The best option for lifting heavy cargo (150 lbs. or more) from the ground onto the bed of a medium-duty work truck is a liftgate, a platform that raises and lowers (from the rear and/or side of the truck) using an electric hydraulic system.

The challenge, however, is specifying the right liftgate for each application. There are myriad specs to consider, with cost ranging from $2,000-$9,000, depending on the type of gate, platform size and material, power supply, and lifting capacity.

What can go wrong? Consider these real-world examples:

  • The gate doesn't lower all the way, hovering 4 inches above the ground, making it impossible to roll a pallet jack or handcart onto the lift platform - essentially rendering the gate useless.
  • The tuckaway liftgate functions OK when the truck is empty, but sits too low underneath the body when the truck is loaded, impeding the liftgate platform from being able to properly lower and unfold.
  • The liftgate runs out of battery power at a delivery halfway through the truck's route, forcing the crew to regularly stop work and run the engine to recharge the battery, resulting in costly delays and diminishing productivity.

No fleet manager wants to deal with the headaches (and expenses) that come with a liftgate spec gone awry. Ensure the right liftgate is spec'd for the job by avoiding these common mistakes.

The challenge is specifying the right liftgate for each application. There are myriad specs to consider, with cost ranging from $2,000-$9,000, depending on the type of gate, platform size and...

The challenge is specifying the right liftgate for each application. There are myriad specs to consider, with cost ranging from $2,000-$9,000, depending on the type of gate, platform size and material, power supply, and lifting capacity.

Photo: Morgan Corp.

1. Selecting a Liftgate Incompatible with Truck Bed Height

"The biggest area you run into problems with is when somebody specs the truck and tries to hang a tuckaway liftgate underneath a truck that doesn't have enough of a loaded bed height clearance to allow that gate to be put on," said Doug Greve, sales coordinator for Thieman Tailgates Inc., which markets a full line of hydraulic liftgates for light-, medium-, and heavy-duty trucks and trailers. "We get calls all the time when somebody has hung a liftgate on a truck where they can't get it open or it won't touch the ground. That's what creates the most headaches."

Two key terms to learn when it comes to bed height and liftgate installation are laden and unladen.

"Laden" refers to the bed height when the truck is at full load, causing the chassis' rear suspension to depress, representing the lowest point the body should drop. "Unladen" is when the bed is completely empty, denoting the highest point the body should sit.

Each liftgate spec needs to account for both the lowest point (which determines the minimum clearance requirements) and highest point (dictating the maximum distance the platform will need to lower to reach and lay flat on the ground).

Work closely with the body manufacturer to select the liftgate type most compatible for the specific truck. The manufacturer should have laden and unladen height dimensions specific to the truck, based on its chassis and body specifications, available as a reference to guide decision making.

2. Underestimating Weight Capacity Requirements

"A common mistake is when you don't consider the weight of everything that will be on the liftgate at any given moment - the driver, the pallet jack, the pallet," advised Anton Griessner, vice president of marketing and business development at Maxon Lift Corp., a single brand manufacturer of liftgates. "There could be 500 lbs. with an electric pallet jack alone. If you don't spec for it, you'll overload the gate."

Under-spec'ing the weight capacity diminishes the life of the liftgate and puts crew safety at risk. Take into account everything that will be placed on the platform at maximum load. Use the following checklist as a guide.

  • Weight of cargo and container or package (pallet, box, barrel, etc.).
  • Weight of loading device (cart, pallet jack, hand truck). Manual pallet jacks, for example, weigh approximately 120-150 lbs. Electric pallet jacks range from 350-500 lbs. Determine exact weight of equipment.
  • Weight of driver. Griessner recommends factoring in 250 lbs. per driver on the platform.

 "You cannot go by average load weight when you're estimating capacity requirements. You really have to go with your worst-case scenario," Griessner said. "It doesn't help you if you're transporting chips during the week and then construction material over the weekend. You have to spec for the heavier material."

3. Spec'ing Inadequate Platform Depth

If spec'ing liftgates is unfamiliar territory, you may be concentrating on having sufficient weight capacity, but overlooking the total platform dimensions needed to lift that load.

For instance, the lower cost or convenience of a tuckaway gate may be preferable, but if a platform depth greater than, for example, 40 inches is needed, this liftgate won't provide enough space, even though it can safely handle the weight requirements.

"With a tuckaway, you're limited by the platform depth," said Greve. "Everybody wants a very deep platform, but there simply isn't enough room under the chassis."

For larger platform applications, Greve recommends a rail-style gate, which offers a folding platform that accommodates up to 84 inches in depth.

