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Rental operators discuss electrification motivations, pros and cons

By Brock Huffstutler

October 31, 2023

The future is electricEquipment rental is unquestionably trending toward a low- and zero-emission future. While some are being dragged reluctantly into the battery-powered “new normal,” many players in the industry are either pragmatic about the evolution or eager to be in the forefront of its innovations and opportunities.

“We’re in the mindset of knowing the industry is going in that direction, and we know that eventually we are not going to have a choice but to run battery-powered equipment,” says Eddie Wilson, general manager, City Rentals, Ontario, Calif., whose business has adopted smaller electric equipment like hedge trimmers, leaf blowers and chainsaws, but anticipates bringing larger equipment into the fold soon. “We know that the bigger items are on the horizon, so we are trying to strategically plan to see what our first step will be. We are trying to stay proactive on it and be ahead of the curve.”

There are varying motivations for rental companies’ entry into electrification.

In City Rentals’ case, Wilson says it is California’s ever-increasing state environmental regulations that have driven the shift. “We know what the finish line is going to look like,” he says. “Yes, we will do what we can to help sway rules, but once they are set, we are not in the mindset of being rebellious.”

Tates Rents

Photo courtesy of Tates Rents

Regional rental operators like Tates Rents, based in Boise, Idaho, carry battery-powered lawn/DIY equipment but also have delved into more construction-oriented pieces including breakers, concrete saws, pallet jacks, flooring equipment, compaction equipment, booms, light towers and forklifts.

Sam Castillo, senior account manager at Tates Rents, says that in his area, emission mandates have not been a factor in steering his company into battery-powered equipment. Rather, “It is driven by contractors and homeowners. Electric generally has easier functionality and is friendlier to a newer end user,” he says.

Sunbelt Rentals, Fort Mill, S.C., was an early adopter of battery-powered equipment in the interest of meeting its customers’ requests for lower Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Today, the company is actively pursuing new innovations in the field.

“Sunbelt Rentals has always utilized electric-powered equipment. Today, however, we are experiencing a need to electrify new pieces of our rental fleet on a greater scale. As a result, we’re partnering with OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] to develop new technology with advanced features to meet our customers where they are on their sustainability journeys and fulfilling their requests for lower carbon emission vehicles,” says Karen Beadle, senior vice president, sustainability at Sunbelt Rentals.

United Rentals, Stamford, Conn., says it has deployed electric equipment to meet demands on several fronts. “Several of our larger customers are interested in reducing their GHG on job sites and as part of this, they’d like different options, including electrified equipment,” says Grant Zoldowski, director, environmental management, United Rentals, adding that the company also has “seen state and local requirements around reducing emissions on job sites. Additionally, for our non-rental fleet, we are seeing some state and local requirements being enacted, particularly in California.”

Before a rental company dives into fleet electrification, several factors need to be considered that will determine whether the move should be a toe-dipping or a cannonball  splash.

“Where you are located, your customer base and the job site all have an impact on how electrified you’re really going to get,” says Josh Nickell, ECP-SM/MI, American Rental Association (ARA) vice president, equipment segment. “It is so diverse geographically. California is very different from a rural town in North Dakota. For example, your local plumber in North Dakota might only care about an electrified excavator if they are going into a manufacturing plant that makes food. Whereas if you’re working in a downtown urban area on a movie or television production, electrification is important because it’s lower emission and quiet. Additionally, some mega projects coming up by companies like Meta and Google have environmental and sustainability standards required for the jobs, so they’re asking for battery-powered fleets.”

Electrification is not a concern solely for equipment rental operators, either. “In events, electrification is going to take off even faster because they need quiet equipment without the smell of exhaust — whether it be production and TV-type of events, weddings, etc.,” Nickell says.

Most rental operators agree that battery-powered equipment has been in use long enough to have developed a track record of performing well when stacked up against gas-powered equivalents. But there are, inevitably, both pros and cons to consider.

Pros. “You throw in two batteries and you’re ready to go,” Wilson says. “You’re not dealing with fuel or flooding the motor, whether it’s two cycle or four cycle.”

“Ease of use, much easier directions for customers, less time spent repairing units, accessibility with workspaces, cleaner and higher ROI [return on investment],” Castillo says.

From Beadle’s perspective, “Electric equipment has the ability to reduce overall job-site emissions, operating costs and noise as well as provide the capability to operate equipment inside buildings — all while exceeding similar safety and performance levels as internal combustion engine [ICE] vehicles.”

Cons. “The only issue I see is not really performance — it’s longevity: batteries not running as long as a tank of gas, the inconvenience of dead batteries, and having to rotate and charge batteries,” Wilson says.

Castillo agrees with Wilson’s assessment surrounding battery life. “The only [negative] comment I’ve really gotten across the board has been that you are dependent on battery power. Unlike fuel, you can’t just go down to the gas station and get more.”

