July 13, 2010
material handling update | Batteries/Chargers

Battery changing room "dos and don'ts"

Battery changing room "dos and don'ts"

A poorly designed or managed lift-truck battery changing room could cost you money and create safety risks. Here are some tips on how to get it right.

By Toby Gooley

KABOOM!!! That's the sound of an explosion, or perhaps of a 3,000-pound lead-acid battery hitting the floor—either way, it's something you definitely don't want to hear in your warehouse or DC. But that's a distinct possibility if your lift-truck battery changing room is improperly designed or managed.

Not only can a poorly run battery room pose a safety threat, but it can also be a drain on productivity and your budget. A badly designed operation can lead to congestion and delays, improperly rotated batteries, and costly fines for failure to comply with safety regulations. We asked some lift-truck and industrial battery experts what advice they give their customers about battery room best practices. Here are some of their "dos and don'ts."

Where, and how big?
Although battery changing and charging rooms are often relegated to a back corner of the warehouse, that's probably not the optimal location. It's better to locate them closer to where vehicles are used so drivers don't waste time traveling from work areas to the battery room, says Drew Stump, service marketing manager for EnerSys, a global manufacturer of batteries that includes the Douglas, Hawker, EnerSys Ironclad, and General brands. In a very large DC, it may make sense to have a second battery room for, say, pallet jacks, if they are used on the opposite side of the building from vehicles like counterbalanced forklifts, he adds.

Make sure the location has adequate electrical service, keeping in mind that power distribution costs increase with the distance from the main power feed, say the experts at Battery Handling Systems Inc. (BHS) on the company's website. Plumbing—including drainage—will be needed for battery washing, filling, and safety equipment, they add. You'll also need a heating and cooling system to control the room's temperature; excessive heat or cold will shorten a battery's life. How big should the room be? That will depend on how many vehicles and batteries you expect to service at one time, the type and size of the lift trucks, and whether the trucks will need to turn around inside the room, as well as the type and amount of battery handling and charging equipment you plan to use, says Jim Gaskell, director of customer support for lift-truck manufacturer Crown Equipment Corp.

When calculating floor space, try thinking in terms of "the slot"—an auto racing term for the space surrounding a vehicle, Gaskell suggests. "Once the truck gets there, what kind of space will it have? If you can't walk between trucks and still plug in the cable, then drivers will start banging trucks around to create their own slots," he says.

Leave enough space for both trucks and people to maneuver. Cramming battery changers and other equipment too close together creates a safety risk for pedestrians, says Tony Amato, vice president, sales and marketing for IBP, a distributor of batteries, battery handling equipment, and battery management systems. He's seen battery rooms where people were forced to walk in the same aisles used by incoming and outgoing vehicles, creating a safety hazard.

Larger fleets often use multilevel charging systems to save space. Some companies also find they can reduce the room's footprint by employing a combination of traditional and opportunity chargers, Amato says. An analysis of battery usage might show that you can accomplish the same work with fewer batteries, offering yet another opportunity to save space.

Remember to measure vertically, not just horizontally. Stump tells of one company that bought a four-level charger system only to find that it interfered with the battery room's ventilation system and was too close to the ceiling. "When planning a battery room, you have to measure twice and cut once. I can't stress that enough. That holds true for new construction as well as for existing facilities," he says.

The space outside the room is important, too. The path or aisle for approaching a battery room must be wide enough for trucks to pass each other when vehicles are lined up to enter, Gaskell says. It should also be clear of obstructions. This is a common problem in retail, where store inventory may block access to chargers. "I've seen operators leave the truck and not plug it in when they can't get in the charging area, so the next operator has a nearly empty battery or a partial charge," he says.

The inside story
Inside the battery room, one of the top concerns is traffic flow. "If several drivers come in at once, the first may be able to change in two minutes, but the tenth person waits 20 minutes," notes Terry Orf, administrative vice president of Materials Transportation Co. (MTC), a provider of battery changing equipment and the EBatt battery management software. He recommends a battery-discharge indicator and an interrupt that prevents the truck from operating when the battery is too low, to help spread visits to the changing room out over the course of the day.

