Blue Collar EVs
By Josh Landess
Don MacGowan is Shipping and Facilities Manager for a costume apparel manufacturer located near San Diego, California, which uses thirty-four forklifts, twenty-seven of them Crown Electrics, in its 200,000 square foot warehouse and production facility. In about six months of three-shifts-per-day work, the company ships some five million units.
Part of Don's work has been to research various forklift options, Electric and otherwise, and help the company make decisions about buying and maintaining them.
Basic Purchasing Research and Decisions
EVW: When you originally bought your present forklifts, were there any improvements you were looking for? Were you reacting to any particular problems they'd had?
DM: One reason that we purchased forklifts was because of our seasonality. We were renting forklifts and the rental cost was a lot more than leasing-to-purchase. So it was really a money factor. That was one reason. The second reason was old equipment. The old equipment that we did have here had to be maintenanced so often that the cost wasn't even worth it. They were electric forklifts. Those were probably between six and ten years old.
EVW: What types of maintenance issues were coming up?
DM: Constant electric problems, mostly. Normally you don't even know what it is with electric forklifts. Basically, it's all diagnostics, so the companies have to come in and tear them apart and find this part broken, that part broken.
EVW: Were you looking for any particular type of improvement over those electrical problems?
DM: Well, the forklifts were old. So, I understand that as a forklift ages, after two or three years, the maintenance goes way up on them because they're being run so much. They're basically being run ten hours per day. So it puts a lot of hours on them; everything is based on hours on a forklift. So, I didn't change brands because of the maintenance problems, but I went out and researched some different trucks through two different manufacturers.
Number one I was looking for a vehicle that could handle our height which was changing when we moved to a new building. So I was looking for one that was basically a 300 inch lift compared to a 240 that we had. So I actually went around to a few different businesses, and saw what people were using, what they had, asked them about how the vehicles ran.
EVW: What brand did you eventually go with?
DM: We went with Crown. It's called the Crown RR5000 Series Rider Reach Truck. That's our standup forklift. They have Douglas Legacy Batteries in them. [Other specs: lift capacity about 4000 pounds, they run at 36 volts.]
EVW: All of the Electric Car brand name research that I've done doesn't apply here. I don't know any of the brands in the Electric Forklift industry.
DM: Well basically some big names in Electric Lifts are Crown, Raymond, Hyster...
EVW: I noticed the names Toyota and Mitsubishi and Nissan do come up in some forklifts....
DM: They're more into sit-down lifts. The gas-propane.... They do make electric sit-downs, but we're primarily into stand-up lifts.
EVW: What's the difference then, a certain amount of power?
DM: No. A sit-down forklift basically almost anyone can drive because you're sitting in a seat with a steering wheel. It's got a peddle for your foot and a brake for your foot. The "up" and "down" and usually the "forward" and "reverse" are on a stick that's on the steering column.
A stand-up lift has got basically a joy-stick with all the controls on it and not only do the forks go up and tilt and go sideways, but they also extend out to pick up a pallet, lift it and draw it back into the vehicle. It's all controlled with one hand, so you steer with one hand and you use a joystick with your other hand.
The stand-up reach truck is far more difficult to drive than any other vehicle. We only bring in people who are qualified to drive them. So, if they're not well-trained, but they show some skills, then we'll work with them for a few days. But actually once someone gets on that thing, if they know how to drive it, they're driving that within probably four hours. It's basic, but you have to have the ability, you know what I mean?
The Order-Picker is probably the most simple to drive, but you can only use it for a couple of different things basically. You can't use it for picking up pallets and moving them. That's not what it's meant for. It's more for pulling individual boxes down onto a pallet, or cycle counting.
EVW: So the car manufacturers, the names that I know, have perhaps tended to go a little towards that sit-down car-like type of forklift maybe a bit more....?
DM: That's what it seems like. Like Toyota, they're heavily into sit-down, to my knowledge.
EVW: I noticed that you did retain some sit-downs. I think you have a Toyota Propane-powered vehicle.
DM: We were only purchasing standup lifts to replace our old standup lifts. Sit-downs... we've owned those Toyotas for probably ten years. So in the sit-down the Toyota is a very good lift, as opposed to an Electric.
EVW: How many electric forklifts are you running?
DM: We own eight stand-up forklifts. We own two "order pickers", that's where you go up with the vehicle. We rent another two order pickers and fifteen stand-ups.
EVW: So, you didn't want lease-to-own any more than the ten?
DM: Well, what we did was when we purchased those ten with a lease, that was basically all the company was willing to do. I showed them a cost savings between renting and leasing and basically you could have the vehicle parked here for half the year and still pay the same amount of money as renting for six months. So it's double the cost to rent versus lease-to-own.
EVW: So those other seventeen that you're renting, in the future going forward, maybe you might convince them to lease-to-own?
