Your forklift fleet is the engine that makes your material handling operations go. But what, in turn, is powering those forklifts?
In plenty of cases, the answer will be batteries. Battery powered electric forklifts can reduce carbon monoxide emissions and generate lower noise levels. These are reliable vehicles made for long usage on shift after shift, year after year.
Of course, as with any technology, battery power comes with its own challenges and requirements. You'll have to set up an adequate forklift charging station, for example. The exact form this battery charging area will take depends on your operations/applications as well as the type of battery involved. It's critical to get charging right.
For instance, it's important to keep battery changing and battery charging separate. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines about electric forklift operations go into great detail about both procedures, as well as the proper ways to create safe areas to complete the necessary tasks.
Common issues with forklift battery charging
When inspecting a current charging station or designing a new area, you should be especially watchful for the problems affecting so many of these areas. Such problems can include:
Mismatched chargers and batteries: Creating a match between battery and charger is important. When facilities acquire new batteries but pair them with old chargers, they may end up with suboptimal performance.
Missing safety equipment: Personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential around the charging station, both to meet OSHA requirements and to simply keep workers safe. Gear that is damaged or goes missing should be replaced immediately.
Safe power connections: The designers of forklift charging station areas must make sure each electrical element of the system has been carefully chosen and correctly implemented. The connection between battery and charger needs to be secure.
Appropriate charging approach: Having the right charging profiles (fast, opportunity, swap, etc), and changing them over the life of the battery is critical to getting the most out of your equipment. This includes having a schedule for equalization charges and scheduling charging times appropriately in light of your shift requirements for each piece of equipment.
To make sure you're doing your due diligence as a facility manager, you should make sure you've thought out all the specifics of your forklift charging procedures, from acquiring the necessary charger equipment to designing safe, reliable battery charging workflows. The following are a few areas to focus on as you power up your lift truck fleet.
Forklift charging station (and changing station) requirements
Switching out forklift batteries and actually charging them are distinct, separate processes. Your team should have the right equipment and training to make sure these operations go smoothly every time.
Safe battery changing equipment and procedures
Changing batteries is a job for workers who have been trained to handle these assets. A mistake could lead to a serious injury, due to both the chemicals involved in batteries and their sheer size. Every time a battery is removed from a forklift, the vehicle should be in position with its brakes engaged.
Your workers need the right equipment to lift and exchange batteries. One forklift battery can weigh between 800 and 4,000 pounds. OSHA urges companies to use specialized equipment like lifting beams for this purpose. Rigging up a chain with two hooks could damage the batteries, and isn't an adequate replacement.
Since there's a risk of a battery acid spill whenever personnel move a battery, the changing area should be equipped with safety equipment, including an eye wash station, and potentially including a shower to counteract bigger spills.
Employees must also have access to adequate personal protective equipment. Splash goggles, rubber gloves, acid-resistant shoes and rubber aprons are musts.
Safe battery charging equipment and procedures
If battery swapping is required, the actual battery charging should not happen right in the same area where the batteries are removed from the vehicles. Instead, your facility needs a dedicated battery charging station. The spot should be blocked off from the rest of the floor with guardrails, making sure forklifts, equipment and people don't intrude.
OSHA's battery charging station directive is clear: These areas should not be used for removing batteries or performing maintenance, and companies can't store electrolyte in them.
There can't be any smoking or open flames in the charging area, as well as no sparks or loose electric arcs. The charging area must be well ventilated and have materials on hand to neutralize an electrolyte spill if one occurs.
Employees have to be trained on the right charging procedures for their own safety, and the protection of the whole facility. They need to follow policies such as always wearing PPE, never bringing metallic objects near the top of an uncovered battery and always adding acid into water, not vice versa.
In addition to a protected environment and adequate gear, your employees need to have a complete suite of charging assets — these assets include a battery monitoring system to accurately track voltage and a battery watering system that can fill each battery to a safe, uniform level.
Data is an important part of the battery charging process. The personnel tasked with managing forklift batteries have to record information about these assets. Keeping a battery service log helps with both safety and charging effectiveness. Modern battery monitor and charger equipment is the "brains" of the power management ecosystem, providing the data that lets personnel operate effectively.
