Liftgates can be a boon to a truck fleet — but spec the wrong liftgate for the truck and application, and the liftgate may deliver headaches instead of goods.
There are many things that can go wrong when specifying a lift. Gates might not lower all the way, making it impossible to roll a pallet jack or handcart onto the lift platform. When loaded, the truck may sit too low, preventing a tuckaway liftgate from lowering and unfolding. Battery power might run low along the truck’s route, requiring a recharge (or causing a service call) that delays deliveries.
Here are the top 10 things to consider when specifying a liftgate that functions as intended.
“The goods you deliver, where you deliver them, and how many deliveries and pickups you have daily are going to dictate much of the [liftgate power need and battery recharge] spec,” says Kevin Otto, the electrification technical lead at the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. And that’s true not just for power needs but for the liftgate spec as a whole.
1. Consider the Application
Liftgates raise and lower freight from the back of the truck to the ground and vice versa. But some liftgates work better in specific applications than others.
Consider how the liftgate will be used. What kind of cargo will the liftgate handle? What is the length, width, and height of that cargo? How heavy is it? The answers to these questions will affect the type of liftgate specified.
There are many differences between moving plants, car parts, grocery products, beverages, batteries and bakery products.
“It’s really about the application,” says Arnold Kowal, director for after sales service support at Maxon Lift. “The gate spec is based on the application. How much does a product weigh and how big is it? If a product is tall or top heavy, you need a level-ride liftgate, so the products do not tip over.”
2. Correctly Calculate Weight
“A key consideration is how much total weight you want to lower and raise with the liftgate,” says NACFE’s Otto, who spent 40 years at Cummins, where he led several business units.
A truck delivering 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of goods will not require a liftgate with a 6,000-pound capacity. But when calculating weight loads, it’s essential to factor in product weight, the weight of the equipment used to move the product, and the weight of the driver.
Pallet jacks, dollies or carts might increase capacity weights by 100 to 1,000 pounds. Many drivers will jump on the liftgate, which also can increase weight by 200 pounds or more. The right liftgate must be rated to handle this extra weight.
“You have to calculate the weight of everything that will be on the liftgate. That includes the driver, the jack, and the pallet,” says Anton Griessner, vice president of marketing and business development at Maxon. “An electric pallet jack alone might weigh 1,000 pounds or more. You may overload the gate if you don’t spec for it.”
3. Get a Liftgate Spec’d for the Vehicle
The type and size of the vehicle also affects liftgate selection. As a rule of thumb, specify the largest liftgate the delivery vehicle can handle. Liftgate selection depends on the type of vehicle, from pickup truck to straight truck, van to tractor-trailer. Liftgate width and platform sizes are determined by vehicle width.
Problems can occur if a vehicle needs a hitch to pull a trailer. The hitch may impede platform operation. The liftgate specification should account for the hitch. It can cost a lot to change this later.
When spec’ing a liftgate for a trailer, the type of trailer affects liftgate selection. Smaller and medium-duty liftgates are not designed for the pounding a trailer can give them.
“There are specific models for specific types of vehicles and specific types of trailers,” Griessner says.
4. Choose the Right Type of Door
The door types on trucks or trailers also can affect liftgate selection.
The least expensive option for most trucks is a swing-open door, which has more height clearance than a roll-up door. However, these doors are incompatible with rail-style gates, which mount on the outside corner posts of the truck body, where the hinges for the swing door are already located.
“The hinge can prevent a rail-style gate from being attached. The door swings through that area and latches onto the outside of the body,” Griessner says.
Tuck-away or cantilever gates can work best with swing-open doors and provide the largest platforms in these situations.
5. Consider Laden Versus Unladen
Another area that can cause problems is truck bed height. Putting a tuckaway liftgate underneath a truck that lacks the loaded bed height clearance for that gate might prevent the gate from opening or touching the ground.
The terms laden and unladen measure the clearance of the truck with and without a load. It is possible to specify a liftgate that doesn’t reach the ground or cannot be fully extended if fleet managers do not understand these terms. Laden describes when a truck is fully loaded with materials, making it sit lower to the ground, while unladen refers to a truck that is empty, and sits higher off the ground.
It is necessary to know the highest point of the truck when it is unladen to properly specify a liftgate. This is the maximum height the liftgate needs to be able to reach. Selecting a liftgate based on laden height, the height of the truck when it sits lower to the ground, could result in a liftgate that doesn’t reach the ground.
It’s equally important to consider truck height when it’s fully laden, or at its lowest point, which dictates minimum clearance requirements.
Every truck model has its own laden and unladen height dimensions based on its body specifications. This information can be used as a reference to guide liftgate selection.
6. Know Thy Gates
There are four common types of liftgates, each with its own pros and cons. They are:
- Rail- or column-lift
Tuck-under liftgates (also called stow-away and similar names) stay out of the way until they are needed. They tuck under and away from the cargo entrance, so the truck can back up to loading docks without the liftgate getting in the way. These liftgates tilt to form a ramp, making it easy to roll cargo into and out of the truck.
Rail liftgates stow flat against the rear of the truck or trailer body when not in use. When loading and unloading heavy items on the street, they have a platform that is large and level. The design of these liftgates ensures they stay aligned with the truck bed during use, keeping things level. However, they can be impractical because they cover part of the rear doorway when not in use and hence need to be lowered down at every stop.
