Carry That Weight: 5 secrets to spec’ing better liftgates

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TORONTO, Ont. — Much rides on your liftgate spec’ing decision: your cargo, your customers’ satisfaction, and literally, your drivers. Short-spec’ your liftgate and you put all that and more at risk.

You can buy a liftgate for any vehicle from a pickup truck to a tractor-trailer, and units that can handle weights ranging from 600 to 3,000 kg. They come in various configurations. Some with fold-away platforms and some with sliding platforms. They can use electric gearing or hydraulic cylinders for lifting and lowering. Some raise and lower the platform on a vertical rail. There’s no shortage of options, and consulting with a knowledgeable dealer can help identify the best option for your application.

  1. Identify your needs

You know your current needs best, from the weight and size of your cargo to the frequency of use and the environment. Manufacturers offer different configurations, such as side- or rear-mounting options and full- or half-width deck plates. Some are solid, while some fold for easier stowage. Be mindful of the truck body when it comes to attaching it, and the unloading environment when it comes to spec’ing the platform. Some customer locations offer limited space to deploy a full-size deck, potentially leaving a folding deck as the best way to go.

“Will it see everyday use or will it be used only occasionally?” asks Peter Collins, vice-president of Maxon Liftgates Canada. “Liftgates that see light or occasional use can be spec’d accordingly, but you should be aware of the possibility of the workload or duty cycle changing mid-life,” he cautions. “It’s much less expensive to up-spec’ a liftgate when ordering new than to replace one later that’s not up to the task.”

When considering the lift capacity, you obviously need to spec’ for your heaviest loads, but a driver’s weight is also part of the equation. (They are advised not to ride the liftgate, but often do). Then there’s the weight of the material handling equipment.

“Your driver might weigh 100 kg, the pallet could weigh up to 20 kg, and an electric pallet jack could weigh as much as 150 kg,” says Collins. “That’s almost 300 kg before you consider the weight of the freight.”

An aluminum platform will be lighter than steel, but also more expensive.

  1. Listen to driver concerns

Drivers will have some valuable advice to offer in the process, offering insight in how they use the liftgate and different features that would be helpful. For example, cart-stops on the platform can prevent roll-offs, and securement straps may be needed if the platform isn’t always level when unloading.

Collins suggests paying close attention to how the access steps are constructed, to minimize damage in case the gate contacts an object.

“Stiff-wire-rope side steps with aggressive tread patterns will help prevent falls, while the wire-rope step assembly is stiff enough to climb on but flexible enough to prevent serious damage if the driver hits something while reversing,” he says.

  1. Focus on the electrical needs

Liftgates are particularly taxing on batteries, and on long delivery routes there’s never enough time to fully recharge them.

Consider using two isolated six-volt batteries located close to the liftgate rather than a single 12-volt battery. John Houweling, president of Coral International Truck Equipment in Langley, B.C., a distributor and installer of Dhollandia liftgates, says that’s common practice in Europe, and a pair of six-volt batteries will hold their voltage better than a single 12-volt battery.

“You can run the liftgate batteries right down with no risk to the starting batteries,” he says. “It’s a $2,000 option, but very cost-effective over the life of the truck. Just ask anyone who has had a battery let them down mid-way through a route.”

Keep the batteries close to the liftgate, too. Over a 20- to 30-foot cable run from the alternator to the back of the truck, a volt or two will be lost through resistance. That’s not as critical to the charging phase as it is to the running phase. “At 30 feet, you have 11 volts rather than 12 volts going to the electric motor,” Houweling says. “When voltage goes down, amperage goes up. That heats up the motor and wears everything out.”

Equally important is the integrity of the electrical system, says Maxon’s Collins. “Is the gate properly grounded and are the switches epoxy-filled and waterproof?” he asks. “Any electrical shortcomings will be reflected in the performance and life of the liftgate as well as the battery’s ability to retain a charge.”

Depending on where in the country the truck is working, roof-mounted solar panels for top-up charging may be useful. According to Bob Doane, chief technology officer with eNow, solar panels can dramatically extend liftgate battery life, especially with all the anti-idling regulations in place. “An auto parts retailer we serve was replacing the flooded-acid liftgate batteries on its trailers about every eight to 10 months,” he says. “We have had the solar panels on a group of test trailers for 30 months now and they haven’t had to replace a single battery.”

That’s an inspiring endorsement, but weather can impact their effectiveness. Also consider the potential for roof damage from tree strikes or low-overhead clearances. “Do you know how many roofs I repair every year?” Houweling asked rhetorically.

  1. Build in some redundancy

Once the type of liftgate and capacity are identified, consider buying the next-higher lift rating, Houweling says. “The difference in price isn’t that much.”

Most manufacturers offer upgrades to major components, such as galvanized platforms rather than painted steel. This can be money well spent in areas where ice-and-snow-melting chemicals are used, or in coastal areas exposed to sea water.

“It’s amazing the kind of damage that road salt and brine can do,” Collins says. “Galvanized components and elastomeric hydraulic hose fittings can extend the life of your liftgate. Also consider adding grease fittings for all moveable and pivoting components and the sealed and protected connections for all electrical components.”

If you plan to keep the liftgate for a long time, or maybe install it on a second truck, going for heavy-duty components will provide the payback with some extra care.

  1. Don’t neglect the maintenance

Houweling, who is from Holland, says European regulations require annual inspections for liftgates, but that’s not the case here in North America. Operators are left to their own judgement of when attention is required, and it’s usually after a problem crops up. You can stay ahead of the headaches by frequently inspecting all the moving parts and stress points. Regular lubrication also goes a long way in preserving the joints between moving parts, especially hinges and pins that create paths for water.

“Equally important is the integrity the electrical system,” says Collins. “Is the gate properly grounded? Are the switches epoxy-filled and waterproof? The condition of electrical connections is critical. An electrical failure will put the liftgate out of commission.”

Liftgates are fabulous time- and labor-saving tools. Spec’ them right and look after them, and your drivers and customers will thank you. If you try to under-spec’ your liftgate and take shortcuts in the maintenance, you’ll hear about that, too.


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Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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