Knowing how to choose the right forklift for the job requires specialized insight if you hope to find the most productive, cost-effective machine. Beyond the size and power source, when choosing a forklift you need to evaluate a variety of factors that impact your long-term cost, including how much and how high the machine can lift, how careful you need to be when manipulating the load in sensitive areas and whether you should buy or rent a forklift.
With the variety of technological advancements and new ergonomic designs available, even the smallest adjustment can save your operators’ time, while simultaneously boosting their productivity and the cost-effectiveness of your operation. To find the forklift that’s best suited to your business needs, you can sift through the countless offerings available online — or, you can simply consult a reputable forklift sales or forklift rental dealer.
Unlike a piece of machinery purchased over the Internet, professional forklift dealers specialize in pairing industries with the appropriate machinery — easily matching your business process with a forklift that meets your requirements.
Choosing the right forklift is important for your business. It affects everything from operation costs, productivity, employee morale and stock management. There is a large range of forklifts available, and each one is designed to be used for specific jobs.
Buying a forklift is a lot more complicated than most people realize. Without researching and learning your options, you’re bound to end up with the wrong equipment for your particular application. To select the correct equipment for your work environment, it’s important to do your homework. This can be a time-consuming process, and our forklift purchasing guide tells you exactly where to start in choosing the right forklift.
Jump to Sections:
- Tire Selection
- Types of Forklifts
- Service & Maintenance
- Training and Safety
- Questions to Ask a Forklift Supplier
- Buy or Rent
The foremost factor in how to choose the right forklift is the specifics of your site and your intended application. You must consider whether the forklift will be working indoors or outdoors, whether it will work on smooth floors or rough terrain and what lift heights and types of product or materials will be involved.
Getting the right equipment for the right application is extremely important. There are a variety of manufacturers and thousands of different models of forklifts to choose from in today’s market. At first, it can seem very daunting. However, by assessing your application needs, you’ll be able to narrow down the choices and ultimately choose the right forklift for the job.
When selecting the right forklift, the primary criteria are the load capacity, the lift height, the fuel type, the tire composition and the ergonomic implications to the operator. Let’s look at each one:
1. Load capacity
It would be a big mistake to choose a forklift with a maximum lift capacity that’s below your requirements. It is important to look at:
- What is the stock the forklift be handling?
- What is your average load weight?
- What is the heaviest load you need to lift?
- What is the width of your loads?
The type of load also matters as there are specific forklift attachments that can enhance a standard forklift and help you move the load more efficiently.
2. Lift height
Knowing your required lift height is equally important and will affect your unit’s load-carrying capacity.
Average forklifts for everyday usage start at a lift height of eight feet and go all the way up to 20 feet, but there are units that reach far above those levels. Again, it largely will depend on the nature of your business, your warehouse size and specifically what you intend to use the forklift for.
Similar to maximum load, you want to ensure you choose a forklift that will meet your height restrictions. You need to consider:
- What is your typical lift height?
- What is the highest point the forklift needs to reach?
- Are there any height restrictions to consider (e.g. ceiling beams or low hanging lights)?
You must also consider the collapsed height of the mast, especially if you require the forklift to move underneath a fixed height structure, like a garage or container door. Also, check your warehouse height and aisle width requirements as this will greatly assist you in finding the right forklift.
3. Fuel type
Forklifts have two fuel options: electric and internal combustion.
Powered by large, heavy lead-acid batteries, electric forklifts typically provide enough power for one standard eight-hour shift or about five to six hours of continuous use. The two biggest advantages of this system are that it produces zero emissions, a necessity if the forklift is operated indoors, and is highly economical in terms of fuel.
Electric models offer a substantially lower cost per hour-of-operation than any of the internal combustion lifts. That said, electric forklifts have a higher upfront cost in comparison to combustion models — as much as 20% to 40% more. Depending on the efficiency of the charger you use and the cost of electricity in your area, a standard industrial battery can be recharged for about $3 per charge.
Electric forklifts will cost more initially, but you will reap the rewards over time as they have a longer lifespan and cheaper consumption compared to other types of forklifts. They produce no emissions, and are, therefore, recommended for working indoors or in cold climates. Electric forklifts are quiet as well, making them ideal for warehouse and other indoor use. However, time needs to be allowed for battery recharging.
