Electric vs IC Forklifts: The Ongoing Race

How do you decide which fuel type will work for your facility?

Which forklift type is the better option for you?

In the material handling industry lift trucks are categorized into – electric and internal combustion (IC). IC models include forklifts running on hydrocarbon fuels like diesel, LPG (liquefied propane gas), liquid gasoline or petrol, and CNG (compressed natural gas). While the electric forklifts are known as electric alternating current (AC) forklifts which have a battery and charger. The ongoing race for the right Material Handling Equipment(MHE) & Warehouse Equipment is narrowing with the increase in competition of forklifts technologies available in the market. The buyer has to decide the purchase based on Application, Performance, Total Cost Benefits, and Environmental Effects.

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Application: Indoor vs Outdoor

Internal Combustion (IC) forklift trucks are ideal for outdoor use, but if fuelled by propane, they can be used both indoors and outdoors. Electric forklift trucks are ideal for working indoors due to their low emissions. However, those with sealed components, including motors, controllers, and connectors, can also be operated outdoors. Performance

IC forklifts tend to be utilized in heavy-duty applications, such as brick and lumber yards, where larger capacity and performance is required to move the heavy loads. They are easily refuelled, better for long runs, high speed and ramps, which handle a capacity of over 35,000 lbs. In five minutes, an operator can easily replace the propane tank and continue operation, which is especially helpful in multi-shift production.

Electric forklifts, with advances in technology allowing them to operate outdoors, can provide as much power as their IC counterparts. Traditionally they offer lower capacities of over 15,000 lbs. and need charging stations in near proximity. The operator needs to recharge the forklift battery, but will also need to water and clean it too. Downtime can be experienced if the battery is not charged or equalized properly. These impediments hamper long shift activities and may not give desired results like their counterpart IC forklifts.

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Total Cost Benefits

Equipment acquisition personnel often fail to understand the concept of the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), instead of looking only at the initial cost of the purchase in making their decision. In reality, TCO is far more relevant to the forklift purchasing decision process. As a monetary estimate, it can help supply chain and warehouse managers evaluate the direct and indirect costs related to the purchase of a capital investment like a forklift. TCO consists of equipment cost, fuel/charging cost, maintenance, acquisition, operating, and return on investment(ROI). The TCO results show that even though the initial cost of equipment for electric forklifts is high the overall life-cycle cost of maintenance, charging/fuel and ROI is low compared to IC.

Environmental Effects

With companies and government agencies placing higher importance on finding green energy alternatives, the materials handling industry has seen a significant shift in demand over the past few years. More emphasis is now being placed on electric-powered over traditional IC forklifts and as companies search for cost savings, equipment manufacturers are taking steps to change the way we think about electric solutions.

IC forklifts have harmful emissions such as carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and particulates such as soot as well as odors. Meanwhile, electric forklifts provide workers with a cleaner work environment. Electric forklifts produce less noise, reducing the risk of hearing loss and the potential for workplace accidents. Combined with vibration reduction, these forklifts reduce the risk of operator fatigue and back issues when choosing an electric alternative.


When deciding between electric and IC forklifts, it is very important to weigh the pros and cons and think carefully about the application and usage of the equipment. Food distribution centres are strongly encouraged by OHS standards, but not obliged, to operate with battery electrics. On the other hand, for big trucks, the only viable option on the market is diesel power. For a large fleet, IC forklifts have economies of scale and will lower battery charging and maintenance costs. Whereas in a small to medium warehouse scenario operating in narrow aisles, you may desire a battery-electric forklift to minimize exhaust fumes. Along with the placement of charging stations, it is more important when using lithium-ion batteries than it is with lead-acid batteries because they are designed for fast charging near the operation site.

Before making any decision on the usage of forklifts the customer considering initial cost, preferring IC over electric. However, emphasis should be given to the on the total life cost of the forklifts. Thus, the decision will thus depend on the specifics of the site and your intended applications.

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