Three reasons material handling professionals use propane forklifts

Why electric forklifts aren’t as productive or clean as believed

By Joe Calhoun March 18, 2022
Courtesy: Propane Education & Research Council

Forklifts are an essential piece of equipment for any warehouse, distribution center or production facility. With the challenges facing material handling operations today – labor, rising energy costs, increase in demand – choosing the right forklift has an impact on the bottom line by ensuring an economical, efficient and reliable operation. While propane has powered forklift solutions for over 70 years, there are still misconceptions regarding the capabilities, efficiency and environmental impact of propane powered forklifts. Here are three reasons why forklift operators are choosing propane equipment over electric or diesel.

1. Increased cost-efficiency for propane forklifts

When comparing the lifetime costs of forklift fuel options, propane has earned its market share topping status in many ways. Facility managers who manage forklift fleets list capital costs as one of the most important factors when purchasing forklifts, according to a survey from the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). Capital costs of propane forklifts are 30% lower than those of electric. Propane forklifts consistently have a lower total cost of ownership than those powered by electricity or diesel. It’s no surprise 85% of Class 4 and 5 forklifts run on propane, according to data from PERC.

When exploring their fuel options, many material handling professionals are finding propane to be the most cost-effective option, while also appreciating its versatile and environmental benefits.

2. Increased productivity

Aside from the additional costs of keeping electric forklifts charged, there are other drawbacks. An electric forklift’s battery life and power output diminish over time. This can lead to future costs, including additional expensive batteries. Charging electric forklift batteries when the remaining charge is either too high or too low can have a big impact on the battery’s lifespan. More importantly, not all electric forklifts are rated for outdoor use — which creates downtime if crews need to work in both indoor and outdoor environments.

According to a PERC survey, 68% of forklift fleets are required to work both indoors and outdoors. In contrast to many electric models, propane forklifts can be used in both indoor and outdoor applications, including when the temperature is at or below zero (as low as -20°C). Propane’s versatile, low-emission operation makes it possible for forklift operators to safely do the work wherever the job is, keeping them more productive throughout the workday.

No matter the job or location, propane forklifts provide powerful, reliable performance. Electric forklifts can’t carry the weight of large jobs, and diesel forklifts aren’t the best fit for smaller tasks. A propane cylinder’s life expectancy is three times longer than that of an electric forklift battery, and it often extends beyond the typical lifespan of the forklift itself. A propane cylinder can also be refilled at any time without impacting its lifespan.

Typically, one propane cylinder lasts an entire eight-hour shift, providing 100% power throughout operation so facilities and warehouses can operate at uninterrupted operational capacity. In comparison, batteries may only power an electric forklift for a little as four hours at the cost of production time. Propane forklifts work anywhere, anytime so employees don’t have to worry about downtime for recharging. Electric forklifts, on the other hand, require hours of recharging and strict battery management.

Propane forklifts.

Courtesy: Propane Education & Research Council

3. Increased sustainability

Propane is the best choice for businesses interested in reducing their carbon footprint. A comparative emissions analysis of forklifts conducted by the Gas Technology Institute, in partnership with PERC, found that propane forklifts produce significantly fewer emissions than other energy sources.

This is important as forklift managers across the US work to navigate new emissions requirements for Class 4 and Class 5 forklifts. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is banning all equipment that uses diesel, propane, natural gas and gasoline — and mandating the use of battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric forklifts only. The analysis, Fork(lifts) in the (Off) Road: Should We Ban Internal Combustion Engines for Electric? compares the lifecycle emissions profiles of propane and electric-powered forklifts, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. Findings show, for most states, propane engines and forklifts are preferable to electric forklifts, especially when considering marginal electric grid emissions. The case for internal combustion engine (ICE) forklifts becomes even stronger with hybrids and renewable fuels. In fact, nearly all propane ICE forklifts technologies emit extremely low criteria pollutants compared to the regulatory standards.

The analysis was conducted by the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) using available certification emissions data published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for comparing lifecycle emissions of CO2 and NOx between propane and electric forklifts.

While it’s true that electric forklifts produce zero site emissions during normal operation, their site-to-source emissions profile isn’t as sterling. Site-to-source emissions for electric forklifts include the emissions created by electricity generation and its transmission to the final point of use. Electrification as a means of decarbonization sounds attractive but as proven, is not real without complete consideration to lifecycle emissions. Facilities also need to consider the emissions produced when manufacturing and transporting batteries. The comparative analysis of the EPA data presented the following scientific findings:

  • A zero-emissions forklift does not exist.
  • Hybrid electric forklifts, with both conventional and renewable fuels, emit less CO2 than battery-electric forklifts.
  • For most states, NOx emissions from propane-powered forklifts engines can be less than half that of battery-electric forklifts powered by the electric grid.
  • 314,000 ICE forklifts are operating in California alone. Replacing all ICE forklifts in the state with battery-electric forklifts would require nearly 10 GWh/day of additional charging capacity.

The battery disposal process can be a dirty and expensive one, too. When electric forklift batteries go dead, facility managers can’t easily dispose of them without negatively impacting the environment. The EPA considers these batteries to be hazardous materials, so they strictly regulate their handling and disposal. In many cases, that can be a costly proposition. Plus, propane is much cleaner than diesel, which produces toxic exhaust that makes it unsafe to operate diesel-fueled equipment indoors.

Propane continues to be the intelligent energy choice with material handling professionals. Propane forklifts’ ability to work around the clock and reduce emissions, while keeping costs in check, are just a few reasons that business owners count on them to get the job done.


Joe Calhoun
Author Bio: Joe Calhoun is director of off-road business development for the Propane Education & Research Council. He can be reached at joe.calhoun@propane.com.