DM: Yeah, eventually add a few more each year, until they're all ours. And the bonus is, even at the end you can just get out of the lease. You can take it up to the five year lease and then turn it in and then at the end just get a brand new lift again. When you buy and own the vehicle, you're going to run it into the ground and start paying all the maintenance on it. So when you hit that fifth year, you're not really too heavily into the maintenance.
It's very advantageous to lease-to-own because, number one, it's half the cost, number two is, by the time the maintenance really starts coming around, you're at the end of your lease, and you're going to go out and get a brand new vehicle. If you're renting every single year, you're just spending and there's nothing coming back in return.
EVW: You're not building up any equity in it.
DM: There's no equity, there's nothing. At least on the lease, even if you turn it in at the end, you're not paying anything, and you're going to go out and get a brand new vehicle again.
EVW: So you lease for five years, at the end you have a choice of whether or not you want to purchase it outright, and in a way you're saying that you may do that and you may not, but either way it works out.
EVW: OK. Electric Forklifts are electric vehicles that I'm told are profitable. So, I have the feeling that how one structures the finances behind a fleet of electric vehicles can determine whether or not it's an advisable venture.
DM: It's definitely important. I mean we should have bought twenty instead of 10, but you know you have to put out the capital, you have to come up with the lease and everything else. We're only busy for 6 months out of the year, so they didn't want all the [owned] vehicles sitting for six months, even though it would be cheaper. But they had to do something because if I have 20 rentals, that's $20,000 per month. And if I do that for four months, that's $80,000. For that $80,.000, I could have just bought two, maybe three brand new ones.
Basic Battery and Charging Issues
EVW: Let me ask you a couple of questions about the batteries and the charging. The lifts are busy about ten hours per day. Does that mean they're charging or sitting idle the other fourteen hours?
DM: When they're finished with their shift, they put them on the charger, so the charger has a timer on it, and basically it knows when it's fully charged. So, they plug them in, and the charger automatically turns on, and all of those forklifts charge overnight for eight hours. When they come in in the morning, it's fully charged, they unplug it, they water the battery, inspect the forklift and then they go on about their day.
EVW: You mentioned there's a feature that you like a lot with respect to watering the batteries?
DM: Yes, you can have water systems put on the battery. And what that is, there are just water hoses coming off the caps, all into one main one. You just pull that out, grab your water bottle, plug it in, and that has an automatic shut-off valve when the water is full. Without that water system, you have to pull that battery out, which is time consuming, an injury-risk; it could result in a hurt-back, whatever.
EVW: So that's a feature of the newer ones that you didn't have on the older ones.
DM: Exactly. I added that specifically for that reason.
EVW: Is that specific to this forklift or battery manufacturer?
DM: Nope. You can get em on anyone. It's just called a Battery Watering System. There's two things about batteries:
Number one, a battery only has so many lives on it. Say a battery has 500 lives. If you have an employee that didn't charge the forklift properly, and he gets ready to go on break and he plugs it in, takes his fifteen minute break and then unplugs it, he's now just taken one life. If he now goes on there at lunch time and charges it for half an hour, he's now taken a second life. And then at the end of the day, he plugs it in for the day, he's now taken 3 lives. So it's very important that people know how to properly maintain batteries. The only two problems are charging and watering. And without the watering system, you can't get to the battery, it makes it very difficult, and guaranteed, anybody that doesn't have a watering system isn't watering their batteries properly.
The consequences of not watering your battery properly are that you're going to burn out the battery earlier. Just like if you take all the lives, you then smoke the battery earlier and then you're buying a new battery.
EVW: Can they go ten hours without a recharge approximately?
DM: No, it's more like eight hours. Full. It depends on how many actual driving hours, because they're stopping for lunch and they're picking up things or whatever.
EVW: How much is a new battery approximately?
DM: I think a battery runs between four and six thousand dollars. The total [for] truck, battery and charger is about $30k. For a sit-down vehicle, an electric, they are $23k.
EVW: Have any chargers worked particularly well for you?
DM: The Douglas Chargers seem to be the best chargers out there.
Indoor Air Quality
DM: I saw that the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District appeared to be paying some people in their area to favor the use of electric forklifts, and I wondered if you get any actual benefits or rebates for improving air quality in the area.
DM: Not that I'm aware of.
EVW: I assume that too many non-electrics were not an option because it's sort of an enclosed warehouse?
DM: Well, no, they don't make a stand-up in a gas. We didn't make the decision because of [indoor] air quality, because there was no choice. But if there was a choice, it would be because of air quality.
EVW: It would have come up I guess.
DM: Definitely. The sit-down gas-powered vehicles we have are only driven around mostly near the docks. And the dock doors are open so there's a lot of ventilation. But if you had 30 gas-driven vehicles in here, you couldn't do it.
Clearly using electric lift trucks makes sense for this firm. Given the air quality issues in Southern California, fossil-fuel-powered forklifts would not only aggravate the region's air quality problems, but also would make it nearly impossible for hundreds of workers to work around the clock in a healthy productive environment.
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