Proper ladder rack selection for commercial vans is important, because it impacts initial cost, cargo capacity, worker safety, and productivity.
But, with pricing that can range from $200 to $2,000 per rack, the process can get complicated and needlessly expensive. What are the factors to consider when selecting a rack?
Work Truck spoke with experts at Adrian Steel, Auto Truck Group, and Wheels, Inc. to get their insights about selecting the right ladder rack for the job.
Knowing the Options
The best starting point is to become familiar with the different types of racks and their strengths and limitations.
In a nutshell, ladder racks are segmented into three main categories — utility, lock-down, and drop-down — although each manufacturer may have its own branded name for each type.
Here’s a breakdown of the three main categories, including their pros and cons, to provide a framework for understanding the style that best fits specific applications.
Pros: Flexibility to haul multiple ladders and material types; lowest price point.
Cons: Difficult to access, depending on van height; potential for overloading.
Suitable Van Types: Compact and standard-roof full-size vans.
The most economical option, a utility rack can be as simple as two to three adjustable crossbars mounted separately on top of the van or a one-piece gridiron platform with a fixed perimeter and adjustable crossbars. The utility rack offers flexibility to carry materials beyond just ladders, such as pipe and lumber, secured onto the rack using bungee cords, straps, or tie downs.
“The utility rack creates a flat surface on the van and offers a lot of flexibility, where you can haul boards of wood or other material, like electrical conduit. Yet, it’s more difficult to load and unload,” said Todd Goldmeyer, marketing manager, Adrian Steel, a van and truck equipment manufacturer headquartered in Adrian, Mich.
And, depending on the weight of the ladders and frequency of having to access the rack, the difficulty to load and unload ladders could increase the risk of injuries for workers, resulting in expensive claims and lost productivity.
The utility rack’s flexibility advantage also presents a potential downside: the possibility of being overloaded. “You’ll see fleets that misuse the three-bar utility rack, exceeding the parameters of ladders, in terms of weight and length of materials,” said Erik Nelson, manager, North American truck and equipment consulting services for Wheels Inc., a full-service fleet management company based in Des Plaines, Ill.
Another concern with utility racks is that the load is secured using bungee cords or straps, without a standard “foolproof” mechanism for locking down the cargo. This can cause headaches for fleet managers who are responsible for multiple vans in the field, having to hope that drivers will follow through on proper procedures.
Pros: Easy-to-use, dependable locking mechanism.
Cons: Cargo limitations; difficulty to access on high-roof vans.
Suitable Van Types: Compact and standard-roof full-size vans.
Available in single and double-sided configurations, with the capacity to carry one ladder per side, this style features an easy-to-use torsion system that “locks” the ladder into place. Although lock-down racks are designed exclusively for hauling ladders, some manufacturers offer accessories, such as conduit carriers, that are compatible with this style.
In terms of pricing, lock-down racks represent a mid-level option, ranging from $300 to $800, depending on single or double side installation and other factors.
“The lock-down rack is specific to ladders and they’re easy to load and unload. You don’t need to use bungee cords or straps like you would with a utility rack,” Goldmeyer said. “And, the locking mechanism helps eliminate opportunities for worker error. This way, you’re not having to worry about whether the ladders are being tied down properly.”
Pros: Less strain on workers; increased safety; easy-to-use locking mechanism.
Cons: Cargo limitations; high price-point.
Suitable Van Types: High-roof and standard-roof full-size vans.
Similar to lock-down racks, the drop-downs are available in single- and double-sided configurations with a built-in locking mechanism to secure the load. The rack lowers to a level where the ladder can be easily loaded and unloaded, and then raises to its secure travel position with a mechanical, pneumatic, or electric assist, taking the strain completely off the worker’s back.
“The drop-down rack is better ergonomics — it’s more efficient,” Goldmeyer said.
And, good ergonomics can be smart economics for some fleets — but it comes with a steep price tag, ranging from $1,000 to $2,000.
“For larger fleets that have liability concerns with ergonomic-related injuries, and not wanting to deal with workers’ compensation claims, the drop-down rack helps reduce risk of injury of loading and unloading ladders. But, these racks can also be exponentially expensive up front,” said Sean Otterberg, special projects manager, Auto Truck Group, which specializes in the design, manufacture, and installation of truck equipment for a wide range of fleet applications, with 10 locations in North America.
That’s why fleets need to analyze their claims’ spend rate versus the higher cost of the drop-down rack to see what makes the most financial sense, said Nelson with Wheels. “There are some customers who will go with the more expensive rack because they have had claims with drivers with back injuries,” he continued.
What applications benefit the most from drop-down racks? “The key question to ask is: How often are they going to load and unload cargo off the top of that van?” advised Goldmeyer with Adrian Steel. “In some telecom applications, extension ladders may weigh 70 pounds to 80 pounds, and technicians have to lift them off the van several times per day, which can cause a lot of fatigue and strain. In other applications, which may use a ladder once or twice per day, the utility rack or lock-down rack could be a good fit.”
Other rack options to consider that can enhance worker productivity and safety include:
- Interior rack: Ceiling-mounted inside the van’s cargo area, the interior rack is ideal for stepladders that are to be used inside a home or business. The ladder is protected from the elements and prevents snow, dirt, or road grime (which might accumulate on ladders stored on exterior racks) from being tracked into a customer’s home or place of business.
- Conduit carriers: These allow fleets to haul pipe and conduit in a container that protects the materials from the elements and can be easily locked for security.
- Rollers: These are typically available for gridiron-style utility racks, installed on the outer bar at the rear of the rack. The technician leans the top end of the ladder onto the rollers and then is able to push the entire ladder up onto the rack with less strain and effort.
- Light stand: These are mounted on the rack and designed to help improve visibility at night.
- Auxiliary step: This step offers a larger slip-resistant surface that’s mounted on the rear bumper to offer safer “step-up” access to the rack.
Putting It All Together
What style of rack and options best match the job? Here are four questions to help guide the choice of the right rack for the job:
1. What exactly will be stored on the racks? If more than just ladders are being stored, the utility rack may be the best match because of its flexibility to haul different types of materials.
2. How many ladders? If it’s just one or two ladders, then any of the available rack types will work fine. The utility rack allows for carrying more than two ladders.
3. What van height? High-roof full-size vans, such as Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Ford Transit, and Ram ProMaster, are driving greater demand for the drop-down racks because the roof heights put ladders out of reach for most workers without some sort of assistance to make the ladders more easily accessible.
4. How often will the ladders need to be accessed? If the ladders are heavy and need to be accessed several times per day, especially on high-roof vans, the drop-down rack is the most suitable from an ergonomic and productivity perspective. For standard roof heights and compact vans, where the ladders are within a worker’s reach, a lock-down rack would be appropriate for those high-use applications.
The Bottom Line
Frequency of use, cargo type, number of ladders, van height, accessibility, and initial cost — these are all important factors to consider when selecting ladder racks and options that are optimal for the job and the fleet’s budget.