Types of Forklifts: Selecting the Right Equipment for the Job

With so many different types of forklifts, your workplace efficiency and productivity depends on selecting the right equipment for your needs.

Warehouse operators today face the challenge of choosing between a wide variety of forklift types, each with distinct applications, features and benefits:

  • Electric forklifts
  • Internal combustion forklifts
  • Order pickers
  • Reach trucks
  • Aerial lifts
  • Personnel lifts
  • Scissor lifts
  • Pallet jacks
  • Rider pallet trucks
  • Cushion tire forklifts
  • Pneumatic tire forklifts
  • Narrow aisle forklifts
  • High-capacity forklifts
  • Rough terrain forklifts
  • Container handlers
  • Sideloaders

Nowadays there are even automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and state-of-the-art robotic forklifts.

Here we’ll review the specific characteristics — including the key features and benefits — of seven different types of forklifts, specifically the forklift classifications labeled Classes I-VII by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Experienced lift truck owners and operators may find this guide to the various forklift types 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.

Download: 10 Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Forklift eBook >

Types of Forklifts (Forklift Classifications I-VII)

Class Description Ideal Uses Benefits
Class I Electric Motor Rider Trucks Loading/unloading tractor-trailer; handling pallets Electric means no emissions, minimal noise
Class II Electric Motor Narrow Aisle Trucks Operating in tight spacesl handling palletsl picking/storing inventory Can be used to gain more storage space in same warehouse footprint
Class III Electric Motor Hand Trucks or Hand/Rider Trucks Unloading deliveries from tractor-trailers; short runs in smaller Rider and walk-behind (“walkie”) options
Class IV Internal Combustion Engine Trucks (Solid/Cushion Tires) Moving pallets from the loadin dock to storage, vice versa Cushion tires great for low-clearance situations
Class V Internal Combusion Engine Trucks (Pneumatic Tires) Versatile; trucks in this calss can handle single pallets to loaded 40-foot containers Mostly for outdoor use, but also indoors in large warehouses
Class VI Electric and Internal Combusion Engine Tractors Commonly used for hauling of pulling loads rather than lifting; versatile Example: airport “tugger” towing luggage carts
Class VII Rough Terrain Forklift Trucks Great for lumberyards/construction sites where crews need to lift building materials to high elevations Some are equipped with telescoping mast to provider far greater reach

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 of this type of forklift 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 three-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)

These are Sit-down forklifts designed for indoor use with solid, cushioned tires — powered by 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 this type of forklift 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 back 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 the ideal type of forklift or 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!

9 Things To Consider Before Buying a Used Forklift
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9 Things To Consider Before Buying a Used Forklift

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