With a keener eye toward compliance and more environmentally friendly operations, electric has become an industry buzzword. Beyond new units, there has been another alternative for fleet managers looking to go electric — conversion. Long an option, the idea has yet to take hold throughout the industry, though some say the concept is gaining ground.
In 1997, Electric Power Research Institute funded a project to convert a loader owned by Delta Air Lines. The manufacturer, JBT AeroTech, completed the conversion. The unit was placed into operation in Atlanta where operational results were recorded over a period of four months.
According to the EPRI’s report, “The study showed that the electric-powered demonstration pallet loader performed identically to the diesel IC version. The only difference was the need for routine charging.”
The loader was equipped with two 80-volt batteries. Testing showed the unit could operate continuously for 5.8 hours before reaching a 20-percent state-of-charge. “This is more than sufficient for a normal shift, considering the average run time was 1.7 hours per day. The use of opportunity charging in this and similar operations easily permits multi-shift operation,” according to the report.
For JBT, the project provided evidence that conversions could hold up to operational standards of new units. “Some people might expect that if they put in a different motor or different engine in, they would get different performances, and that’s not true,” says Dale Koger, electrical engineering manager at JBT. “The JBT conversion kit meets all operating parameters of the existing machine. The controls are identical, and the performance of the machine is identical. You just don’t have the noise or the smoke.”
According to Joe Fuqua, general manager of GSE at Delta, the loader is still in operation today in Atlanta. When asked about potential projects in the pipeline, he says the airline is in talks to convert a pushback tractor.
Ongoing Conversion Efforts
Southwest Airlines has an ongoing project and has completed the conversion of about 150 units. For more than 15 years, the crew at its Phoenix facility has converted pushbacks and belt loaders.
The conversions have been completed in-house with three technicians dedicated to converting two belt loaders a month. According to Larry Laney, director of GSE at Southwest, the conversions make economic sense — with the average conversion coming in at about half the cost of a new unit.
Southwest has been able to keep costs down, due in large part that the crew has sourced the kits themselves — an endeavor that required a significant initial investment. “We went and did all the research and development, so that was a challenge — the expense of going through the process to get where we are at,” Laney says.
Rick Waugh, regional manager of GSE at Southwest Airlines, says the crew worked to find parts that were cost effective and easily accessible. “We asked ourselves: What can we do to simplify this process completely? And we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he explains.
“If there is something out there on the market currently that works, that is reasonably priced and it will work in our application, then let’s do that,” he says, adding, “Through the procurement process, we tried to find products that are already out there being made. Outside of a gearbox that we need for our belt loaders that was custom made for us, everything else is just off the shelf and it’s brought our cost down.”
Many companies have offered kits and conversion services for GSE. JBT, which offers conversion of loaders as part of its refurbishment services, has introduced a kit for its model Commander 15 loaders for model years 1996 through 2003 for customers looking to complete the process themselves. “We will quote on the first installation with a JBT field service technician to oversee and train their team on the proper installation of the kit,” Koger says. “It’s not overly difficult, but the cost of the main components makes it beneficial for everyone that we make sure it’s installed properly.”
Feature Switch On Power The words"electri" and"refuele" aren't normally used together, but the GSE industry may be seeing them and other converted vehicles on airport ramps in the future...