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Product Review: Electric Forklifts for Wineries
Quiet, clean and easy to operate.
by Curtis Phillips

Electric forklift at Wine Shipping

Wineries generally consider getting internal combustion forklifts for most winery operations. However, if one is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of electric Class 1 forklifts, one need not relegate them exclusively to the warehouse. They can be used anywhere in the winery.

Types of Forklifts

Although they may appear to be fairly generic pieces of equipment, forklift manufacturers have defined seven classifications of forklifts, each with a number of sub-classifications, accord­ing to (1) engine type, (2) work environment, (3) operator position and (4) specific characteristics, like tire type and maximum grade. They are as follows:

Class 1: Electric motor forklifts with cushion or pneumatic tires

Class 2: Narrow aisle electric motor forklifts with solid tires

Class 3: Powered hand-trucks and pallet jacks

Class 4: Internal combustion forklifts with cushion tires, sit-down operator

Class 5: Internal combustion forklifts with pneumatic tires, sit-down operator

Class 6: Cargo tows; ride-on units that can tow at least 1,000 pounds

Class 7: Rough terrain forklifts; these normally have pneumatic tires and diesel engines.

Although individual wineries might own forklifts in any or all of these classifications, the most common are Class 4 and Class 5, with Class 1 forklifts comprising a significant minority.

In a previous WBM article (June 2007), we covered the most general purpose of winery forklifts: Class 4, internal combustion (propane) and cushion-tire, with a sit-down operator. We started with Class 4 forklifts because they are the most common type of forklifts in use in the wine industry.

The internal combustion Class 4 forklifts may be the most common, but electric Class 1 forklifts have many compelling features that make them worthy of consideration when compared to their internal combustion brethren, especially for indoor operations. They are generally easier to maintain and cheaper to operate. They don't produce carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide or soot. Also important for indoor situations is the fact that Class 1 forklifts are much quieter to operate than internal combustion forklifts. In addition, I find that electric forklifts tend to be well suited for the stop/start, on/off operational conditions typically found in smaller wineries.

electric forklift wineries

A benefit to using a Class 1 forklift inside your winery is they emit no CO?or CO2. Photo by Bill Pregler.

Although Class 1 forklifts tend to be more expensive to purchase than their Class 4 and Class 5 equivalents, this tends to be mitigated somewhat by the much lower operational costs. This makes an electric lift most affordable for those facilities that will use the lift the most. The higher initial cost of the electric Class 1 lift is more quickly paid off by the lower day-to-day costs.

Despite this, most wineries tend to be small enough that they only need to own one or two forklifts. As a result, the reasons for preferring Class 4 over Class 1 forklifts tend to be operational. Electric forklifts can do any job most wineries need to get done, but they have one significant drawback for the small winery: they need to be recharged for almost as long as they can be used. Most wineries correctly suppose that they cannot afford the risk of having an electric forklift out of service while recharging.

Keeping a second battery pack and swapping out the batteries might be considered a viable option, but it really isn't since it still takes around a half hour and a hoist to remove and replace the batteries in a Class 1 forklift.

These apparent drawbacks don't have to prevent a winery from using an electric forklift as its main forklift, however, as it is pretty easy to rent a propane-powered Class 4 or Class 5 forklift for crush while relying on the Class 1 for the remainder of the year.

This is just not acceptable during harvest. Any winery that wants to use electric forklifts really needs to have more than one forklift in order to cover these high-use times. The additional forklift can be of any "indoor" type, including another electric since an electric can be run while the other is charging as long as one staggers the recharge cycles.

Using Forklifts Around the Winery

Forklifts have several distinct uses on the crushpad, in the winery and in the warehouse. In the winery, they are used to move bins of grapes during crush, barrels, small tanks and pallets of supplies. In the warehouse, they are used to move case goods. Each of these uses has slightly different requirements, but one modestly sized forklift can easily perform all these tasks.

On the Crushpad

A winery usually only needs a forklift on the crushpad if it receives grapes in picking bins like the ubiquitous Macro Bin®. Of course, the vast majority of wineries do exactly that. Even if most of a particular winery's grapes are delivered in gondolas, which need a chain-hoist rather than a forklift to be dumped, a large winery still might want to receive particularly fragile varietals in half-ton bins.

Bins can be offloaded from a flatbed by a forklift without any bin-specific attachments. These bins also need to be emptied somehow. One can use a pitchfork and shovel, but it's usually a better idea to dump the bin into a hopper, tank or directly into the press.

As noted in the previous article, this is most flexibly accomplished by outfitting a forklift with a bin-dumper for crush. It should be noted that a number of wineries prefer to use stand-alone bin-dumpers rather than forklift-mounted ones.

