Battery-powered compact lifts likely will be an expanding and permanent fixture in tree care, though it’s too early to know to what extent and which technology may prevail. Depending on who you talk to, battery-powered compact (or tracked) lifts are either fully functional and capable of replacing gasoline and diesel models in tree care, or they are still fine for dedicated use and emergency situations, but not ready for prime time.
Some lift manufacturers and distributors spoken with for this article indicate that the technology is in place and proven, and say there are a variety of options from which to choose to address enterprise and regulatory needs. Others disagree with that assessment, but agree that the battery-operated units have a role to play.
To be clear, in addition to fossil-fuel or battery power options for compact lifts, we also discuss the electric, or plug-in technology.
Battery vs. hybrid
Altec Industries, a 37-year TCIA corporate member company based in Birmingham, Alabama, is now in partnership with Teupen to sell their German-made lifts in the U.S. “Every lift Teupen offers can be either combustion with plug-in or battery hybrid (the combination of battery power and plug-in),” says Andy Price, Altec’s market manager for tree care.
Price adds that electrical-powered lifts already have a long history in Europe. “Battery and plug-in are important there,” Price says, “since most of the lift use there is indoors. Here in America, it is mostly outdoors.”
“Teupen offers machines with dual power (hybrid) – a diesel combustion engine together with a 120-volt electric (plug-in) drive,” says Martin Borutta, CEO of Teupen North America, a 15-year TCIA corporate member company based in Pineville, North Carolina. “We also offer full-electric machines with both a 48-volt battery drive and a 120-volt electric drive, an 80-volt battery drive with a 120-volt electric drive and an 80-volt battery drive combined with a 400-volt electric drive, depending on the machine size.
“The machines have an on-board battery charger for 120-volt, dedicated 20-amp outlets. Some of the bigger machines are equipped with a 400-volt battery charger,” Borutta explains. “Teupen is using AGM (absorbent glass mat technologies, which is an advanced lead-acid technology for batteries), offering low cost of ownership and easy replacement options. Most machines are powered by 8-volt, 172Ah (amp hours) AGM batteries,” he adds.
Borutta maintains, “The machines with a battery drive have almost the same power as gasoline- or diesel-powered machines. Their durability is as good as gasoline- or diesel-powered machines. The battery drive is almost maintenance free. The runtime is almost equal to gasoline or diesel machines,” he says, adding, “It depends on the use of the machines. The runtime is shorter if the machines are operated with a high portion of use of the tracks, since the drive motors require a lot of power.”
Borutta adds that, “The battery drives are designed to provide enough power for a workday, with normal use, and all Teupen battery-powered machines are equipped with an onboard charger.”
With respect to the overhanging question of performance in severe weather, Borutta maintains that, “AGM batteries can handle heat and cold temperatures very well, even without an external battery-heating or -cooling system.”
He acknowledges that right now, “There are two limitations regarding the battery machines. The possibility to recharge the system on site is recommended with a dedicated 120-volt, 20-amp outlet, and battery machines are heavier than gasoline- or diesel-powered machines.”
In reference to pending or existing noise and pollution regulations in states such as California, Borutta reports that, “Our customers are asking for full-electric hybrid machines with the possibility of using 120-volt for operations and charging.”
Getting a charge
Rick Girard is president of RBG Inc., a 17-year TCIA corporate member company based in Raymond, New Hampshire, and exclusive U.S. distributor for Dinolift of Finland. “Dinolift offers the 72RXT and 92RXT models with full lithium battery power,” Girard says. “There is also the 69XTII trailer-mounted model that is fully battery powered.”
He explains that, “The RXT models have the same operational capabilities, speed in boom movement and driving as the diesel-powered units. With the capacity to operate for a normal 8-hour workday without the batteries running low, they are very practical for everyday use in the tree care industry,” says Girard. “They also will fully recharge overnight with a standard 110-volt AC plug.” (110-volt and 120-volt are used interchangeably when referring to the U.S. standard electricity.)
In regard to the hot- and cold-weather operation, Girard maintains, “It doesn’t matter, the battery has a heater for cold weather and runs fine in the hot. No worries about the rain or snow, as the controls are the same on a diesel version, and they have been used for years in all weather conditions.
“As far as the Dinolift is concerned, there are no limitations,” compared to gas- or diesel-powered models, Girard says. Regarding noise and environmental considerations, he adds, “I think many customers will appreciate this and might even pick a tree company due to having a green-operating machine. I think for forward-thinking tree care owners, there is value not just in the operation but on the marketing side, where they could promote a green-operating machine and pick up sales due to the clean, quiet operation.