The experience of United Rentals personnel also supports this. “The performance has been on par with traditionally fueled equipment. However, the logistics around charging has to be considered when using electrified equipment,” Zoldowski says. “Our locations have charging infrastructure in place, and we work with our customers to help provide charging solutions when they use electric equipment at their job sites.”

On the future of battery reliability, Al Halvorsen, vice president, environmental sustainability at Sunbelt Rentals, says, “As electric and battery technologies develop into the future, battery life and operating hours will be extended and charging infrastructure will be enhanced to help make electric-powered equipment even stronger.”

Nickell suggests that much of the heavy lifting surrounding battery performance is being undertaken by the power generation and auto industries, leaving rental-related companies as the beneficiaries.

“Charging is an issue, but it’s not going to be an issue that we have to solve,” Nickell says. “Electrified fleets of vehicles are going to require power grids and power companies to adapt before it actually hits equipment fleets for the most part. And then we look to the car industry. The same technology that can run a car or truck is going to be the same technology you put into a skid steer or mini excavator. The difference is economy of scale and the work of the vehicle industry will bring down our cost as we start to adopt that. They’re solving many of those problems as a mass market for us.”

Underscoring Nickell’s point, Wilson says, “You hear about the Tesla semi-trucks — 30 or 45 minutes and they are 75 or 80 percent charged. So, they are coming up with ways to speed up charging for less downtime on the job.”

Battery charging headaches aside, the transition to electric equipment could make life easier for the customer from a training and use standpoint.

“It’s almost equal,” Wilson says of the difference between training customers on smaller battery-powered equipment versus gas-powered. “Right away, I think of a gas chainsaw versus battery powered. You still have the bar cutting oil that you have to maintain but now, instead of the fuel conversation, you are having the battery conversation.”

Castillo’s opinion on educating customers to use battery-powered equipment is simply that “the electric-powered units are much easier to train customers on. These units are typically much lighter as well.”

Battery-powered equipment also makes for a much lighter workload on the maintenance side.

“They are much easier to service and maintain,” Castillo says. “Rather than having to troubleshoot an engine, it’s pretty cut and dry. We have replaced shrouds and other pieces of the machinery due to customer damage but have only had to replace four [electric] units in the last two years. When you compare P&Ls [profit and loss], they are much more efficient. The initial cost or investment for battery powered is going to be batteries, but we are yet to have to replace that battery. Personally, I’ve been running the mower, string, trimmer and blower, and I’m going on five years with the same setup.”

“An electric chainsaw just works, or it doesn’t. And if you think about it, the hardest role to fill in equipment rental companies is mechanics. When you buy electrified pieces of equipment, you save mechanic time from reduced maintenance requirements,” Nickell says.

Beyond the tangible, measurable compulsions for adopting battery-powered equipment such as compliance with environmental regulations or meeting customers’ demands, the strategy also dovetails with a growing number of companies’ overall sustainability agendas.

“GHG emissions from diesel and gasoline engines are the largest component of our GHG emissions in our fleet,” Beadle says. “Electrification of these on-road delivery vehicles and off-road rental fleet will drive reductions in these emission levels for both Sunbelt Rentals and our customer base.”

Whether it is motivated by regulatory mandates, the company’s bottom-line or ecological responsibility — or a hybrid of all three — battery-powered equipment is set to have an increasing presence in the fleets of most rental companies going forward.

For Wilson’s California rental operation, he says, “As we get closer to the state’s required emission limitations, we are really going to start exploring updating our fleet. We want to be ahead of that curve. We want to be that company that is on the front lines of this topic and be a leader in the industry.”

For Tates Rents, which operates in Idaho’s Treasure Valley, Castillo says, “I can see this fleet growing greatly in our valley and industry in general. The future may not be 100 percent electric, but I do see it becoming a substantial market. The longevity of the electric/battery-powered world is becoming more efficient and much more worth the higher upfront cost.”

“Our fleet continues to diversify with a mix of battery electric, solar and renewable fuels working together to lower GHG emissions,” Halvorsen says of the more than 1,250 Sunbelt Rentals locations across the U.S. “We are dedicated to improving our environmental footprint and ensuring our customers can thrive by evolving our high-performing equipment and elevating the power of rental.”

Nickell offers that companies like these that embrace the wave of battery-powered equipment understand how the technology is a modern representation of what has always defined rental.

“The rental industry is inherently sustainable,” he says. “Even when comparing combustion-powered equipment, rental versus ownership cuts carbon emissions over the lifespan of a piece of equipment by 30 to 60 percent. We should lean into [electrification] as a benefit of the industry because there are certain types of people — young people, people in certain areas — that do care about this stuff. Why not wave that flag if it’s something that already benefits us and doesn’t hurt us?”