Finding the right personnel for battery charging and handling
While training an in-house team to work with batteries is the standard procedure, it's worth considering whether outside personnel can make a meaningful contribution.
Especially at fast-moving organizations that operate large fleets of forklift vehicles on multiple shifts, it can be worth considering the value of outside technicians. These personnel come with the training necessary to safely replace and charge batteries, and the know-how to maximize usable life span and total cost of ownership.
It's possible to engage experts early in the design of your new forklift battery charging station system. This ensures that every element of the process, from the ventilation to the safety features and logistical equipment, has been vetted by experienced eyes.
Maintaining and replacing forklift batteries
Having a reliable battery charging system is essential to smooth material handling operations. Using safe processes is vital for the protection of your personnel and the facility as a whole.
This importance means that beyond the must-haves of the battery changing and charging stations, and the training of the people who will use them, there are still more variables to think about. Will you use lead acid or an alternative battery chemistry? Are you moving from an opportunity to fast charge profile? Are your batteries new or old and how does that effect your charging profile and approach? What kind of workflow makes sense for your company? How do you keep batteries in service for as long as possible?
Considering your options: What type of forklift batteries will you use?
There is one wild card to consider when designing your forklift battery charging equipment and workflow. Namely, battery charging best practices will differ depending on whether you're using flooded lead acid batteries or a different type of battery. Primary options include:
Flooded lead acid: These are the traditional batteries used in industrial applications, and they bring reliability and component recyclability of 99.9%--the most clear circular economy product in the warehouse. They can be used in standard overnight charging models, as well as opportunity charging, battery swap methods and fast charging.
Thin plate pure lead: These are a variety of lead batteries especially useful in light-duty situations. When you can charge the batteries on a regular, daily schedule, they're at their best. They require less time to charge than standard lead acid.
Lithium ion: This is a rising technology with more data sharing and intelligence built into the batteries themselves rather than the charging and monitoring equipment. They charge quickly and have a very long usable life span, but it should be noted that they need careful handling during charging to ensure they are safe.
Hydrogen fuel cells: This choice takes you away from the electric grid and instead requires hydrogen fueling infrastructure and fill stations--an exciting, if very different approach that we've employed with a select group of customers.
Functional differences: What's your battery charging strategy?
Do you plan to charge all your batteries during off hours? Will you assign one forklift charging station to each vehicle or switch them out to keep the forklifts running around the clock? The ideal system for you will depend on your technology choices and operational needs.
Do you have only a few forklifts, or dozens? Does your facility operate on standard business hours or run multiple shifts? Getting expert advice when designing your battery charging system will help you match your power management needs to the methodology that makes sense for your team.
Recycling assets: How do you handle battery life extension and replacement?
A battery that has been in use for between two and five years will begin showing signs of its age. These batteries will begin losing voltage and power, making them less useful for your fleet.
When you're using a carefully designed battery charging system, however, there is a way to bring these batteries "back to life" and keep them operating for longer, thus improving their total cost of ownership. The savings can be considerable, spreading out the spending on new battery hardware.
Sending the batteries for maintenance at a dedicated battery shop is one way to keep them operating longer, as is carefully setting a charging profile to suit the age of the battery. This is another part of the battery management process where expert advice can pay off.
At some point, when the battery is below 80% of its original asset life, you'll want to recycle those assets and get a "end of lifecycle" certificate. Typically, you can use your battery partner to execute this process for you.
Power as a service and forklift battery charging
If you are running large facilities multi-shift, you may want to gain back labor hours and certainly want to ensure you have total control over your material handling power fleet grows--it can cost you $4K/forklift to get it wrong.
Customers of this size are increasing looking to outside experts to design and manage your forklift charging stations and power system. Today, you can even turn your power management over to experts, 100%.
This is where a modern power-as-a-service options like GuaranteedPOWER® can have an impact. Everything from the number of batteries to the charging schedule and setup is handled by technicians at a simple monthly rate. If you're a good candidate for a new method such as fast charging or a technology like lithium ion batteries, the consultants will point you in the right direction.
Whatever you decide about the future of your forklift battery charging station systems, one thing's for sure — this part of material handling is too important to ignore.