The most important attributes for forklifts in this role are speed and endurance. Readers will note that we haven't listed any endurance or normal charge-life on the accompanying table. Meaningful data could not be obtained for this story. In general, however, an electric forklift can be expected to run for six to eight hours before recharging; those fitted with new batteries should potentially run quite a while longer than that.

In the Winery

Class 1 forklifts can be safely operated inside a winery building as they emit no CO or CO2. In addition, if the forklift is going to be used for stacking racked barrels, it should be fitted with a tilting-mast as well as a side-shift. Most wineries use a Class 4 (cushion tire, internal combustion) forklift with a 4,000- to 6,000-load capacity in the winery; however, a similarly sized and outfitted Class 1 forklift could be used.

In the Warehouse

In a winery warehouse, forklifts are used to move and stack palletized supplies and cases of wine. The agility of the forklift is more important.

Most smaller wineries use the same forklift in the winery as they do in the warehouse. As noted above, these are generally Class 4 forklifts; but there is no overriding reason against using a Class 1 forklift in this role. If a winery is large enough to justify a dedicated warehouse forklift, it tends to use either a Class 1 (electric) forklift, a narrow aisle Class 2 (electric) or one of the smaller Class 4 (internal combustion, cushion tire) forklifts.

Valley Wine Warehouse general manager Bill Harper noted: "In a refrigerated environment, all warehouse doors remain closed except when in use. This is to reduce the amount of refrigeration needed to maintain the desired temperature. Propane forklifts create exhaust which increases the temperature inside the warehouse."

Many wineries don't have the luxury of dedicating a forklift to their warehouse and instead need to use a single forklift in the warehouse as well as the winery and the crushpad. For warehouse use, the agility (right-angle stacking radius) and reach (mast height) of the forklift are as important as the load capacity.

Normally, a winery can use conventional Class 4 or Class 1 forklifts with a load capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 pounds for warehouse work. Busy warehouses may need to move two pallets of full bottles at a time, however. This would mean that 5,000 pounds would be about the smallest load capacity forklift that such a winery or warehouse could use.

Forklift Matrix. Click to enlarge


Battery Endurance and Recharge Time

As noted above, we haven't listed any endurance or normal charge-life because meaningful data could not be obtained for this story. Electric forklifts can be expected to run for six to eight hours before recharging, and those fitted with new batteries have the potential to run even longer than that.

System Voltage or "Scotty, I need more power!" Electric forklifts are generally sold with 36V, 48V or, in a few cases, 80V systems. A 48V system enables the forklift to move and lift faster than a 36V system. At the same time, the 48V forklift could have only three-quarters of the run time compared to a 36V forklift unless it is fitted with more battery cells. Forklifts with 80V systems are less common, and the examples currently on the market have similar performance characteristics to 48V systems.

AC or DC Motors? Three-phase AC motors run cooler at lower speeds than DC motors. The three-phase AC motors used in electric forklifts tend to be much less expensive than their DC counterparts due to their comparative mechanical simplicity and fewer parts. Cooler operation and simpler design should mean less maintenance and longer operational lives for AC motors. The extent to which these savings are passed on by the manufacturer varies.

In theory, DC motors provide better starting and more low RPM torque than AC motors, but three-phase AC motor design long ago matured to the point where they can provide low-RPM performance comparable to DC designs.

Load Capacity

A forklift is a teeter-totter where the front wheels are the fulcrum. Anything put on the forks needs to be counterbalanced by the weight of the back end of the forklift itself. Note that just like on a teeter-totter, the load exerts more leverage the further in front of the wheels it is placed. This means that the forklift's capacity is significantly decreased as the mast is raised or tilted forward.

Some Nominal Winery Forklift Loads

•   A rack of two full barrels weighs a bit more than half a ton (1,200 pounds).

•   A Macro Bin of whole-cluster grapes weighs about half a ton. The same bin can weigh almost a ton if filled with destemmed and crushed grapes.

•   A full 500-gallon porta-tank weighs about 5,000 pounds.

•   A pallet of full wine bottles weighs about a ton, unless someone is stacking their pallets five layers high in which case it's a ton and a quarter. Of course, those extra heavy bottles are just that: extra and heavy.

Right Angle Stacking Radius

The right-angle stacking radius is the amount of room a forklift needs to turn a load 90 degrees. The right-angle stacking radius, plus the fork length, plus a safety margin of 6 to 12 inches gives the minimum aisle width in which the forklift can operate. Mauro Molina Jr., cellarmaster and certified forklift instructor for Quady Winery, noted that width and right-angle stacking radius, among other things, were key features that he compares when shopping for any winery or warehouse forklift.


The forklift mast height determines the overhead clearance needed by the forklift. One should allow a foot or so margin at the very least. This is most often an issue with small wineries that have doors that are just seven feet tall.

