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Propane Forklift Q&A

Matt McDonald, Director of Off-Road Business Development for the Propane Education & Research Council, answers questions about propane forklifts.

Q: How do emissions between propane, electric, gasoline and diesel-powered forklifts compare?

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McDonald: Sustainability is a hot topic in the industry, forcing businesses to take a closer look at their operational emissions profile. For material handling professionals, this means selecting equipment with reduced carbon emissions. Propane offers a clean alternative energy solution compared with electric and diesel forklifts.

The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) contracted the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) and the Nexight Group to study and analyze the comparative emissions of propane in key markets, including forklifts. The reports studied full-fuel-cycle energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, hydrocarbons, and criteria pollutant emissions like nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulfur oxide (SOx).

According to this study, propane reduces SOx emissions by up to 76% compared with electric when you consider the total site-to-source emissions required for bringing electric forklifts to market. Site-to-source emissions include those produced in the manufacturing and transportation of batteries for electric forklifts. Not to mention, the electricity needed for recharging batteries is mostly generated by coal-fired plants that release even more harmful emissions into the air and toxins into the water supply.

The same study revealed that propane forklifts reduce NOx emissions by 94% and hydrocarbons by 94% compared with diesel-powered equipment.

Q: Are propane forklifts safe to use indoors?

McDonald: According to data from PERC, 68% of forklift fleets work both indoors and outdoors, making this an important question. And the answer is yes, propane forklifts can be operated safely indoors.

Propane and electric-powered forklifts dominate the indoor space, but propane offers a significant reduction in overall emissions. Well-maintained propane forklift engines exceed nationwide indoor air quality standards, while gasoline and diesel models produce higher amounts of carbon monoxide. There is no nationwide ban on the indoor use of propane forklifts. As long as the engines have been properly serviced and they’re in a ventilated environment, propane forklifts are perfectly suited to operate indoors.

Q: Besides the emissions difference, do propane forklifts offer other advantages?

McDonald: Propane offers notable performance benefits, helping crews to increase productivity day in and day out. For example, propane-powered forklifts provide 100% power throughout operation and maintain more consistent travel speeds and acceleration throughout a shift compared to battery-powered forklifts, according to data from PERC.

And propane provides the quick refueling necessary to keep materials moving, regardless of fleet size. One cylinder typically covers an eight-hour shift and swapping out an empty cylinder for a full one takes only a few moments.

Propane’s refueling process eliminates downtime spent recharging or the need for strict battery management by crews, like with electric equipment. Plus, companies operating with propane can work with their local propane supplier to ensure their cylinder cages are always full by setting up a tailored refueling schedule.

Q: Proponents of electric forklifts argue that they are quieter and involve less maintenance. Can you address that?

McDonald: Forklifts traditionally do not get the level of preventative maintenance they require or deserve. One of the main areas that gets ignored is the exhaust system, resulting in a higher noise level from the exhaust. That being said, a properly maintained propane forklift engine complies with all workplace noise level requirements. And electric motors, while quiet, are not silent like many people think.

Additionally, to say an electric forklift is low, or no, maintenance is a common misconception. In fact, electric lifts require specific maintenance items because of forklift batteries, which are a significant maintenance item in general. It’s also important to consider the wear and tear electric batteries can have on a lift.

Q: Do propane forklifts pose a risk of employees inhaling harmful gases?

McDonald: Propane’s low-emissions profile means propane forklifts are not only better for the environment, but they also protect employees from harmful emissions—unlike gasoline and diesel, which produce higher amounts of carbon monoxide.

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Q: How do the two compare in terms of cost – both initial and operational?

McDonald: Between propane’s lower capital cost and impressive cylinder lifespan, businesses can see significant savings throughout ownership compared with electric and diesel-powered equipment.

Most notably, the capital cost of a propane forklift is approximately 30% lower than the purchase price of an electric forklift. Electric forklifts also incur additional utility costs to keep them charged, and their battery life and power output diminishes over time, which can lead to future costs.

Propane forklifts, on the other hand, can be refilled at any time without impacting the lifespan of the cylinder. And the life expectancy of a propane cylinder is three times longer than an electric forklift battery and oftentimes extends beyond the typical lifespan of a forklift.

Additionally, businesses making the move to electric oftentimes forget about the costly installation requirements that come with electric equipment—like battery charging stations, which must be located in a designated area of the facility. It’s important to note that charging stations may cause issues in some facilities and require costly service upgrades to accommodate the new power requirements.

With propane forklifts, however, infrastructure requirements are minimal. Refueling infrastructure requires only storage space for the propane cylinders, freeing up valuable warehouse square footage that would otherwise be occupied by battery stations.

Q: Are there particular applications or environments for which propane forklifts are ideally suited? Not suited at all?

McDonald: Because propane is a highly versatile energy source, it’s well suited for a wide variety of applications and environments. Propane forklifts are commonly used in and around warehouses, on loading docks, around ports, in food and beverage operations, etc.

Beyond its indoor-outdoor versatility, propane forklifts also offer weight class versatility—meaning crews don’t have to juggle multiple energy sources to complete different jobs. Electric forklifts can’t bring the power needed for larger jobs and diesel isn’t suited for small jobs, but propane provides power for every size job and works for every weight class and application to match the job at hand. WMHS

For more information, visit the Propane Research & Information Council’s website (https://propane.com).

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