Cantilever liftgates keep cargo level during loading and unloading and offer exceptionally large platforms (in fact, the platform in some applications can take the place of a rear door). Users can change the tilt of the platform to keep it level. Most cantilever liftgates come with foot controls to power them up or down. They have design options that are compatible with carts and pallets.
The movie industry often uses cantilever-type liftgates because they keep crates and sensitive equipment level as the gate moves up and down, says Maxon Lift’s Kowal, who adds, “Every industry has a particular model gate that works best for it.”
Some manufacturers also offer slider liftgates that stow horizontally underneath a truck or trailer. Cantilevers and sliders are generally used in niche applications.
Light-duty liftgates are also available. These liftgates are best for light to moderate loads and work well on pickup trucks, service and van bodies, and cargo vans.
“There are a ton of different liftgate configurations available,” NACFE’s Otto says. “Fleets have to figure out which configurations are best for their operations.”
7. Understand Platform Ride
The wrong platform ride pattern also can cause problems.
“Each ride type meets a different set of material handling requirements,” Griessner says.
For instance, tuck-under liftgates tilt slightly when the arms reach the ground to allow operators to roll things on and off (level-ramping ride or traditional ride). Rail-lift gates have a flat surface from the bed to the ground. In either case, inquire whether it’s a level-ride or a standard-ride platform. A level-ride platform stays level with the truck bed as the liftgate raises and lowers. A standard-ride platform tilts slightly to form a ramp. The type of load, terrain, and more are factors that determine which will work best.
Most liftgates have level-ramping or level-ride platforms, which stay perfectly level and flat as they go up and down. These platforms provide greater stability, especially with top-heavy or tall loads. But problems arise when loading and unloading cargo on sloped ground because level-ride platforms do not adjust to these inclines. A level-ramping ride might be better for loading and unloading in unlevel areas.
8. Spec Adequate Platform Depth
When fleets overlook platform dimensions, they may wind up with a liftgate that can handle load weights but lacks enough space for the cargo, the equipment, and the driver.
The platform must be large enough to handle precise cargo dimensions, including packaging; the handcart or pallet jack; and the driver standing on the platform. The average liftgate can handle freight equal to or less than 96 inches wide and 48 inches deep.
9. Plan for Power
“Liftgates take a lot of amps to operate when they are moving,” says Otto. “They use a bunch of power in a very short time. It can take 200 to 300 amps to operate a liftgate. Any liftgate system is often going to need auxiliary batteries to manage that high amperage output.”
Fleets that plan to use auxiliary batteries must determine how to charge them. There are several ways to charge batteries and other things to consider when calculating the number of batteries needed. Weather and climate, lifts per day, how the gate will be used, and the distance between stops (charging time) are all things that must be factored in. These considerations determine how many batteries are needed and dictate the best way to charge them.
Otto says fleets can limit battery drain by keeping the batteries close to the liftgate. The system, he says, will lose 1-2 volts to resistance if there is a 20- to 30-foot run from the alternator to the back of the truck.
Smart controls on liftgates that alert users to low batteries also can help control battery drain. Fleets should know the number of cycles completed in a delivery day. The truck will blow through batteries quickly if a fleet does 30 cycles a day. Here, they need to add dedicated batteries and possibly a boosting charge system to extend battery life.
Traditionally, fleets have used Group 31 batteries to deliver liftgate power. But the increasing prevalence of anti-idling laws challenge the ability to meet the charging needs of these batteries. If trucks cannot idle when stationary, and there’s not enough drive time between deliveries, keeping batteries charged becomes a problem, says Otto, who has researched the benefits of using solar power in trucking fleets for NACFE.
“Anti-idle laws and the inflated cost of diesel limit the time the alternator runs,” Kowal says. “Now it is not sufficient to replenish the energy the liftgate has taken out during the day. That’s why so many customers are seeking supplemental sources of recharge, solar being one of them. Solar is a standalone system, meaning nothing has to be running. The availability of sunlight determines how much energy is put back into batteries.”
Griessner emphasizes the key challenge has always been how batteries get recharged. Most of the time, fleet vehicles recharge the batteries by distributing the power they have on the track. “But solar,” he says, “adds an additional power source.”
As long as the sun is shining, Otto says solar panels give a significant amount of amps to charge the batteries. He says solar panels deliver a trickle charge that keeps batteries topped off. Otto warns if batteries go completely dead along the route, it will shorten their life.
“Keeping batteries charged as high as possible at all times is a good idea,” he says, noting that solar charging can extend battery life by 50% or more.
10. Plan for Longer Lifecycles
A top consideration with every fleet is equipment lifecycle. Many fleets operate delivery trucks until their maintenance needs make it cost prohibitive. A decade ago, that might have been 5 to 7 years. But with advances in technology, many trucks remain in service for over a decade — and liftgates must last just as long.
Selecting a liftgate that uses galvanized steel versus paint-coated steel can extend liftgate life. Zinc oxide is used to coat galvanized steel to prevent oxidation that can weaken it. Paint-coated steel, in contrast, can corrode more quickly as paint chips off when the liftgate scrapes the ground.
Liftgates constructed out of aluminum are another alternative that increases liftgate longevity. The lighter weight material can reduce liftgate weight by as much as one-third, which can reduce fuel economy and boost freight efficiency. Aluminum, though pricier than steel, is also corrosion resistant.
Much rides on spec’ing the right liftgate. Delivery delays, safety risks and dissatisfied customers can result from the wrong liftgate decision. But the right liftgate helps fleets deliver goods reliably, efficiently and safely. Reach out to your liftgate specialist before you make a final decision.
This article appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.