Energizing rental fleets - Manufacturers aim to develop alternatives in powering equipment
by Steve Elliott
Battery-powered equipment is changing the way the world works and the way people think. The shift has been years in the making, and with it, words and terms such as “sustainability,” “environmental impacts” and “ease of use” are often used.
Harmful emissions from gas tools presents a challenge in a world trying to minimize a carbon footprint. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have been on the cutting edge in research and development, trying to find alternatives that produce zero emissions, and yet, can compete with gas and diesel models.
On a monthly basis, OEMs are partnering or buying other companies with battery-powered expertise, creating a firmer foundation for future progress. Meanwhile, companies are launching lines of electric models. A few recent examples include:
- In January, Doosan Bobcat, Fargo, N.D., unveiled the all-electric Bobcat T7X compact track loader, requiring no diesel fuel and producing zero emissions. Sunbelt Rentals, Fort Mill, S.C., in partnership with Doosan Bobcat, is investing in a large fleet of the T7X all-electric compact track loaders and electric compact excavators in North America, which will be co-branded and made available this year.
- Also in January, Toyota Material Handling (TMH), Columbus, Ind., said it is releasing 22 new electric models, the largest product launch in the company’s history.
- In February, John Deere, Moline, Ill., completed the acquisition to become the majority owner of Kreisel Electric, a battery technology provider based in Austria. The company develops high-durability electric battery modules and packs. The company has developed a charging infrastructure platform (CHIMERO) that utilizes patented battery technology. Deere says it is seeing growing demand for batteries as a sole- or hybrid-propulsion system for off-highway vehicles.
As OEMs bring out battery-powered machines, the world of gas-powered outdoor tools continues to see rapid change on the horizon, not only from a technology aspect, but also a political one as well.
According to The Freedonia Group, Cleveland, a division of marketresearch.com, there are 650 million gas-powered outdoor tools currently in use. Air and noise pollution are common challenges among landscapers. According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), using a gas-powered leaf blower for one hour emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a 2017 Toyota Camry about 1,100 miles.
On Oct. 9, 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill banning the sale of new gas-powered equipment using small off-road engines including generators, lawn equipment and pressure washers. The new rule goes into effect Jan. 1, 2024, or as soon as regulators determine it is feasible, whichever date is later.
“With the new law banning gas sales starting in 2024, it’s important for landscapers to be ahead of the curve,” says Tony Marchese, vice president, sales and operations, Greenworks, Mooresville, N.C. “Our industry is rapidly changing.”
Marchese says there are more than 500 towns and municipalities in the U.S. with some form of noise ordinance or outright banning of the use of two- and four-stroke engines, creating a bigger market for battery-powered equipment.
Battery-powered tools. Makita U.S.A., La Mirada, Calif., has been a leader in battery-powered equipment. Russ Pierce, rental national account manager for the company, says battery power simplifies the operation and task.
“You take away the cords and fuel, not only do you have a safer worksite, but you also have a more productive worksite,” Pierce says. “Also included are the benefits of less maintenance and downtime compared to gas equipment. We are able to engineer functionality into a cordless tool that cannot be put into gas or even some electric tools. This includes functions such as electronic braking, higher speeds or more variable speeds along with multiple other capabilities. Bottom line is cordless tools can be engineered to exceed the performance of gas or electric tools with less maintenance and downtime.”
A few examples from Makita include 36V models — 18V X 2 — of a brushless power cutter kit, brushless telescoping pole saw kit and brushless chain saw kit. He says Makita is heavily involved in selling its products to those in the equipment rental industry.
“Concerns are simply the ‘unknown,’” Pierce says. “Rental companies have seen many cordless options over the years. Technology far exceeds what most have experienced in cordless tools. Other factors include how a rental company looks at first cost of a cordless tool versus gas. When you purchase a cordless saw or a cordless auger, you will not have filters to change, you will not have fuel expenses over the life of the tool, and there will be no downtime for a piston/cylinder repair. You will, however, prepay your fuel costs — batteries — in your first cost of a cordless tool. Again, less downtime creates more return on investment (ROI) and ultimately that tool costs less in the long run.”
Electric-powered construction equipment. Jay Thaker, marketing manager, Toro, Bloomington, Minn., says the first and most obvious advantage of battery-powered equipment for rental houses and end-users is the elimination of engine exhaust emissions.
“Equipment that operates with zero engine exhaust emissions opens up an entirely new world of applications, such as indoor demolition, commercial flooring and other construction jobs,” Thaker says.
