifts

By: Maureen Paraventi

Vision protection comes in many shapes and forms to address different hazard levels that can range from simple to moderate to severe. © Petinovs –

A “No Vacancy” sign might be a positive for a motel – an indication that paying customers are filling all of the available rooms and generating revenue for the business’ owner. In the warehouse industry, though, falling vacancy rates is an alarming trend, according to the experts. Estimates released late last year by several sources indicated that warehouse vacancy in the U.S. had dipped to 3.6%, largely due to the pandemic-related global supply chain crisis. The space crunch is especially noteworthy in warehouses near U.S. ports, such as the port of Los Angeles, which recorded a record low vacancy of 1%.

This is despite the fact that warehouses used to store merchandise, raw materials and manufactured goods are much larger now than in the past. These storage behemoths previously were, on average, less than 10,000 square feet. According to government statistics, the average warehouse is now 16,400 square feet, with many in the 25,000 to 50,000 square foot range.

Warehouse managers are using a variety of strategies to pack more product into their available space, such as maximizing vertical space by using taller shelving units and filling those racks to the ceiling. Reconfiguring layouts to make aisles narrower is another option. This warehouse optimization strategy can significantly increase storage space without expanding a warehouse’s footprint. An additional advantage: reducing travel time between picks speeds up the process.

Narrow aisles, however, may require the use of narrow aisle forklifts. To make the right choices when it comes to these vehicles, it’s important to know the exact measurements of the aisles in which they’ll be used. While lift capacities and height ranges are always important considerations when choosing lift trucks for your facility, narrow aisles add a few more factors to the decision-making process. Forklifts must be able to fit in the aisles and also have sufficient room to maneuver and turn without hitting racks and causing damage.

First, know that there are two distinct classifications for less-than-average aisle widths: Narrow Aisles (NA) and Very Narrow Aisles (VNA). Traditionally, aisles in warehouses and distribution centers have been fairly wide, as much as 12+ feet, in order to give conventional, sit-down counterbalanced forklifts the clearance and turning space needed to handle standard 48-inch pallets. NAs trim several feet from that width, and range from 8 ½ to 10 ½ feet wide. VNAs, which are gaining in popularity, are able to take advantage of the growing number of forklifts designed specifically for tight quarters. VNAs may be as little as 5 to 7 feet wide.

While changing aisle widths to increase storage is an appealing notion, making aisles too narrow for your needs can be a costly mistake, and one that is time consuming to correct. Most narrow aisle forklifts can handle the same amount of weight as a standard forklift, from 80,000 lbs. to 105,000 lbs. However, if the choice is between single-reach and double-reach forklifts, double-reach ones (which can access deep racks) are better for heavier loads, while single-reach ones are the more economical option for lighter loads.

Before embarking upon a major reconfiguration effort, check the forklift manufacturer’s specifications:

  • Will the narrow aisles you’re planning have sufficient room for the forklift trucks you will be using to operate safely and efficiently and avoid product damage in the event of operator error? What is the basic right-angle stacking width and the load length? The forklift’s turn radius?
  • Will the lift trucks have enough power to raise loads to the heights needed?
  • Are there other requirements that need to be met? For instance, turret trucks and double-reach forklifts can only be used on level floors. Additionally, turret trucks need to be guided by rails along the aisles, wires or lasers, while double-reach forklifts are not ideal for outdoor use.
  • Would order picker forklifts be right for you? They are ideal when the warehouse inventory consists of smaller, lighter items that are stored at considerable heights.

The increase and evolution of forklift models intended for use in tight spaces may make narrow or very narrow aisles a viable solution to warehouse storage challenges. WMHS

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