How do you determine platform requirements to ensure the right size has been spec'd? Use this checklist:

  • What are the precise dimensions of the cargo, including packaging?
  • How will the cargo be loaded on?
  • Have a handcart or pallet jack been accounted for?
  • Is sufficient space available for a driver to stand on the platform with the load?

4. Mismatching Liftgate Type with Rear Door Spec

You've decided to go with the rail-style gate for the large platform depth. The problem, however, is the swing-open rear door has been spec'ed for the body.

Usually the least expensive rear-door option is a swing-open door, which offers 6-8 inches more height clearance inside the body than a roll-up rear door and is a common spec in refrigerated bodies.

However, it's incompatible with a rail-style gate, which mounts on the outside corner posts of the body, the same place where the hinges on a swing-open door are attached.

"There's virtually no place to attach the rails to the rail-style gate because of the hinges, and the door swings through that area and latches onto the side of the body," said Griessner.

What large platform gates are compatible with swing-open doors? Greve recommends looking into cantilever or slider gates. (See sidebar above, "Choosing the Right Liftgate.")

Under-spec'ing the weight capacity diminishes the life of the liftgate and puts crew safety at risk. - Photo: Morgan Corp.

Under-spec'ing the weight capacity diminishes the life of the liftgate and puts crew safety at risk.

Photo: Morgan Corp.

5. Under-Specifying Power Requirements

"In this case, the issue is less about the gate itself and more about the energy supply," Griessner posed. "With the anti-idling laws, the time spent recharging batteries gets shorter and shorter. If only two stops per day are made and the liftgate is operated for five cycles or so, nobody cares. Just use your truck batteries. However, if the customer tells me, 'We do at least 10-15 stops per day, and we go from one 7-Eleven to the next one, and we have maybe 5 minutes in between stops,' then the truck batteries won't be able to recharge and run the 15 times with so many loads with so little charging time in between."

Greve agrees. "Depending on the number of [liftgate] cycles a customer tends to do per stop and the amount of driving they do in between stops - that can become a real big issue. If the gate runs out of power, it will stop, forcing the driver to turn on the engine and recharge the system before they can continue on."

The solution: "The first thing we would specify is an auxiliary truck packet - a separate box underneath the truck with a dedicated battery box which only supplies energy to the liftgate," Griessner advised. 

Another issue with power supply, according to Griessner, is whether the truck is operated in extreme cold climates. "If you're based in the Northeast with four months of severe weather climate and you have several stops with heavy liftgate usage, spec a third-party charging mechanism that returns power to the liftgate system."

6. Forgetting to Account for Ground Surface

"The upside of a level-ride liftgate is the platform never tilts, which helps ensure stability for top-heavy loads, like tall bread carts," said Griessner. "The downside is when you have deliveries in, for instance, San Francisco, with extreme uphill and downhill surfaces, because the level-ride does not automatically level with the ground. You need a gate that allows you to adjust the level of the platform to accommodate different inclines and other ground specifications."

Griessner recommended a cantilever gate for extremely hilly delivery surfaces. "[A cantilever] is a gate where you can adjust it any way you need. The truck can tilt at 10 degrees, for instance, and the liftgate will still be level with the ground."

7. Overlooking Trailer Requirements

"If you specify a slider gate but need a hitch to pull a trailer," Griessner said, "you're out of luck because the platform is in the way. If you specify the wrong tuckaway, which does not have a hitch option (because there are only dedicated models that can accommodate a hitch), you have to be careful about those things. It's expensive to fix after the fact."

If you plan to pull a trailer, don't make the hitch an afterthought - include it in the liftgate requirements from the get-go.

8. Neglecting to Consider Retention Systems Upfront

"When you're settled on a model, then you need to consider whether you need a retention ramp or cart stop. Or do you specifically not need them?" Griessner advised. "Ask yourself: 'What do we transport? How do we deliver? Do we need a single or dual cart stop? If so, where do we need those cart stops located on the platform? Should they be at the outer edge or inner edge?' "

Is it difficult to add the cart stop or other retention systems after the fact? "Yes, it's a very costly and painful mistake at the point," said Griessner.

9. Selecting a Liftgate that Interferes Configurations

"Chassis with rear fuel tanks may cause clearance issues, especially with tuckaway and cantilever gates," Greve warned.

The danger here is the chassis is ordered, without considering the fuel tanks, and is delivered to the upfitter. Then the upfitter calls and says the rear fuel tanks are in the way.

"Installers can often modify the chassis to get the liftgate to fit, but it's not cheap," Greve said.

Eliminate surprises - and the added cost - by addressing this issue up-front.

A fleet manager's nightmare is to take delivery of a truck with a liftgate that's incompatible with the chassis or simply fails to do the job. Cover all bases up-front to avoid these mistakes by spec'ing a liftgate that performs just right, improving crew productivity and providing peace of mind.

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