Reasons to Switch from Combustion to Electric Forklifts

At one point, nearly all forklifts were powered by internal combustion. The market has shifted as electric forklifts have become more efficient; according to numbers from the Industrial Truck Association (ITA), 63 percent of new lift trucks purchased in 2010 used electricity as a primary power source. That number is up from 2007, when the market was only about 57 percent electric.

Choosing the right power source is an important part of planning your forklift fleet, and you probably know that fully converting away from internal combustion can be costly. However, it’s often a worthwhile goal, as battery-powered lift trucks offer a number of advantages over their gas-guzzling brethren.

To help you decide whether conversion is an appropriate option for your operation, we've compiled some of the common reasons that facilities switch from combustion power to electric power.

Electric Forklifts are More Ecologically Friendly

- Combustion lift trucks have progressed significantly over the years, cutting harmful emissions dramatically. However, electric forklifts generate no onsite emissions whatsoever. Electricity is easily a greener option than either gas or diesel, and with proper battery handling and maintenance practices, electric trucks can provide similar performance with a much smaller environmental impact.

A limited footprint is a great goal for a number of reasons, and if your facility is trying to obtain environmental certifications (including LEED), you may be able to earn credits by replacing combustion engines with electric power sources.

Electric Forklifts are Less Expensive

- For managers, this might be the most compelling point, and for good reason; there’s no reason to overpay for your forklift fleet. As electrical forklifts have fewer moving parts, they tend to cost less in ongoing maintenance, and they offer an excellent return on investment.

One fact sheet from material handling company Yale estimates savings of $2,000-$6,000 annually per 5,000 lb. lift truck (assuming that the facility uses appropriate battery handling methods). The Electric Power Research Institute offers a comprehensive calculator that shows clear benefits of electricity over propane and diesel after accounting for maintenance costs, energy prices, and other variables.

The capital costs of fleet conversion are significant, but some electric companies and government institutions provide helpful incentives. The Tennessee Valley Authority recently announced a $2,000 per-truck incentive for replacing Class IV and V lift trucks with Class I or II electrical equivalents.

Combustion Forklifts are Bigger, Louder and Less Maneuverable

- Many gas- and diesel-powered lift trucks are significantly larger than their electric counterparts, and those engines can be loud, especially in indoor facilities.

Electric trucks can allow for a more productive workplace, and not just for their operators.
Noise affects communication and productivity, and according to OSHA, excessive noise levels can create “a sense of isolation, annoyance, difficulty concentrating, lowered morale...absenteeism and accidents.” In 2010, 12% of occupational illnesses were due to hearing loss.

Electric Lift Truck Performance is Improving

- Many operation managers choose internal combustion fleets because they anticipate an upgrade in power or efficiency. However, there’s no longer a significant gap in terms of capabilities. Many manufacturers offer trucks capable of handling 15,000 pound loads, and electric trucks are both fast and maneuverable.

Some facilities actually need the lifting power offered by internal combustion engines, but electric lift trucks are much more capable than in the past. Class IV and Class V industrial trucks are often overkill, and they can often be replaced with smaller, more efficient electric trucks, reducing the physical size of a fleet while greatly limiting the costs of operation.

So, is it time for your facility to convert? There are certainly other factors to consider — for instance the size of your fleet and the capital costs of a dedicated battery charging area — but overall, the writing’s on the wall. There’s never been a better time to make the switch.


"The Truth About Electric Lift Trucks." Yale Material Handling Corporation, 2010. Web. 23 June 2015.

"Electric Forklift Program." Tennessee Valley Authority. Web. 23 June 2015.

"OSHA Technical Manual (OTM) | Section III: Chapter 5 - Noise." OSHA Technical Manual (OTM) | Section III: Chapter 5 - Noise. Web. 23 June 2015.

”Lift Truck Comparison with Capital Costs.” Electric Power Research Institute. Web. 23 June 2015.

Russell, Elisabeth. "Breaking Down the Power Options." The MHEDA Journal. 22 July 2011. Web. 23 June 2015.