By Tom Kelley
As the beverage market continues its shift from side-load bodies and trailers to the more generic end-load bodies and trailers, liftgates are becoming a topic of increasing interest among fleet managers. Spec’ed and maintained properly, liftgates can deliver benefits including increased productivity, reduced product damage and fewer driver injuries. However, failing to follow a few simple tips can cause headaches.
While SKU counts continue to grow, and other market forces cause logistical strategies to be reviewed, an increasing number of distributors are looking at equipment changes to gain a competitive edge. Among the more visible changes is the trend toward bulk (dry-box/dry-van) bodies and trailers. Each year in i>BW’s annual fleet survey, side-loaders remain in the majority, but dry-van bodies and trailers continue to take an increasing share in future purchase plans.
One of the key challenges in the shift to bulk bodies and trailers is that many customer locations do not have dock facilities available. The solution is to add a liftgate that uses an electro-hydraulic powered platform to move loads between the trailer/body floor and ground level. Similar to the flexibility provided by bulk trailers and bodies in delivery operations, a liftgate offers flexibility for moving everything from loose cases and barrels, to palletized loads, to the cart systems that expedite product handling from the warehouse to the store shelf.
Given the demands on a liftgate in beverage delivery operations, it’s critical to spec the unit properly and maintain it proactively.
Spec’ing: Go Big
One of the most critical factors in spec’ing a liftgate is to have some “breathing room” in the specifications. Choosing a 5,500-pound capacity gate to move 5,500-pound loads, means the gate will always be operating at 100 percent of capacity, wearing on all of the gate’s systems much faster than 5,500-pound loads on a 6,600-pound capacity gate. According to Arnold Kowal, product manager for Maxon Lift, “I would always put in at least 10-20 percent of capacity headroom. I don’t think that’s a matter of over spec’ing, but rather one of proper spec’ing.”
Physical size is another key consideration when choosing a liftgate. An 84-inch deep gate is a popular choice with many beverage fleets, because it can accommodate two pallets, a pallet jack and the operator. However, in its “stowed for dock-loading” position, this size of gate is generally incompatible with dock safety systems that engage the truck’s or trailer’s ICC bar to prevent movement away from the dock during loading.
Many common sources of liftgate problems can be mitigated at the spec’ing stage. Ensuring that sufficient amperage and voltage reaches the liftgate are the key to trouble-free operation. Proper alternator ratings on the truck/tractor, proper batteries and proper wiring all play a role in delivering the power required by the liftgate.
The hydraulic system on a liftgate, while less of a concern than the electrical system, still requires consideration in the spec’ing process. For operation in colder climates, does the gate rely on gravity for descent, or is it powered down hydraulically?
While the liftgate’s mechanical components are generally trouble-free when properly maintained, it’s important to know that the wear/bearing surfaces are compatible with your operating environment. The available wear surfaces react differently to heat, cold, abrasive dust and corrosive spray. What works good in New England may not work as well in Phoenix.
Because vehicle appearance is an important element of a distributor’s marketing image, corrosion protection of the liftgate’s components is both an aesthetic and maintenance concern. The liftgate platform is subject to considerable abrasion, from pavement below and product/equipment above, so the finishing process needs to mitigate corrosion spreading from the inevitable scrapes and scratches. According to Maxon Lift’s Kowal, “In the last 24 months or so we have seen the industry trending towards hot dip galvanizing as the coating of choice on liftgates to combat the effects of corrosion. Galvanizing currently makes up approximately 15 percent of our total production and is trending upwards.”
Maintenance: An Ounce Of Prevention
Even with a properly spec’ed and installed liftgate, preventive maintenance is a key to mitigating potential headaches. The liftgate’s electrical system is the most critical. With optimized routes, it’s not uncommon to have as few as 10 minutes of road time between delivery stops. While this may be the most productive use of the driver’s time, it presents a tough schedule for recharging the liftgate batteries.
Even with an oversized alternator putting out plenty of power, batteries can only charge so fast. This situation is further exacerbated by voltage drop due to the distance and connections between the alternator and the liftgate batteries.
Maxon Lift’s Kowal says: “Battery voltage testing should be done at least once per year. Any bare terminal connection should be cleaned of any corrosion, re-tightened and treated with a protective coating that will prevent further corrosion. Electrical connectors should be disconnected, treated with dielectric grease and reconnected to prevent airborne moisture from causing corrosion from the inside.”
When performing maintenance and repairs on liftgates, service technicians need to be aware of several critical safety precautions. Bill Rector, Liftgate Sales Director for SAF-Holland, passes along the following safety tips:
• “While working on a liftgate it is always best to have the lifting platform in its full open position and resting on the ground. When it is not possible to have the liftgate platform on the ground, the liftgate platform and mechanism should be adequately secured in its stored position using chains, overhead lifting devices or some other means to assure the safety of the service personnel.”
• “The service technicians should familiarize themselves with the operation of the liftgate prior to maintenance and repair to avoid injury from potential pinch points on and around the liftgate.”
• “When loosening hydraulic fittings, a good practice is to rotate the fitting in 1/8 turn increments until fluid is just beginning to drip and then allow the pressure to be relieved.”
• “Whenever working on liftgates (regardless of whether it’s an electrical, mechanical or hydraulic repair) it is a good practice to disconnect the ground strap on the batteries to cut power to the electrical system. Do not rely on the shut-off switch inside the cab of the vehicle or in the pump box.”