Pros and Cons of Electric, Propane and Diesel Forklifts

Whether buying or renting, match the forklift to the work.

Time to buy or rent a forklift? One decision you’ll need to make is the power source you want. Electric, propane and diesel forklifts all have their advantages and disadvantages.

Start by thinking about the projects and types of tasks the forklift will be used for. Will the work happen mainly inside or outside? Is moving heavy pallets the number one need, or will the operator be using attachments to do other work? Finally, budget comes into play.

Electric forklifts

For indoor work, consider an electric forklift.

Does “battery-powered” make you pause? Sealed lead-acid batteries have better starting power, recharge quicker and have lower maintenance costs than older lead-acid batteries. (Many forklifts are built for lead-acid batteries due to weight distribution needs.) 

The pros:

  • Quiet, exhaust-free operation, perfect for indoor work.
  • Relatively low operating costs.
  • They’re more compact than propane or diesel thanks to the lack of an internal combustion engine and can turn on a dime.
  • The controls are basic, a boon if you’re working with new or less experienced operators.
  • No engine oil, coolants, filters, fuel and less moving parts lead to less downtime.
  • The AC motor offers great performance. When you have finished working with the forklift, integrated braking stops the motor.

The cons:

  • Most are not rated for outdoor use.
  • They cost more than propane and diesel forklifts, and charging bays, chargers and tools for removing large batteries add to the costs.
  • Heavy-duty work may require more expensive batteries.
  • Batteries needing a recharge can slow down work.

Propane forklifts

For quick refueling and low emissions, these deliver.

The pros:

  • Can work indoors or outdoors.
  • Lower purchase cost than diesel or electric.
  • Fast refueling. Replacing a sealed propane tank takes five minutes or less.
  • Lower emissions than diesel.
  • More power and greater torque than electric.
  •  Longer engine life than diesel.

The cons:

  • Fuel costs are unpredictable.
  • More moving parts in an engine increase maintenance costs.
  • Because propane-powered forklifts rely on a clutch to slow traction speed, you may need to train drivers on loading and off-loading materials.6

Diesel forklifts

Need a bigger, more powerful forklift that can work on a slope? Diesel is probably the way to go.

The pros:

  • Power. Diesel forklifts produce higher torque and more power than electric or propane forklifts.
  • Speed. You get fast acceleration and lifting.
  • Ruggedness. Diesel forklifts lift heavier weight and withstand rugged conditions. You’ll also like having diesel power when working with hydraulic attachments.
  • Lower maintenance. Diesel engines require less maintenance than propane-fueled engines.

The cons:

  • Outdoor use only. Diesel exhaust fumes can cause health and safety issues.
  • Noisy operation.
  • Their bulkier size means these machines can’t make short turns or work in tight places.
  • Requires more highly trained operators.

Don’t fall for the first set of shiny wheels you see. Thinking hard about your needs sets the foundation for smart decisions.

Related: Tips for Maintaining a Forklift

Mr. Ross has written about information, industrial, construction and automotive technologies for 17 years.