“Right now, the (battery) unit is still new enough that there are many customer questions and concerns we have to answer, and there is still uncertainty as to whether they should purchase,” says Girard. “I feel that if we keep teaching and promoting, our customers will see all the benefits.”
Tried and tested
“Since 2010, all our units have been available in three power versions,” says Ebbe Christensen, president & CEO of Ruthmann Reachmaster North America LP, a 20-year TCIA corporate member company based in Porter, Texas. “Standard combustion engine, with 110-volt emergency descent or for slow jobs – we simply call it emergency power, as it is operationally too slow. Then we have 100%-lithium-battery-operated units – fully functional with the same speed ratio as internal-combustion engines (ICE); and a combo version with both ICE (typical Honda gas or Kohler/Kubota diesel) and the lithium-battery system.”
According to Christensen, “The two lithium versions are very practical for everyday use, and we have a growing number of customers going with the combo models for any number of reasons. One, it is only about $5,000 more expensive than the lithium only, and it also offers the option of running on either fuel or battery when outside.
“Our units can run nonstop for four consecutive hours,” Christensen says. “Applying that to normal work situations, where the lift does not operate constantly, it will provide eight to 12 hours of work. But, of course, that depends on actual usage.”
As an aside, Christensen says, “One customer charges extra for running his units on batteries at hospitals and other areas to avoid noise. With the battery, you can take the lift indoors, for example, during the winter for holiday decorations and other indoor work. A lot of our window-cleaner customers do that.”
Battery power is trending
“But in general, and in sync with the times, yes, more and more customers are going for the battery options,” Christensen maintains.
Christensen says with pride that he, personally, has a lot of experience with the technology. “I pioneered the very first lithium-powered unit in 2010 with Hinowa, before they became JLG, and from 2010 up to today, we have sold well over 200 Bluelift lithium-battery-powered units.”
Regarding sales to tree care companies, right now, Christensen says, “For us, less than 15% of our sales go to the tree care sector, since we have a very diversified customer base. Of the units we sell to the tree care segment, two-thirds are still with internal-combustion engines; the rest are combo units with both an ICE and lithium batteries.
“There is no doubt that we are seeing a steady demand for the hybrid, or combo models, as we call them,” Christensen says. “This is driven by the fact that you have the best of two worlds and two entirely independent power sources. While the lithium-only models can work outside as well as inside, the fact that you have a strong internal combustion engine that can take over when you work outside is a great benefit for the combo models.
“And, of course, the lithium batteries are there for indoor use,” Christensen says. “We have customers who use the battery option outside in noise-sensitive areas, but should they run out of power with no immediate 110-volt hookup, they can switch to gas or diesel. Having a hybrid also allows customers in the colder areas who cannot work so much on the outside to offer the unit for indoor work, like holiday decoration and minor repairs.
“And, yes, you can plug into any standard 110v, 15-amp outlet; no need for a special charging station,” Christensen reports.
Asked what draws tree care customers to opt for a battery or hybrid compact/tracked lift, Christensen says, “Well, it is mixed, but the majority select the hybrid/combo units due to the ability to work equally efficiently inside and outside. The added value that you can switch to batteries outside to reduce noise and offer ‘green’ solutions also adds to the decision. Frankly, we have never sold a lithium-only battery version in this segment. Once the customers learn about the hybrid/combo solution, it is game over for the lithium only.”
The California effect
“The uptick in emission regulations is already happening – look at California, for example,” says Emily Shoemake, director of marketing at Tracked Lifts Inc., a 16-year TCIA corporate member company based in York, Pennsylvania. “There, they will be zero emissions very soon. We are having this conversation more and more with customers at trade shows, and it is a growing concern, particularly with California customers. We can provide solutions for those zero-emissions customers.”
Asked if the battery-operation option is practical for everyday use in tree care, rather than just emergency descent or a quick job, she says, “Absolutely. A good example of this, aside from the obvious emissions and environmental impact, is in residential tree care. When crews start a residential job early in the morning, using electric power reduces noise, making it less disruptive to the neighborhood.”
To that end, Tracked Lifts is part of a chorus of deep product choices. Shoemake stresses, “We have many models we have the option of custom ordering with full electric (battery and plug-in) power. Additionally, we have models that come standard as a hybrid machine, or have the capability of custom ordering as a hybrid.”