An electric forklift is also easy to move around and offers long service life, but operational maintenance costs are usually higher than for diesel and gas models
- Internal combustion
Internal combustion (IC) engines run on a variety of fuels including gasoline, diesel fuel, liquid propane gas (LPG) or compressed natural gas (CNG). The main benefits of an IC forklift are the ability to operate them in any environment, a far greater capacity for weight (120,000 lbs. for diesel vs. 12,000 lbs. for an electric) and the ability to be refueled on the fly. They also have a higher reach, usually capping out around 36 feet in comparison to electric lifts that typically don’t go higher than 30 feet.
Their upfront price is the inverse of electric, making IC forklifts initially cheaper than electric models, but they cost more per hour to run. You can plan on paying about $30 to fill a seven-gallon diesel tank and $25 to $35 to fill a 33-lb propane tank. If you refuel the tanks twice a day (the average for full-time use), this equates to a yearly fuel cost of $1,500 for electric, $15,000 for diesel and about $12,500 for propane.
Internal combustion (IC) forklifts are powered by a traditional engine that runs on one of several types of fuel: compressed gasses or diesel.
- Compressed gas: With gas forklifts, you have the choice of LPG or CNG — both are quick to refuel and have a long lifespan. Gas-powered forklifts offer long service lives with relatively low maintenance costs. However, they tend to be noisy in operation, create exhaust emissions and require storage facilities for fuel.
- Diesel: Diesel forklifts can lift much bigger loads and move faster. Diesel forklifts are strongly recommended if the forklift will be used for heavy lifting or outdoors. Size for size, diesel forklifts that are intended for outdoor use are generally the most powerful. Their running costs are low, while operational reliability is high. However, you will need to allow for fuel costs and storage.
Tires are another primary consideration in choosing the right forklift and will largely be determined by your operating environment. This includes whether it’s indoors or outdoors, paved surfaces or rough terrain. Choosing the right tires will impact on your forklift’s handling and safety.
There are three different types of tires to choose from: pneumatic tires, solid tires and cushion tires which can be made from different materials.
- Pneumatic tires: Designed for heavy-duty lifting and outdoor operation, a gasoline or diesel lift truck with pneumatic tires has the same functionality as a standard car or truck. The tires are longer and wider than cushion tires, made of rubber and are filled with compressed air. Air pneumatics work well outdoors on asphalt, gravel and even unpaved terrain, but similar to a car or bike tire, they can be punctured.
- Solid tires: Solid design makes tires extremely durable. They won’t pop, puncture or go flat, which is why they’re used for a variety of heavy-duty applications, including construction zones, lumber yards, recycling centers and similar locations that may have metal shards, nails and other potentially damaging items in the work environment. This indestructibility also makes them more expensive than air pneumatic tires. and justifiably so.
- Cushion Tires: Constructed from solid rubber, cushion tires are pressed directly onto the wheel and feature a smaller chassis, sitting lower to the ground than pneumatic tires. This position gives them a big advantage in terms of maneuverability by enabling a smaller turn radius. Unfortunately, the low ground clearance largely relegates them to indoor use as the lift may get hung up on curbs, uneven pavement and other obstacles outside.
It’s worth noting that cushion tire forklifts are often less expensive and more readily available, both new and used, than pneumatic-tired forklifts.
Polyurethane Materials for Tires
Easy to install, polyurethane tires are designed to be pressed onto the wheels of a forklift and feature a low rolling resistance that’s been shown to prolong lifespan. Popular for the excellent traction they provide, they do come with one downside — they can only be used indoors. Polyurethane tires are incompatible with outdoor terrain and are therefore only installed on electric lifts that are used on smooth interior pavements and loading pads.
Non-Marking Tire Options
Non-marking tires are widely used to eliminate black marks on warehouse floors. Grocery or food processing plants are usually required to employ them in their factories for hygiene reasons. Non-marking tires are available in solid, pneumatic and cushion. The colors of these tires may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but most are either gray or white.
The majority of industrial tires are black. This is due to the soot added to the natural rubber mix when these tires are made. The soot is used to make the rubber more wear-resistant by absorbing heat and protecting the tires from UV radiation that causes the tires to age. Non-marking tires contain silica or chalk to prevent wear, and the addition of antioxidants to the rubber protects the tires against UV radiation.
