Forklift Classifications 101: What You Need to Know

When it comes to selecting the right forklift for the job — and for your particular warehouse and storage environment — it’s helpful to be familiar with the various forklift classifications.

We’ll review the specific characteristics — especially the benefits and advantages — of the seven different classes of forklifts (conveniently labeled Classes I-VII). Experienced forklift users and owners may find this overview to be a useful refresher. It may even spark some ideas for how a different piece of machinery might help you accomplish key tasks more efficiently.

Of course, such decisions are guided by several factors, first and foremost your warehouse environment and the specific jobs you’ll be using the equipment for.

To make the smartest decision about what class of forklift is best for you, it is also incredibly helpful to work with a materials handling equipment provider that takes a consultative approach — meaning they work closely with you to fully understand your workplace and your workflow in order to offer the best possible recommendations and advice.

Forklift Classifications (Classes I-VII)

forklift classifications

Class I: Electric Motor Rider Trucks

These electric-powered lift trucks are generally designed for sit-down operation, but standing models are also available. One of the key features is that they are counterbalanced — meaning that the battery also functions as a counterweight for stability.

Of course, because they are powered by an electric battery, they are much quieter and produce no emissions, making them ideal for indoor work. A 3-wheel design is most common, but Hyster-Yale has a new, highly maneuverable 4-wheel model.

Class I lift trucks are extremely versatile. One of their most useful features is their ability to roll right into the back of a tractor-trailer to grab pallets and move them to their next destination or into storage. Mariotti, maker of some of the smallest forklifts on the market, has options that are ideal for tight spaces and unusual applications (need to get through a small doorway or into an elevator?) or weight-sensitive work spaces like an old factory. Though electric lifts sometimes carry a higher acquisition cost, you’ll save money on fuel and maintenance. Their weight capacity most commonly ranges from 3,000-8,000 lbs. (or 1,500-2,300 lbs. for Mariotti), although higher capacities are also available.

forklift classifications

Class II: Electric Motor Narrow Aisle Trucks

Their size and maneuverability enables them to operate effectively in very narrow aisles, meaning they are a terrific solution when you are looking to get more racking space without expanding your existing warehouse footprint. More often than not these are standup units, but sit-down models are also available.

This class includes reach trucks, in which the operator guides the fork to reach up and grab pallets, and order pickers, in which the operator platform can be raised and lowered to grab individual items when putting together an order. Generally, they are more targeted toward picking and putting away inventory.

Options include side-loaders and turret trucks. Combilift manufactures a variety of extremely versatile side loaders. Weight capacity for Class II machines generally ranges from 3,000-5,000 lbs.

forklift classifications

Class III: Electric Motor Hand Trucks or Hand/Rider Trucks

These electric hand trucks and pallet jacks only lift loads a few inches off the ground. Featuring tight maneuverability, they come in both rider and walk behind (“walkie”) models and are ideal for quickly unloading deliveries from tractor-trailers and moving loads to a staging area where they can then be handled by other machines.

These are hand-controlled lift trucks where the operator controls the machine using a steering tiller that has controls mounted on top. They are best for short runs and small warehouses. Weight capacities range up to about 8,000 lbs. Walk behind stackers, both counterbalanced units and those with straddle legs, fall into this category. Both of these stackers have the ability to lift to heights commonly found on forklifts.

forklift classifications

Class IV: Internal Combustion Engine Trucks (Solid/Cushion Tires)

Sit-down forklifts designed for indoor use with solid, cushioned tires, they are powered internal-combustion (IC) engines that run on diesel fuel or, more commonly, LP gas. They are considered ideal for moving pallets from the loading dock to storage and vice versa. Cushion-tired lifts tend to ride lower to the ground than pneumatic-tired forklifts, making them well-suited to low-clearance situations.

Electric lifts are, of course, more common for indoor applications, but reasons for selecting an IC-powered forklift over an electric model for indoor use may include:

  • Lower acquisition cost
  • Less down time spent refueling/recharging
  • Impact on warehouse space (no battery-charging stations needed)

Weight capacity for Class IV forklift ranges from 3,000 to 15,500 lbs., but more powerful specialty models with capacities of up to 80,000 lbs. are also available.

forklift classifications

Class V: Internal Combustion Engine Trucks (Pneumatic Tires)

Built primarily for outdoor use but also used indoors in large warehouses, they are very similar to Class IV in terms of chassis design and capabilities. They feature pneumatic tires, but can also be outfitted with “solid pneumatic” tires for work environments (lumberyards, etc.) where the risk of puncture may be greater.

They are available in single wheel or dual front wheel configurations and may be powered by LP gas or CNG, diesel or gasoline. Weight capacity may range from 3,000 to 55,000 lbs., meaning there are Class V forklifts well-suited to handling everything from single pallets to loaded 40-foot containers.

forklift classifications

Class VI: Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Tractors

Often called a “tugger,” these versatile machines are most commonly used for pulling loads from Point A to Point B rather than lifting. Available in both electric and IC-powered models, they are great for a variety of applications.

One high-profile example can be seen at any airport — when you look out the window and see a rugged, low-slung tractor towing a train of luggage carts from the terminal to the plane’s storage compartment.

forklift classifications

Class VII: Rough Terrain Forklift Trucks

Featuring big, tractor-style tires that provide plenty of traction to handle even the most challenging outdoor terrain, these rugged trucks are almost exclusively powered by diesel engines and used outdoors. Available in two-wheel or four-wheel drive, they may be equipped with a traditional straight mast or a telescoping mast to provide far greater reach.

They’re often used at lumberyards or at construction sites where crews need to lift building materials to high-elevation work sites. Operating them requires additional training because the load may be telescoping out rather than simply being lifted straight up and down. Weight capacity runs 6,000-12,000 lbs. or above.

forklift classifications

Aerial lifts

Often considered to be in a class of their own are aerial lifts, which give a single operator the ability to boom himself up to a hard-to-reach area in a “man basket.” This category includes a wide variety of personnel lifts, including boom lifts and scissor lifts.

forklift classifications

Whether you’re searching for your first lift truck, replacing a piece of equipment or expanding your fleet, we hope this breakdown of the various forklift classifications is helpful as you focus on finding the ideal materials handling equipment for your company.

At NITCO, we not only maintain a huge new and used inventory of all the forklift types listed above, we also offer a full range of related products, comprehensive fleet management services and world-class warehouse solutions.

We’ve been doing this since 1969 and our mission goes way beyond simply selling forklift equipment and services. Over the years we’ve learned how important it is to work closely with each customer to understand your business and your work environment so we can offer friendly, straightforward advice that is customized to your specific needs. Next step: Contact us here at NITCO to talk about how we can help!


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