This article is all about comparing electric and propane forklifts.
In it, you'll learn:
- What applications are best suited for each
- The pros and cons of electric and propane forklifts
- The costs of operating each
We're also going to answer some common questions about each fuel type.
Let's dive in!
Certain industries and applications simply do better with either propane or electric forklifts.
For example, companies that need lift trucks capable of handling extreme weights may be better off using propane forklifts.
The same goes for outdoor operations.
Overall, these industries may be better off using propane forklifts:
Trucking and Logistics
Steel and Scrap Yards
Other industries may require electric lifts because of emission concerns, worker safety, or infrastructure design.
Grocery and Retail
Medical Equipment & Pharmaceuticals
Food and Beverage Processors
Beyond that, electrics tend to be popular in warehouse settings, especially those with tall racking and narrow aisles.
Can you use a propane forklift in a food plant?
Yes, provided that the facility has proper ventilation and sanitation procedures in place.
You can learn more about the requirements for using propane lift trucks in food plants here.
Besides the above cases, the choice between each power source comes down to a matter of economics, efficiency, and personal preference.
Let's explore those factors.
Electric forklifts cost more upfront than propane forklifts.
That's because you essentially pay for the fuel up front, in the form of the battery.
Besides that, you may need to purchase a battery charger, eyewash stations, safety equipment for working with batteries, and a separate charging area with proper ventilation.
Additionally, it may be necessary to hire an electrician to wire in and install the charger.
And if your facility’s electrical system can’t accommodate the charger, you may have to install a new higher-voltage line.
That said, electric fork trucks do have a lower total cost of ownership than propane lift trucks.
In fact, First Energy notes that it's 75% cheaper to operate an electric fork truck than a propane one.
Propane vs Electric Forklift Costs
A 5,000 lb. cushion propane lift truck costs between $24,000 and $30,000.
An equivalent electric lift truck costs between $35,000 and $40,500.
Included in that price are the battery ($7,000 to $9,000) and the charger ($3,000 to $5,000).
Overall, most operations can expect to recoup their costs from an electric lift truck within two years of usage.
One of the main advantages of electric forklifts is that they have fewer moving parts than propane forklifts do.
And fewer moving parts means less maintenance.
Ultimately, that means cost savings and reduced downtime.
Do electric forklifts use oil?
Electric forklifts do not use motor oil since they don’t have an internal combustion engine.
They do, however, use hydraulic oil to lift and tilt the mast, as well as to power any other hydraulic functions like side shifters, fork positioners, and clamps.
Propane forklifts, on the other hand, require regular maintenance, including:
- Oil changes
- Engine tune-ups
- Cooling system top-offs
- Air/fuel mixture adjustments
- Filter replacements
Maintenance for electric forklifts costs about $1.25 per hour, while it costs $2.00 for propane forklifts.
That equates to an overall reduction in maintenance costs of almost 40% when using electrics.
Propane forklifts offer the advantage of being able to be used in a greater variety of environments and operations than electrics do.
For one, they can be used indoors and outdoors.
Electrics, on the other hand, are generally not well-suited for outdoor or wet environments.
Can electric forklifts be used outside?
It depends on the “International Protection” (IP) rating, which is a measure of how well a lift truck can stand up to moisture, debris, etc.
A rating above 1, for example, means the lift truck can handle some moisture, but not a full-on rainstorm. A rating of 8 means that you can immerse the equipment in water with no ill effects.
You can reference the chart on DSMT.com for ratings.
But, propane forklifts do have somewhat of a cold-weather disadvantage compared to electrics.
Since they have more mechanical components, it can be a struggle to start them up in cold weather.
Electric forklifts, however, don’t have these limitations.
That’s why they're a popular sight in cold storage facilities and food processing plants.
Furthermore, refueling a propane lift truck is simpler and faster than recharging a battery.
Operators can simply grab a full tank and install it in less than a minute, which reduces downtime.