Another approach is a system that schedules changes and electronically notifies operators of their "appointments." "You can schedule them almost like at an airport, queuing them up so the productivity of the warehouse is not adversely impacted," says Joe LaFergola, manager of business and information solutions for lift-truck maker Raymond Corp. Raymond offers that capability in its iWarehouse fleet management solution.

There are many ways to help drivers get in and out of the room in just a few minutes yet still connect to the right charger and choose the correct battery. Some are low tech, such as marking parking spaces on the floor or color-coding the battery connectors based on the type of truck—one color for reach trucks, another for stock pickers, and so forth. Hal Vanasse, vice president, sales and marketing for Philadelphia Scientific, a manufacturer of battery management systems and equipment, suggests organizing batteries and their associated chargers into "pools." For example, all pallet jack chargers and batteries would be grouped together.

Technology is playing a big role in matching the truck, charger, and battery in the most efficient, cost-effective way. Battery management systems on the market monitor charging, track each battery's status, optimize rotation, direct operators to the correct batteries and chargers, and alert managers when something is wrong, among other features. Just one of many possible examples: When drivers enter a room equipped with Philadelphia Scientific's iBOS battery management system, they select the proper "pool" on a touch screen and are directed to the rack location for the next available, fully charged and cooled battery for that type of truck. If the driver does not take the specified battery, a "shouter" alarm sounds over a loudspeaker, telling the driver (and everyone else within earshot) that he's taken the wrong one.

A battery may physically fit in a truck yet be undersized in terms of its charging capability, says LaFergola. Here again, technology can prevent such mistakes. If Raymond's iBattery system detects that the wrong battery has been installed, it will prevent the truck from lifting and will send an e-mail or text message to alert managers.

These and the many other high-tech tools available today have taken the guesswork out of battery management. But they shouldn't necessarily replace a manager who stays on top of battery conditions, enforces proper procedures, and keeps usage and maintenance records. Facilities that rely entirely on the truck operators "tend to have a few more problems," LaFergola says, because drivers are under time pressure and may not take the time to check water or keep maintenance records—omissions that can negate warranties when repairs are needed later on.

Play it safe
There are many opportunities for accidents—including fatal ones—to happen in a battery room, so safety must be top of mind throughout the planning stage. Although this complex subject merits an article of its own, we asked the experts for a few safety tips. What follows are their recommendations:

  • Place safety equipment like goggles, gloves, and aprons where operators can easily grab them before they get to the battery handling area. In addition, make sure the path to the eye-wash station is kept clear of obstructions.
  • Comply with specific ventilation requirements to prevent the buildup of explosive hydrogen gas emitted by batteries during charging. Also, keep the exhaust system separate from the general ventilation system so no air is recirculated, and consider installing an indicator light or alarm to alert operators if the exhaust system stops working.
  • Install code-approved concrete flooring that resists acid damage, use acid- or alkali-resistant and electrostatic paint where appropriate, keep batteries off the floor, and have acid neutralizers handy.
  • Consider safety when choosing battery changing and charging equipment. The more automated types cut down on opportunities for accidents, Orf says, from "man aboard" systems to something like his company's Intellichanger, where the operator only needs to disconnect the battery from the truck and stand behind a barrier while the equipment does the rest.
  • Consult applicable regulations and building codes issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and others. Run your plans by your company's environmental health and safety department as well as local emergency responders, who may have jurisdiction over things like ventilation. "You don't want to build [a battery room] and find out later that the local fire marshal wants the floor coated or a containment system," Stump says.
  • Train operators and require strict adherence to proper procedures. Don't allow anybody on a machine who hasn't been trained to operate it. "A lot of people are OSHA-certified on lift trucks, but training on battery handling equipment is often neglected," Amato says.

An investment worth protecting
A financial commitment from the corporate level will help you get the resources needed for a properly designed, safely operated battery room, says MTC's Orf. It may not be easy to get management's attention, though. Corporate managers are often aware of the costs of purchasing and maintaining forklifts, but many times, they forget about the costs associated with battery changing and charging, he says.

Perhaps they should take notice. The value of battery-related assets alone merits attention: A facility with 100 forklift batteries has spent some $400,000 just for batteries, and it may have invested $100,000 in battery changing equipment and another $50,000 in chargers, Orf notes. "If you have multiple facilities across the country, then you're talking millions of dollars."

This article has been revised and expanded since it was originally published.

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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