It’s the age-old question in the world of material handling: which are better — propane forklifts or electric?

That might seem like a difficult question to answer, considering all the factors that go into the onsite rigors forklifts face every day, often in 24/7 conditions. Of course, some forklift technologies are better suited to certain applications.

For example, Class 4-5 propane forklifts are the right choice for organizations that have outdoor operations or need to handle extreme weights. That includes large warehousing, heavy manufacturing, construction, trucking, logistics, building supplies and lumber yards, among many others.

Propane forklifts are also a great fit for applications that have traditionally been the purview of Class 1-3 electric forklifts, like food and beverage, cold storage, grocery and retail. However, electric forklift technology has progressed to the point where such vehicles can be used both indoors and outdoors, though excessive weight and cold conditions remain challenging for these models.

A Forklift’s Useful Lifecycle

One way to answer this question is by looking at the useful lifecycle of these two workhorse technologies. Forklift age is judged not in terms of miles, but hours of usage, with 10,000 to 12,000 hours of operation being the minimum standard. Most forklifts run about 1,000 hours per year, often a lot more. That means an average forklift can be in service for at least a decade.

A lot goes into gauging a forklift’s useful lifecycle, whether it’s propane or electric. Operating environments can be wildly different, and some drivers are harder on a forklift than others. And then there is maintenance; like a car, the more regularly maintenance is conducted, the longer a forklift will last. In some cases, one also has to consider the energy source used — electricity or propane — and its generation and distribution.

Some forklifts are rugged enough to log tens of thousands of hours, but once again, that all depends on the environment. A forklift’s lifespan can be impacted by everything from excessive heat or cold, environments with heavy dirt and debris, wet areas, or corrosive environments like chemical plants.

Then consider that a forklift’s useful life is simply how long the vehicle is operational. But a forklift’s economic life ends when it costs less to replace it than continue to maintain it.

An electric forklift’s battery has a useful lifecycle of five to 10 years, depending on the factors listed above, especially maintenance, and the type of battery. The most common type of battery is lead-acid, which can last about five years. Newer lithium-ion batteries can last twice as long.

Conversely, a common 33-pound forklift propane tank can be used for up to 20 years, depending on factors like the tank’s make and model, maintenance and conditions. Extending propane tanks’ lifecycle includes storing them in a cool, dry area, cautious handling to avoid dents and other damage, and regular inspections.

It’s also important to note that common practice dictates that a forklift used less than four hours per day is considered light use. Heavy use, then, is more than four hours per day. A 33-pound propane tank can last up to eight hours, depending on usage. Electric forklifts usually operate for three to six hours before needing a multi-hour recharge.

Replacing a propane tank takes about five minutes, while an electric forklift’s battery can take up to eight hours to recharge. All that means propane forklifts can simply work longer and be more productive, which translates to increased productivity.

Maintenance and Driver Training is Crucial

Machines don’t last forever, of course, and that’s true of both propane and electric forklifts. That’s why having an eye on extending a forklift’s lifespan is so important. One way is through regular maintenance; another is driver training, which is mandated by OSHA standard 1910.78. Training will help avoid increased wear and tear, collisions, and even tip-overs.

Forklift rotation is another factor that can sometimes be overlooked. Outdoor forklifts can wear at a faster rate than indoor models, simply due to temperature shifts and uneven terrain. Swapping propane forklifts in and out will ensure they will wear at the same rate. That’s not easy to do with electric forklifts, if at all.

At the end of the day, a propane forklift can make more sense than an electric one, given the ability to use them inside or outside, easy refueling, and their capacity to lift very heavy weights. With a robust maintenance program in place, along with ongoing driver training, propane forklifts can be productive for decades to come.

Learn more about how propane forklifts power productivity.