Thaker also says with battery-powered equipment offering a quieter working environment compared to gas or diesel, “jobs that previously relied almost entirely on manual labor, either because of indoor conditions or noise ordinances, can now look to battery-powered equipment to bring game-changing efficiencies to the job site.”
Thaker adds that with environmental factors, regulations increase on gas and diesel engines.
|Photo courtesy of John Deere|
“Job sites can easily meet environmental requirements by turning to battery-powered equipment, which isn’t subject to emissions regulations,” Thaker says. “Having battery-powered equipment as part of a rental store’s offerings also increases the options available to contractors working on unique and multiple job sites, such as in highly populated urban areas with noise ordinances and indoor applications.”
Volvo Construction Equipment, Shippensburg, Pa., has been at the forefront in battery-powered equipment development. In 2019, the company said it intended to have an electric variant available for all models of compact equipment as part of its commitment to a sustainable future. The first compact units available are powered by 48V lithium-ion batteries. The machines are the ECR25 Electric, a 2.5-ton short-swing compact excavator, and the L25 Electric, a 5-ton compact wheel loader. Three more compact electric models will be available this year.
“Volvo designed each of these electric variants with equal or superior specifications to their diesel counterparts, plus they are zero emission, lower vibration and much quieter,” says Ray Gallant, vice president of product management and productivity, Region Americas, Volvo Construction Equipment.
“We believe there is a place for the rental industry with electric machines. Due to their unique properties — low vibration, low noise and zero emission — electric machines can do jobs where traditional diesel machines simply cannot be used. There will be a growing demand for these new applications, and contractors will want to rent to supplement their fleets as this demand grows,” Gallant says.
In addition, he says Volvo Construction Equipment believes there is an opportunity for rental operators to engage in rental of charging systems, and possibly even the supply of electrical energy, which can be a charge by kilowatt hour consumed. However, Gallant says he does not see electric machines fully replacing diesel in the short term.
“There will be room for both in the developing market,” Gallant says. “Rental will absolutely play a role in the electric machine and system transition. We think rental operations that stock and provide electric machines, and the charging infrastructure, will be on the forefront of this transition and be able to meet the growing demand. Early rental adopters will have the advantage of being perceived as innovative and socially responsible companies.”
Grant Van Tine, solutions marketing manager, John Deere, says the company is continuing to work on an electric backhoe concept currently in the test phase with customers. Van Tine says Deere is building and testing additional concept battery electric machines. The long-term goal for the company is to offer customers choices that fit their business needs and include battery electric and diesel electric models across multiple machine forms.
“We also intend to offer fixed charging infrastructure and mobile charging solutions to support customers running battery electric machines,” Van Tine says.
Van Tine says more and more customers are inquiring about battery electric equipment and/or reduced tailpipe emission machines.
“While it’s still a relatively small portion of the construction equipment industry, it is growing,” Van Tine says. “There are varying reasons for the increased demand. Corporate sustainability goals, project specific emissions requirements, indoor or poor ventilation operation conditions, and the desire for low job site noise are some of the common reasons.”
Van Tine sees battery-powered equipment fitting into the equipment rental industry.
“Absolutely,” he says. “For some contractors, the need for battery electric machines — including those mentioned above — is temporary or job-specific, which makes them prime candidates for the rental industry.”
Chris Lucas, excavator product manager, JCB, Pooler, Ga., says the company’s current lineup of battery-powered machines includes the 19C-1E mini excavator, 505-20E telehandler, and the 66-40E Teletruk forklift truck.
“If you operate a rental fleet, the most obvious value-add you’ll find with battery-powered equipment is the lower amount of maintenance required,” Lucas says. “You will also be able to supply contractors with a critical solution for worksites where gas-powered equipment is less than optimal.”
Lucas says while electrification technology has advanced rapidly over the past five years, “we’re still seeing reduced efficiency in larger electric equipment weighing more than five tons. We have turned to hydrogen as an alternate power source for our larger range of high-performing JCB excavators.”
Battery systems. Inventus Power, Woodridge, Ill., is a global leader in advanced battery systems that specializes in the design and manufacture of lithium-ion battery packs, smart chargers and power supplies. The company offers a portfolio of standard-size battery solutions catering to markets transitioning from internal combustion engine (ICE) and legacy battery technologies like lead-acid.
Phu Tran, director, global product management, Inventus Power, says one of the largest expenses equipment rental companies face is battery maintenance and downtime.
“If the rental equipment is running on traditional, lead-acid batteries, eventually, batteries will need to be replaced or maintained and that will be costly, especially when a service tech is on site,” Tran says. “However, with a lithium-ion battery-powered machine, this costly, time-consuming practice is eliminated. In many cases, lithium-ion batteries outlive the lease of the rental equipment it is powering. This creates an advantage for rental fleet companies as they can get a ‘second life’ opportunity for the same equipment.”