High-quality, adjustable seating is important as forklift operators are sitting in their machines for hours at a time. Design and placement of controls are important as well. Investing in quality ergonomics will lessen the likelihood of injuries, such as back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome, which can be caused by repetitive tasks performed in uncomfortable seating and reaching conditions.
Types of Forklifts
There are a variety of forklift types that all have various capabilities. Let’s take a look at some especially common ones:
1. Hand Pallet Jack (Lift Truck)
A hand pallet jack uses a hydraulic jack to raise and move pallets. The wheels are located under each fork.
The fork separates from the front wheels and lifts the pallet to create enough clearance to transport the pallet about the workplace.
2. Electric Pallet Jack (Lift Truck)
An electric pallet jack is motorized with a battery-powered electric engine. They are designed for faster handling and movement of pallets. Key differences between pallet jacks are driver standing position and fork length.
3. Manual Stacker
Manual stackers are operated by hand and are designed for pallet handling and lifting. They require manual action to lift loads up to five feet. These low-reach forklifts are suitable for double floor stacking and low-level racking and shelving operations. However, manual stackers are slow to operate and are only recommend for very low volumes such as one to five pallets per day.
4. Walk Behind Electric Pallet Stacker
Electric “walkie” stackers come in a variety of different models and types. They are basically a pallet truck with a mast, and they use the battery and engine compartments to counter-weight the load. These forklifts can come with lifting heights of up to 20 feet.
5. Order Picker
Order picker forklifts are specially designed devices that are used to optimize the speed and ease of picking stock from both sides of a warehouse aisle.
6. Counter-Balance Internal Combustion Forklift
A counter-balance internal combustion forklift uses an internal combustion (IC) engine to power the lifting mechanism. The counter balance forklift comes with a balance weight, usually a cast iron bulk, at the rear. The balance of the forklift is achieved by this weight while the forklift is working or lifting. These types of forklifts are designed to run on a variety of fuel types, the most common being liquid propane and diesel.
7. Counter-Balance Electric 3-Wheeled
A 3-Wheel electric drive configuration consists of a dual steer wheel(s) mounted centrally beneath the counterweight. One of the key advantages of a 3-Wheel Electric is that they offer a smaller turning radius than the traditional 4-Wheel electric forklifts.
8. Counter-Balance Electric 4-Wheeled
A 4-Wheel configuration consists of a single steer wheel on each rear corner controlled by a dual acting hydraulic ram. They offer more stability when turning and are better suited for rougher yard and warehousing floor applications due to the articulated rear steer axle. With capacities ranging from 3,500-18,000 pounds, the 4-Wheel Electric Counter-Balance can be used for specialized heavy lifting applications such as machinery and tool installation. They can also be used for retail outlets, hardware stores and other light-duty work.
9. Reach Truck
Reach trucks are designed to work in narrow aisle warehousing spaces. They have two outer legs that distribute the load weight with a wheel configuration of two or one wheels per leg. The drive wheel is located under the is the same length as a normal counter-balance forklift, however, the body is more compact. When lifting a load, a reach truck moves the load back within the wheelbase, meaning less of the load is protruding from the reach truck. This allows the reach truck to work in much narrower aisles.
10.Turret Truck (VNA)
A turret truck is specifically designed to do one task, and that’s to operate in very narrow aisles. The turret truck is often abbreviated to VNA which stands for Very Narrow Aisle truck. Turret Trucks are battery operated machines that use both the electric engine, battery and operator compartment to counterweigh heavy loads.
11. Articulated Forklift
An articulated forklift has a fork carriage which pivots on a joint and can swing back and forth. An example of an articulated forklift is the aisle master, as it can be used in very narrow warehouse applications that also require the loading and unloading of trailers
12. Rough Terrain Forklift
A rough terrain forklift is a wheeled type forklift with a vertical mast and/or a pivoted boom. The machine has a variable reach or fixed length which may be equipped with attachments. This type of forklift is best suited to natural environments.
13. Side Loader Forklifts
Side Loader forklifts have been popular in the past as they were the first forklift designed specifically for long load handling. These machines allow the operator to handle loads sideways, allowing for narrower aisles and greater storage space. Side Loaders also have holding platforms around the forks to stabilize loads and to ensure safer long load handling. Side Loader popularity has been declining due to the more advanced multi-directional forklift that has taken its place as the king of long load handling.