Max Grade

The maximum grade is the incline up which the forklift can safely carry a load. Class 1 forklifts are rated for grades ranging between 15 and 30 degrees. Remember that while driving a forklift on an incline the load should always be uphill. Also note that even four-wheel Class 1 forklifts really have just three balance points (the rear axle supports the rear of the forklift at its center). Never drive a forklift across an incline.

Standard Options

As noted above, there are a few features that any winery forklift should have. These include things like side-sifts and tilt-masts, which should be installed on pretty much any forklift at the winery. For electric forklifts, Harper recommended that all be outfitted with battery watering systems. When these are installed," he said, "the operator can refill the battery water in all cells to the proper level without removing caps from the individual cells in about one minute. Doing this by hand would take about 15 to 20 minutes per battery."

Harper confirmed my own experience and recommended that one only consider electric forklifts with solid-state electronics. Since this is pretty much the industry standard these days, one should probably only check for this on used forklifts.

Quady Winery's Mauro Molina recommended that wineries look for these features when considering any forklift:

* Safety features

* Maneuverability (turning radius)

* Weight capacity

* Gentle engagement (jerky motion)

* Release of propane odor

* Power

* Easy startup (weather condition)

* Lights (night work)

* Clutch/brake combo

* Width

* Traction

* Availability of parts

* Availability of lift mechanic

* Quietness

These items aren't really differentiators between the individual makes of forklifts. All these features should be available as options for new and leased forklifts. Although they can also be retrofitted to used forklifts, it's probably a better idea to simply make sure that any used forklift is appropriately fitted out before buying.

What to Buy or Lease

Small Wineries

As I noted in the article on Class 4 forklifts, small wineries generally need just one forklift. Almost without exception this will be a Class 4 or Class 5 propane-powered forklift. In part this seems to be because of the lower initial costs of the Class 4 and 5 forklifts as compared to Class 1 lift-trucks. Another consideration is the amount of time it takes to recharge an electric forklift versus the time it takes to refuel a forklift powered by internal combustion.

Traditionally this has meant that small wineries usually buy a single Class 4 forklift to assure that they can use their forklift for longer than eight hours a day when needed.

Mid-Sized Wineries

As a winery expands, so does the need for a second forklift. The usual pattern is that a winery purchases a forklift so that case goods can be moved and loaded without impeding other winery operations. Often the second forklift purchased is an electric one.

Large Wineries

Large wineries can afford the luxury of owning or, more likely, leasing a sizable fleet of forklifts. They are also more likely to fill out their seasonal need by renting extra lift-trucks rather than by under-utilizing the forklifts they keep onsite throughout the year.

Wine Warehouses

Wine casegoods warehouses, including both independent ones like Groskopf Warehouse and Logistics in Sonoma and Valley Wine Warehouse in Napa, as well as those owned by larger wine companies, tend to make extensive use of electric forklifts.

Some drawbacks exist to using internal combustion forklifts in a warehouse setting. According to Harper, the exhaust emission from the propane forklift creates soot, which accumulates on cartons and other surfaces. In addition, the forklift exhaust has the added effect of resuspending dust from floors into the air. This further worsens the dust problem.

Kendall-Jackson winemaker Randy Ullom made the same point, stating that with electric forklifts "the warehouse/winery is much much cleaner."

Wine Caves

As for wine warehouses, electric forklifts work well in wine caves due to the lack of soot and fume production as well as quieter operation.


A forklift is one of the most important tools in a winery. When shopping for a forklift, one needs to take into account the true load capacity of the forklift. This is especially important because commonly used additions, like tilt-masts and side-shifts, decrease the load capacity. Forklift maneuverability is also important as it determines how much "wasted" space has to be dedicated to aisles so that the forklifts can operate. Several attributes that are difficult to quantify are also important when selecting a forklift. This makes onsite rental and use a helpful tool in choosing among forklift makes and models.

Current Class 1 forklifts have performance characteristics on a par with Class 4 forklifts. Except for their long recharge cycle and the potential demands of crush, there is no compelling reason why a winery could not use one as their only forklift. In such cases, the winery does need to ensure they can work through their busiest season. This can be done simply by renting a second forklift for two or three months. Once the winery is large enough to justify the ownership of two or more forklifts, this ceases to be a constraint. The long days of harvest can be overcome by alternating the charging cycles of multiple Class 1 lifts.

Valley Wine Warehouse's Bill Harper noted that ultimately the "process is similar to purchasing a car. You do some research. You check the costs. You talk to people who own the vehicles. You go for a test drive. In the end, the selection often comes down to individual preferences. Some people buy Fords. Some people buy Chevrolets. Both feel strongly that their choice was better. Both drive from here to there without much difference." wbm

Curtis Phillips, an editor for Wine Business Monthly since 2000, is a graduate of UC Davis, and has been a winemaker since 1984 and an agricultural consultant since 1979.