Making the Switch to an Electric Forklift

April 18, 2019
Posted by: Justin Engel

While the modern electric forklift was introduced in the 1950’s, their rise to prominence is a relatively recent development as internal combustion forklifts dominated the material handling industry for almost 100 years. At the turn of the century, however, concerns about carbon emissions and improvements in battery technology led to an exponential growth in the adoption and usage of electric forklifts throughout the industry. In fact, as of 2013, electric powered forklifts represent more than 60% of the North American market, with even greater adoption rates in Europe. With the distinct advantages provided by AC motors – including limited noise, zero emissions and low maintenance – it is easy to see why there is so much consumer demand for AC units in today’s market.

Known primarily for their environmental benefits, electric lift trucks offer a number of benefits and advantages over internal combustion units. Provided that your application is primarily indoors and takes place on flat, dry surfaces, we’ll detail a number of benefits that make electric models an attractive option for your next forklift purchase to help you decide whether making the switch makes sense for you and your operation.

For a breakdown of the advantages and disadvantages of electric, LPG and diesel forklift engines, see our blog on Forklift Engine Types.


The Benefits of Electric Forklifts:

Reduced Emissions

Unlike internal combustion engines, which burn carbon-based fuels resulting in the production of greenhouse gases and carbon emissions, the AC motors found in electric forklifts do not produce emissions during operation. This reduction in emissions is particularly important for indoor applications as the number of regulations and restrictions being placed on the presence of airborne pollutants continues to increase in the coming years. At the same time, certain sensitive applications such as those within the food and beverage or pharmaceutical industries, have very low tolerances when it comes to exposure to potential pollutants, making electric forklifts an ideal solution.

Improved Air Quality

By removing the source of carbon emissions and other noxious gases, the electric models can help to improve the overall air quality of your facility. Not only does this have a positive impact on your employees’ health – particularly for those employees with respiratory conditions such asthma – it also helps reduce your operating costs. Specifically, since you’ll no longer suffer from artificially increased levels of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases, you’ll be less reliant on an HVAC system to bring clean air into your building, decreasing your facility maintenance and electricity costs.

Easier Maintenance

Operating an internal combustion engine requires a variety of complex processes and components to work together seamlessly to produce the desired output. Fuel and oxygen must be fed into the engine and mixed at appropriate levels to facilitate combustion, exhaust gases need to be directed away from the engine and operator, temperatures have to be controlled, power transferred from the engine to turn the wheels, etc. The electric motors that power an electric forklift, on the other hand, are quite simple in comparison. An electrical charge is drawn from the battery and fed into AC motors, which are generally part of the drive wheel system and transfer power directly to the wheels. All of this dramatically simplifies maintenance and diagnostics as there are fewer parts or components to maintain, repair or replace.

Fewer maintenance calls and simplified repairs are particularly important given how much an unavailable forklift can cost your business, which we covered in a blog on the costs of forklift downtime here.


Less Harmful for Operators

Electric forklifts provide a number of benefits from an operator’s or an employee’s perspective beyond reducing airborne pollution. With fewer moving parts, electric models produce 1/4th the noise of an IC model and transfer less vibration to the operator’s cabin. This leads to a quieter workplace, with happier, less stressed workers.

Lowered Costs

Without a doubt, switching to an electric fleet requires a significant investment upfront from the higher purchase vs IC units, batteries, charging stations, etc. However, this initial investment ultimately leads to lower overall costs over the life of the equipment. From the reduced maintenance costs mentioned above, to the significant reduction in “fuel” costs, to the increased longevity of electric units, electric forklifts are a proven cost saving option.


The Drawbacks of Electric Forklifts:

It should be clear at this point that making the switch to an electric forklift fleet offers a number of benefits and advantages. However, electric forklifts aren’t without their drawbacks, particularly for certain applications. To see if it would make sense to switch your forklift fleet over electrics from internal combustion units, let’s take a look at some of these drawbacks:

Limited Lift Capacities

Electric motors are incapable of generating the same amounts of torque as an internal combustion engine, which effectively limits their ability to handle large or heavy duty loads. This limited capacity means applications that lift over 12,000 lbs. generally require an internal combustion unit or an expensive, custom-built electric solution.


Unlike internal combustion engines, which can be (and are) used in almost every outdoor application regardless of the weather, electrically powered units are sensitive to various climate-based factors such as extreme temperatures and moisture. The primary issue for electric forklifts in outdoor applications is the sensitivity of electrical components to moisture. For example, the introduction of a small amount of water in the wrong place could short-circuit a key component such a unit’s AC controller and incapacitate the forklift for at least a few hours. It should be noted that weatherproofing packages are available for electric forklifts, however, this increases the costs of the unit and can make maintenance and/or charging more difficult moving forward.

Less Flexibility

If your operation uses forklifts in multiple applications or environments, internal combustion models are a better bet as they’ll be able to seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor usage while electric forklifts (as mentioned above) aren’t ideal in outdoor applications. At the same time, if an electric forklift battery runs out power, it’s not as simple as refilling a fuel tank or an LPG canister. Outside of opportunity charging, which once again increases the investment required to make this switch, forklift batteries generally take 8 hours to charge and another 8 hours to cool-down before they can be used again.

To learn more about electric forklift battery charges, check out this blog from Lucas Liftruck Services


In the end, the choice to make the switch to an electric forklift fleet ultimately depends on your application, your priorities as an organization and the capital you have available to accommodate such a large investment. Regardless, the benefits of electric forklifts are clear as they eliminate emissions, improve the health of your employees and help reduce costs overall. If you’re still unsure whether such a switch would be beneficial for your operation, reach out to a Starke dealer near you for more information.


Justin Engel

Justin Engel is the marketing specialist at Stärke Material Handling Group. In addition to content development, he also handles graphic and website design, SEO, PR and strategic planning.

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