14. Multi-Directional Forklifts
Multi-Directional Forklifts are able to drive in all directions, allow for improved storage space and also prove significant increases in handling times. The operator is able to maneuver long loads with greater precision and accuracy.
Many forklift accessories and attachments are available to help lower the total cost of ownership by enabling a single machine to perform multiple tasks. Some of the most popular forklift equipment and attachments include:
- Boom / telescopic boom
- Hook plate
- Drum Side
- Roll and barrel
- Man basket
Service & Maintenance
It’s important to deal with a forklift provider that can provide local support to ensure a prompt response should any problems arise. Choose a supplier that is locally owned and operated because locally owned dealers have a stronger invested interest in looking after you.
Routine service and maintenance are crucial to the long-term performance and return on investment (ROI) of a forklift. As a result, the support of a quality dealer is at the top of the list when evaluating machines — in particular the labor frequency of consumption and system support. Start by evaluating a dealer’s maintenance and post-sale support by considering:
- Number and availability of professional service technicians
- Accessibility of name-brand parts (both on-hand and delivered)
- First-call fix rate and turnaround time
By factoring in the cost of time associated with the above items, you look past low service rates and achieve an accurate estimate related to the cost of your downtime and maintenance requirements.
Training and Safety
Professional forklift dealers know those who invest in the least amount of forklift operator training end up paying the most in the long-run. This is both in terms of operating costs and accidents. The availability of operator training is a big plus and should factor heavily into your decision on choosing a forklift.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has very specific rules about forklift operator training and licensing. Those who operate powered forklifts must pass classroom training and a driving test before being licensed. They must also be over 18 years old and are required to be evaluated and recertified at least once every three years.
There are two types of training: Train-the-Trainer and individual Forklift Training. The Train-the-Trainer is intended primarily for foremen, supervisors, managers and those responsible for workplace safety. OSHA certification requires that forklift training consists of a combination of formal instruction, practical training and evaluation of the operator’s workplace performance.
Many dealers provide training at their location if you only have a couple of operators. But for larger groups, they may be willing to train staff on-site at your facility.
Questions to Ask a Forklift Supplier
Buying a forklift is a two-prong purchase decision: choosing the lift itself and choosing a forklift dealer. There are a number of important questions to ask that can help eliminate dealers that may not be compatible with your needs: How long have you been in business?
- What level of inventory do you keep on-site for parts replacement?
- How fast is your average turnaround for parts that have to be delivered?
- How many certified forklift mechanics do you have?
- How many machines have you sold in the last year?
- How many are similar to the one I’m interested in?
- Do you provide on-site service?
- What are your service hours?
- Do you have guaranteed response times?
- What brand or brands do you specialize in?
- Why did you select this particular brand?
- What kind of insurance do you carry? (Note: If they don’t have worker’s comp and one of their mechanics gets hurt while repairing a forklift at your facility, the claim could fall under your insurance.)
Buy or Rent
Because of the high initial cost, almost all forklifts are either rented or financed. It’s important to always consider the ongoing cost of a forklift over its lifetime such as fuel, tires, servicing, depreciation and operator costs.
That leaves a question of economics and whether it’s better to buy or to rent.
As with most forklift ownership decisions, it’s a matter of context. Usually, it’s more cost-effective to rent, especially if you need to conserve operating capital. At other times, it would make more sense to buy as it enables you to claim capital depreciation and other tax benefits.
Rent and lease payments go into your books as an immediate tax deduction without any of the accounting complexities involving depreciation, asset valuations or tying up operating capital. Long-term rentals do not need to be shown as a liability on your company’s balance sheet.
The cost of a forklift needs to be aligned with value for money. Choosing the right forklift model for your needs is only part of the acquisition process. Ensure you maximize your uptime, minimize downtime and get the maximum return on your investment.
Select Your Next Forklift
MacAllister Rentals can meet many of your industrial forklift needs. We carry both electric and internal combustion forklifts, with capacities from 5,000 to 40,000 pounds and lifts with cushion or pneumatic tires.
We have forklifts that are capable of lifting at 20 feet, and we also rent Harlo and JCB 8,000-pound capacity rough terrain forklifts with the ability to reach up to 28 feet.
Contact MacAllister Rentals for information regarding a forklift rental.