And propane lift trucks also come in a greater variety of capacities.
They can range from 3,000 lbs. to over 100,000 lbs. for the biggest models.
While high-capacity electric fork trucks do exist, they're less common than their propane counterparts.
Power & Runtime
Propane forklifts have the advantage of superior runtime over electric lift trucks.
As long as the engine is functioning properly and the fuel tank is full, the lift will keep running at full power.
Not only that, but propane forklifts offer more torque than electrics.
So, they can tackle inclines and slopes more efficiently, resulting in greater productivity.
One of the biggest disadvantages of electric forklifts is that they lose runtime and power as the battery discharges.
And eventually, once the battery has discharged so much that the lift is unusable, it will need a full 8-hour charge and cooldown period before it’s usable again.
By eliminating the combustion cycle, electric lift trucks produce no emissions.
In fact, using an electric forklift instead of propane can cut 20,145 lbs. of carbon dioxide per year!
This is an advantage for both the environment and those who work in close quarters with lift trucks.
And while propane lifts are designed to operate indoors, there are still some risks associated with emissions exposure.
Do propane-powered forklifts produce carbon monoxide?
Yes, they do, though at lower levels than gasoline and diesel engines.
And it's a particular hazard when operating in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation.
In that situation, you can encounter a buildup of both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, which can cause serious injury or death.
That is especially the case when operating in confined areas, like semi-trailers and railcars.
In those settings, there's a greater chance of asphyxiation.
So, facilities must have carbon dioxide monitors installed wherever propane lift trucks may be used.
That way, operators and pedestrians alike can be quickly alerted to a carbon dioxide build-up and be able to leave before issues occur.
Electric lift trucks do offer a safety advantage over propane lift trucks in that they don't involve volatile fuel.
Though propane is a relatively stable fuel, it can leak from tanks and accumulate on the ground.
If that happens, it can present a fire or explosion hazard.
Beyond that, tanks can be prone to be punctured.
That’s why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires there to be designated areas and storage racks to store propane tanks.
Plus, electrics pose no risk of cold burns or impact injuries from changing propane tanks.
That’s not to say that electric forklifts don’t pose any hazards, however.
Industrial batteries can cause injury, like acid burns and impact injuries while installing or removing the battery.
Moreover, those working with batteries or chargers can be subject to electric shock if proper safety precautions aren’t taken.
Ergonomics & Ease-of-Use
For operators, electric forklifts offer many advantages over propane forklifts.
Since they don’t have an engine, there are fewer smells, gases, and liquids to cope with.
Additionally, they're quieter and vibrate much less, which cuts down on fatigue.
And fatigue is a dangerous variable in the life of a forklift operator, as it can raise the risk of accidents and damage to products.
Furthermore, electrics have shorter frames and wheelbases which makes them easier to maneuver.
And by eliminating the propane tank in the rear, electrics gain an advantage in visibility.
Overall, these advantages can make electric lift trucks easier to use for both new and experienced operators alike.
Why do forklifts run on propane?
Overall, propane is used in forklifts because it's clean and safe enough to allow for operating indoors.
A properly-tuned propane engine emits carbon dioxide (CO2) and water, and so it’s a lower polluting fuel source than gasoline or diesel.
Furthermore, propane burns more efficiently than other fuels.
According to ForkliftPropane.com, "[p]ropane received an efficiency rating of nearly 90%, followed by natural gas at 87%, diesel at 85%, and gasoline at 82%."
These factors combined make propane a safe, cheap, and clean fuel source for forklifts.
Are electric forklifts good?
Hopefully, this post has answered this commonly asked question.
What it boils down to is that electric forklifts are an excellent option for many applications.
But not for all applications.
If you’re involved in sensitive operations, like food processing, an electric lift truck will likely be a good fit.
But if you need continuous runtime or the ability to lift heavy loads, propane or other fossil-fueled lift trucks might be a better choice.