Inventus Power has various standard solutions designed to support application needs ranging from 12V to 48V for its low voltage solutions that are scalable to increase voltage and runtime. These are intended for commercial and industrial applications and currently power mobile carts, floor scrubbers, scissor lifts, golf carts and more.
He says battery-powered equipment is here to stay and will continue growing as consumers and the market push for more advanced systems.
“As we continue to expand our capabilities and refine our products, we will be supporting larger and more advanced systems for both on- and off-road applications in the near future with our high voltage (HV) battery solutions,” Tran says.
Equipment rental companies move toward zero-emission technology
Battery-powered equipment for some of the world’s largest equipment rental companies is becoming a long-term commitment. As manufacturers change and adapt to different technologies in powering equipment, so too are major fleet owners.
Partnerships are being made between original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and companies such as United Rentals, Stamford, Conn.; Sunbelt Rentals, Fort Mill, S.C.; and Herc Rentals, Bonita Springs, Fla.
In February, Takeuchi Manufacturing (U.S.), Pendergrass, Ga., said the first 100 units of its TB20e electric compact excavator will soon be available at select United Rentals locations in North America. The 100-percent battery-powered machine features zero exhaust emissions and reduced noise/vibration levels.
“Not only does this machine provide our customers with a more sustainable equipment option, it’s also more cost efficient to operate,” says TJ Mahoney, vice president, supply chain and strategic sourcing, United Rentals.
In January, Doosan Bobcat, West Fargo, N.D., unveiled the all-electric Bobcat T7X compact track loader and a strategic partnership with Sunbelt Rentals. The machines will be co-branded and made available this year.
“By making an investment in this first-of-its-kind, all-electric technology, we support our environmental, social and governance (ESG) objectives of empowering our customers and communities with the availability of alternative rental solutions that reduce emissions and noise,” says Brendan Horgan, CEO, Ashtead Group, the parent company of Sunbelt Rentals.
The trend is moving toward more partnerships and likely more investment in battery-powered equipment by those in the equipment rental industry.
“We buy hundreds of millions of dollars of new fleet each year,” says Paul Dickard, vice president, communications, Herc Rentals. “As our suppliers move increasingly toward zero-emission technology, we will be among the first to invest in it.”
United Rentals, Sunbelt Rentals and Herc Rentals all expressed a desire to continue those investments in battery-powered equipment.
“We are currently expanding our offerings in battery-powered equipment in categories such as industrial forklifts, reach forklifts, mini excavators and all-electric scissors,” Mahoney says. “As product depth and OEM production increases, we are positioning ourselves to be a leading supplier of battery-powered rental options to our customers and to include battery-powered vehicles in our own non-rental fleet.”
“Sunbelt Rentals is committed to reducing the carbon footprint of our fleet and making investments to achieve both our customer’s and our own ESG initiatives,” says Brad Coverdale, vice president of fleet and procurement, Sunbelt Rentals. “We continue to make significant investments in technology and equipment that moves away from traditional petroleum-combustion engines, including battery power.”
As lithium-ion battery technology continues to evolve, all three companies see a larger role for battery-powered equipment in the equipment rental industry.
“We continuously look for opportunities to add fleet with zero emissions, with several leading OEMs developing extended-life battery-powered, hybrid and fully electric solutions,” Dickard says. “As our suppliers continue to innovate in this space, and as customers seek to reduce the environmental impact of their operations, we expect that equipment rental fleets will gradually reflect a higher proportion of battery-powered/electric equipment.”
Mahoney says United Rentals is focused on carbon reduction goals as well as helping its customers to meet their emission reduction targets. Mahoney says as more customers look to manage and reduce their own emissions, “we believe customer demand for battery-powered/electric options products will continue to grow. To be able to support customers and meet demand, we continue to explore clean energy equipment options available now, and in the future, from various OEMs. We look at this as a multi-level, multi-year investment and something that is supported throughout our company.”
Both Sunbelt’s Coverdale and Brent Coffey, director of product line management, say as the technology continues to become more accepted and costs decrease, “we expect the market to increase. Some of this will be driven by the sustainability side while others will be driven by the application requirements where products with emissions are not accepted.”
Dickard says Herc Rentals also is seeing growing interest from customers and investors who want to partner with and invest in businesses that are committed to environmentally sound business practices.
“Our efforts in this area not only help customers achieve their environmental and business goals, but they also provide investors with greater confidence about our commitment to operate as a socially responsible company,” Dickard says.