Lift truck power, naturally

Nov. 11, 2011
In this installment of What Works, hydrogen fuel cells provide an alternative energy source for a material-handling fleet.

A wholesale distributor of natural, organic, specialty foods, headquartered in Providence, Rhode Island, United Natural Foods (UNFI, www.unfi.com) includes 28 distribution centers in the United States and Canada.

Through its long-standing commitment to the environment and corporate sustainability initiatives, UNFI utilizes solar panels for the roofs of its distribution centers and energy-efficient lighting. During the past three years, the company has examined ways to reduce its energy consumption. At its newest distribution center in Sarasota, Florida, UNFI wanted to investigate an alternative power source for its lift trucks. UNFI was interested in hydrogen-fuel-cell technology as an energy-efficient alternative to the lead-acid batteries that traditionally power lift trucks.

“UNFI is North America’s largest distributor of natural and organic food,” says Tom Dziki, chief human resources and sustainability officer at UNFI. “We needed a location down in Florida. We were servicing customers from our Atlanta facility, and we wanted to get closer, reduce our miles and improve our carbon footprint. When it comes to sustainability, it’s a core value of who we are and what we’re about. It’s always been about organic food, sustainable agriculture, farmland preservation, and open space. We’ve always been a sustainable company. We looked at a variety of different types of batteries, but we felt that hydrogen was where the direction was going.”

Embracing new technology

Raymond engineered a hydrogen-fuel-cell-compatible order picker, which features a specially built 21-in. battery box for the fuel cell.

In 2007, UNFI asked Abel Womack (www.abelwomack.com), a material handling consultant and distributor, for more information about hydrogen-fuel-cell technology. UNFI was aware that Raymond (www.raymondcorp.com) had been researching the technology at its headquarters in Greene, New York. At the time, UNFI decided to wait for further testing to ensure the viability of the fuel-cell technology. UNFI also met with hydrogen-fuel-cell manufacturers and asked Raymond and Abel Womack to consult in the decision-making process about which manufacturer to use and how the technology could be implemented. “When the fuel-cell topic came up, they came to us,” says Mike Petinge, vice president of sales, Abel Womack. “We met with a couple of fuel-cell providers and reviewed the ROI with them and made sure that is was going to meet their sustainability ROI goal within UNFI.” Plug Power was selected.

“Raymond tests a variety of fuel cells in its equipment to make sure they provide the necessary performance and power requirements,” says Dziki. “When we spoke to the people who were doing the testing at Raymond, I felt very comfortable with the solutions we selected because we knew Plug Power and Raymond had worked together to be sure the lift trucks and the fuel cells would perform the way we needed them to.”

Putting theory into practice

The Sarasota distribution center, opened in 2007, had enough equipment to justify the hydrogen infrastructure, and it had a solid local service center in Raymond Handling Consultants. Making UNFI’s decision even easier was the receptiveness of Florida to helping fund sustainable initiatives for businesses in the state.

“Florida is at the cutting edge of funding renewable energy initiatives,” says Dziki. “It really helped us to make the return on investment compelling so we could go ahead with the project. One of the benefits of this technology is that, because we bought the equipment from Raymond with the fuel cells in them, that made the entire piece of equipment eligible for incentive.”

Making it work

The Raymond lift trucks in UNFI’s Sarasota facility consisted of Model 7400 Reach-Fork trucks, Model 5500 order pickers, Model 4200 stand-up counterbalanced lift trucks, and Model 8400 end-rider pallet trucks. Considerations included the differences between lead-acid batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. Differences included the size of the battery compartment; how the technology would withstand the temperatures in the Sarasota facility’s freezer, cooler, and dry storage areas; and whether the fuel-cell-powered lift trucks would perform at the same level as their battery-powered counterparts.

“When it got closer, we reviewed their fleet,” explains Petinge. “The trucks they had were a great mix, with the exception of the order picker.”

Raymond’s thought leadership on hydrogen fuel cells and its innovation impressed Dziki. “The order picker that Raymond developed is them being on the cutting edge of where the technology’s going and how this works,” he adds.

Lift-truck battery compartments are designed specifically to accommodate battery size and weight. Fuel cells are larger than lead-acid batteries, so Raymond engineers needed to ensure the cells would fit in the battery compartments and maintain the required counterweight for each truck.

The order pickers needed significant changes to get a larger battery compartment to accommodate the fuel cell. As a result, Raymond engineered a hydrogen-fuel-cell-compatible order picker, which features a specially built 21-in. battery box for the fuel cell.

Another consideration was how the fuel cells would withstand multiple shifts at cold temperatures. Raymond conducted extensive testing at its Greene facility to ensure acceptable performance.


Feedback from UNFI operators has been positive, says Mike Garstka, operations manager at UNFI. “We’re seeing roughly 10 to 12 hours of continuous use with the pallet jacks, which is absolutely outstanding,” he says. “That is a severe improvement over a 5-to-7-hr window previously with the batteries. If you look at the fuel-cell readout that’s on the device, you’ll see that it’s always at max potential. The device will operate even if it only has 10% fill in it. It still cranks.”

Productivity also has increased because of the short time it takes to refuel the lift trucks, compared with changing a battery. In a high-use lift truck, lead-acid batteries typically last only one shift, and the batteries normally take one shift to charge and another to cool down. It also can take as long as 20 minutes to remove and replace a battery.

In contrast, hydrogen fuel cells refuel in a couple of minutes, and a facility can install multiple fuel stations fed from a central tank. “Our pallet truck operators are ecstatic they only need to fuel one time at the beginning of their shifts,” says Garstka. “The biggest, single-most factor that is just amazing is fueling the fuel cell, compared to changing the battery. If you’re in a dire strait to where you have bled that down to a 10% fill, you’ll take about three-and-a-half minutes to fill it device. That’s it.”

The trucks also perform well in cooler temperatures. UNFI has fueling stations on both the cool dock and the dry dock, so the equipment can be kept at its ambient temperature. Hydrogen fuel cells emit water as a byproduct, which UNFI captures at the refueling stations for reuse for other purposes.

Positive results

Since the installation of the hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered trucks and refueling infrastructure, UNFI has been pleased with the results it has seen. “We know what our labor and productivity was before we installed the hydrogen fuel cells,” says Dziki. “We anticipate increased productivity because the trucks will be running with a full charge the entire shift, and the refueling time has been reduced.” And the elimination of 69 lead-acid batteries and the associated disposal issues that go along with those has had a significant impact on reducing UNFI’s carbon footprint, he adds.

“We had a battery room that was dedicated with an entire wall of 480, three-phase wiring with chargers double-stacked,” says Garstka. “Batteries were constantly in there. We were able to take that entire room apart, allowing us to now give a dedicated room to our Raymond techs in-house to perform regular maintenance on the equipment.”