All things considered, electric lift trucks cost less overall, require less maintenance, and don’t emit harmful substances like propane lift trucks do.
And that sounds “good” in our book!
Is propane the best power source for forklifts?
Across the board? No.
Forklift fuel options include electricity, propane, compressed natural gas (CNG), gasoline, and diesel.
While propane offers some of the best flexibility among the options, it may not be the best power source if you need to perform in heavy-duty applications.
That’s why the highest capacity lift trucks typically run on diesel, as diesel fuel gives the most power to accomplish the biggest lifting tasks.
But when it comes to harnessing the power of internal combustion engines for everyday material handling needs, propane is an excellent fuel source.
What does LP forklift mean?
An LP forklift is an internal combustion forklift that runs on propane.
What does LP stand for in gas?
Is propane the same as LPG?
Yes. Propane simply refers to the gas form, while LPG refers to the liquefied form.
How long does an electric forklift last?
The material handling industry’s rule of thumb is that forklifts last about 10,000 hours.
That said, factors such as operating environment, operator behavior, and maintenance practices can either extend or shorten the life of a lift truck.
Electrics, because they have fewer moving parts, are generally able to outlast comparable internal combustion (IC) models.
In fact, we’ve seen Toyota electric forklifts with more than 50,000 hours!
But while the chassis of an electric lift truck may last many years, the battery will not.
Lead-acid industrial batteries usually last 5 years, or 1,500 charging cycles - depending on maintenance, charging, and equalizing practices.
How much electricity does an electric forklift use?
According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an electric forklift uses 15,000 kWh per year.
That's assuming 5,000 lbs. capacity and 2,000 operating hours per year.
How much does electricity cost for forklifts?
Statista reports that the average cost of electricity for industrial consumers was 6.83 cents per kWh in 2019.
So, it costs about $1,024.50 in electricity for an electric forklift that consumes 15,000 kWh per year.
How much propane does a forklift use per hour?
How long does a propane tank last on a forklift?
A forklift propane tank can last 4 to 8 hours, depending on a few factors:
- Intensity of work
- Quality of maintenance
- Capacity of the truck
- Quality of the tires
- Operator behavior
How much does forklift propane cost?
Propane costs about $2.00 per gallon on average, though it fluctuates throughout the year.
To learn more about energy usage and costs for electric and propane forklifts, visit the Electric Power Research Institute's free propane vs. electric forklift calculator.
There you have it: A complete comparison guide for electric forklifts versus propane forklifts.
Now, we'd like to turn it over to you.
What do you like about your electric and/or propane forklifts?
If you could go back and purchase again, would you do the same way or switch fuel sources?
Let us know in the comments below!
Mathew Molk says
I funky disagree with the longevity of electrics. – Maybe where you are going to run them to death on a loading dock3 shifts 50 weeks a year and then trade them in every 5 years you MAY have a point, but the vast, vast, majority of fork lifts are not used that way, –
In the average machine or Fab shop you will almost never find an electric, but you will find decades old propane machines in almost all of them.,. Gas machines too,,,,like the 1952 Yale we have owned and run since 1974. – Total maintenance,,,,1- starter drive, 2-Solonoids a few batteries, and a couple of oil filters. – It’s ever got the same points and plugs as when we got it! (Yale used the same engine as the IH Farmall Cub tractor and you can still easily get parts today) I doubt even at today’s prices, other then batteries, (Which we take from the flat bed truck when they get too week to start the diesel in the winter) that we have a c-note in parts. – And most small shops do their own maintenance too,
And if you think having old lift trucks in smaller shops is unusual you don’t get around in the real world. A 5-year old electric is not worth much more then it weighs, but a 20 year old ICE machine is barely broken in.
Alex Hilke says
You definitely make some great points on the longevity of IC lift trucks. There simply are cases where IC’s are better and will last longer than electrics. Thank you for such a detailed response!