Selecting the Right Forklift for Your Jobsite

Forklifts offer the versatility and lifting power needed to satisfy many job requirements. Manufacturers have provided numerous choices of forklifts based on internal combustion engines, electric motor power, size, load capacity, lift height, and mast type. However, the availability of so many different classes of forklifts can turn the task of selecting the right forklift for a specific job into a more complex decision than many realize. 

When considering renting or purchasing a forklift, think application first: settling the application as the priority will narrow the focus to the location for the job, access to the task, and the weight of intended lift items. Using a matrix that shows the functionality and properties of available forklifts versus task criteria can ease the selection process further.

Consider the Work Location and Conditions

Work that requires the use of a forklift can occur outdoors or indoors and in different types of environmental conditions. Open-air applications allow the use of engine-powered forklifts that may use diesel, propane, or gasoline as fuel; engine-powered forklifts offer advantages in terms of moving and lifting power. Manufacturers have designed forklifts with a wide range of engine choices for internal combustion forklifts.

Indoor applications limit the use of engine-powered forklifts because of concern about fuel emissions in a closed environment. On the other hand, electric-powered forklifts produce less noise than engine-powered machines and won't contaminate the workspace with fuel emissions. Although electric-powered forklifts do not have the lifting capacity of engine-powered forklifts, battery-powered forklifts have a long working lifespan and offer the capability needed for most warehouse needs.

The location of the job may also impact selection of a forklift because of specific environmental conditions. For example, a work site that has sandy or muddy paths instead of paved roads may require a four-wheel-drive, rough terrain, or telehandler forklift with the tires needed to withstand uneven conditions. A forklift with pneumatic tires works in outdoor and indoor locations on smooth and paved surfaces. Indoor warehouses that have flat, smooth surfaces may call for forklifts that have cushion tires.

Accessing the Task Location

While some work locations are easily accessible, other job locations may require a tighter turning radius or the capability to reach further into a site; other locations may require forklifts that have a narrower width. If the application requires indoor lifting into a crowded warehouse space, an electric-powered forklift may provide the shorter turning radius needed to maneuver around obstacles.

Variable reach forklifts may provide a great solution for applications that require a combination of lifting height, load carrying capacity, and maneuverability. Variable reach forklifts have self-leveling forks and motion control valves in the lift boom, fork, and sway circuits. Diesel-powered telescopic handlers provide load capacity, extended lift heights, and the ability to make tight turns; rough terrain forklifts deliver the capability to reach up and over walls.

When considering access to a task, determine the impact of lift height on load capacity. Lift heights will depend on the type of mast used to lift, lower, and position a load. While single-stage masts have one lifting rail channel and limited lifting heights, two-stage masts have two sets of lifting rails and can lift items to intermediate heights. Three- and four-stage masts use three or four sets of lifting rails, respectively, to provide the highest reach

Because each type of mast has a different height when fully lowered, however, some forklifts with three- or four-stage masts may not work in tighter locations. For example, a low-profile forklift has a mast lowered height of 78.5 inches, a mast extended height of 218.5 inches, and the capability to lift a fork to 171 inches; a comparable forklift with a quadruple mast has a mast lowered height of 84.8 inches, a mast extended height of 289.4 inches, and the capability to lift a fork to 240 inches — unideal for tighter spaces.

Obtaining the Right Load Capacity

Because all forklifts have capacity limits, matching lifting capacity to the weight of the load should also be a priority. Completing the task could become more difficult because of an inability to move materials quickly. Overloading a forklift can damage the lift truck because of wear and fatigue; at the same time, obtaining a forklift with twice the needed capacity can result in unnecessary extra costs, since a larger machine will have higher fuel needs. Moreover, a higher-capacity machine may cause problems because of its larger size, and it may also lack the maneuverability offered by a more compact machine.