In an age of soaring fuel costs and legislation surrounding environmental issues perhaps forklift users should take a fresh look at their power source. In the UK, the split among diesel, electric and LPG is about equal but Paul Young, Calor’s bulk marketing executive, believes that over the last six months there has been a surging interest in LPG. So what has inspired this shift in sentiment?

The issues surrounding all three power sources can be divided into four main categories: costs, ergonomics, the environment and operational versatility and requirements. On running costs, electric trucks may emerge as a winner if batteries are recharged overnight on a low tariff, and their maintenance and servicing would be less than engine powered alternatives since they have fewer moving parts. But if multi shift working is essential then the economics move against electric. Such operations would require costly standby batteries, charging and battery changing facilities. This makes the initial costs of electric higher than LPG and diesel.

Another key disadvantage of electric is their relatively limited versatility. Electric trucks, for example, need better floors owing to higher point loading on axles and wheels, and if there is intense work on gradients the batteries will flatten quickly, though heavy duty batteries will alleviate that problem. Such trucks do work outside, but they are not well suited for prolonged work outside in wet weather because the damp atmosphere can cause problems with the wiring circuitry. Moreover, maintenance, repairs and fault finding are not so easily done on a DIY basis compared with engine-powered trucks. There is also the risk that battery recharging would be compromised during winter by power cuts in the national grid. Electric trucks, therefore, are less versatile than LPG and diesel, and they cannot match the performance of diesel and LPG, although they are easier and more manoeuvrable to drive and far less noisy.

On environmental issues, electric forklifts seemingly have the edge, as they give off no emissions like diesel and LPG. But as Calor’s Paul Young asserts, while electric is clean at point of delivery it relies on CO2-heavy grid electricity that is produced at below 40% efficiency to charge forklift batteries. Larger firms using electric trucks, therefore, will not escape the government’s Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) programme as they will contribute to potential penalties under this scheme. The government, he says, should be taking more action to improve the quality of air in cities, especially in relation to particulates. “More should be done to ensure that air quality is improved, and switching to LPG from both oil and electric would be a big step forward.”

Recent advances in emission controls have also helped improve the attractions of LPG over diesel. Three-way catalytic converters, for example, which are not available to diesel engines, can reduce emissions by up to 98% and they do not need soot filters like diesel trucks, which can add thousands of pounds to a truck’s costs. In an independent test comparing LPG with diesel it was found that when lifting a 1 tonne and 2 t load LPG emitted 23% and 16.3% lower CO2 respectively than diesel. On particulate emissions, when lifting 1 t loads LPG logged 0.101g/hr compared with 0.716 g/hr for diesel.  LPG also showed significantly lower noise levels.

The choice of truck motive power will always be largely dependent on operational requirements. Certain environments, like food storage, strongly favour electric trucks but even here LPG trucks can be found inside food stores when fitted with Catalytic Convertors, and if required to load and unload lorries in yards they clearly have an operational edge over electrics.

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