Tim Sexton is president of Cela USA/TriStar Aerial Equipment, a five-year TCIA corporate member company based in Dublin, Georgia, that sells the Cela line of compact lifts with electric- (battery and plug-in), hybrid- and fuel-powered options. “A standard 120-volt plugin is all that is required for the electric lifts,” he states. He describes the Cela line of electric options as “lightweight and compact in design, and they operate similarly to the fuel-powered lifts.
“The compact crawlers are manufactured with 72-, 80-, 92-, 100-, 110-, 120- and 131-foot lift heights,” Sexton adds. “Durable trailer lifts are now available for the 72- and 80-foot lifts, and will soon be available for the 100- and 120-foot lifts.
“If charged daily, the Cela lithium provides at least an eight-hour workday,” Sexton says. Interestingly, with respect to weather conditions, Sexton says, “We haven’t observed any difference (in performance) in inclement weather,” and adds that, “The only limitation that is a factor is if the battery isn’t charged and maintained properly.”
Charging is not an issue, he says. “Most work sites have electric plugin receptacles for charging the battery.
“Noise reduction and environmental awareness is a key area of interest,” Sexton notes. “However, most arborists prefer the fuel-powered lift over the electric.”
Years of experience
Martin Leblanc, growth creator and solutions finder with UP Equip, an 11-year TCIA corporate member company headquartered in Vercheres, Quebec, Canada, says that, for tree care customers, “We have been offering lithium batteries for eight years. All EasyLift units are available in battery-powered-only versions or with combustion and lithium power on the same unit.”
For the company’s Hoeflon line of tracked mini cranes, Leblanc says, “All units starting with C1 and passing through C4, C6 and C10 are available in lithium-battery versions or in Tier-4 diesel versions.
“Battery units offer performance very similar to that of combustion engines. The disadvantage is for work when it is very, very cold. That is because the combustion engine and hydraulic pumps continuously produce a rotation of the hydraulic fluid, which keeps the hydraulic tank hot. If it is very cold, the overall speed (of a battery unit) is slowed, but the capacities are unchanged,” he explains.
“We are selling more battery units,” he maintains, “and it is easy to establish a direct relationship in states where laws encourage environmental initiatives and the number of sales of this type of unit.”
Ryan Polonski, president and CEO at All Access Equipment – a 13-year TCIA corporate member company based in Wilmington, Massachusetts, extols the virtue of battery power, especially lithium technology.
“On one hand, battery power is great. But buyers often do not want to pay the money right now,” Polonski says. “One of the advantages of lithium is that there is virtually no maintenance (on the power-plant side), such as oil and other fluids, and there is consistent, strong power until the charge reaches zero.”
Polonski contrasts that with the performance of traditional battery technology (such as nickel metal hydride, also known as NiMH), which can cause a machine’s operation to slow as the battery discharges. Additionally, he maintains that lithium batteries can lifecycle (recharge) thousands of times versus hundreds for traditional batteries.
“Certainly, battery lifts are a convenience and are quiet on the job side, but once you start a chain saw or chipper, there goes your quiet,” Polonski notes.
Polonski reports that there has been early and growing demand for battery-powered lifts and other battery or hybrid equipment in tree care, for that matter, but the future is not clear. “I just don’t know. I was just at an equipment expo and saw what I was told was the first battery-powered chipper. Again, how do you justify spending so much more money?
“Technology changes. It is a matter of what works and what doesn’t,” Polonski observes. “And that is not to say battery power is a bad idea.” Because it meets a need, “We have had some companies buy lifts with battery technology,” Polonski says. “Most of the time, when they buy battery power, they also buy a diesel engine. Each has its own system with its own hydraulic pumps.”
So the conclusion seems to be that there is no conclusion.
Battery-powered compact lifts certainly have their place in tree care. How big a role they play seems to be up for debate. Changing regulations related to noise and emissions, especially in California, at least in the short term, will have an influence on this debate. Hedging your bets with hybrid models seems to make a lot of sense for now. But where you operate and, as with any big equipment-purchase decisions, the type of work you do will dictate the value of battery-powered lifts to your business.
Rick Howland is a former daily newspaper crime reporter, magazine editor/publisher and PR consultant, and has been a regular contributor to TCI Magazine for nearly 29 years. (Don’t get him started on the Red Sox.)