Considering all of the very different environments that forklifts might be used, it’s no wonder that today’s forklifts are offered with seemingly countless options and configurations. One especially important forklift option concerns the forklift’s tires, presenting the question: what tire type is best for my application? Read on below to learn about Pneumatic and Cushion tire types, their advantages and disadvantages, and their most common applications.
Forklift Tires and their Operating Conditions
By and large, selecting a lift truck’s features starts with understanding the types of work and working environments that the lift will need to handle. Before we jump into comparing forklift tire types, we’d like to outline the key variables involved in choosing the right tire for the job. Understanding differences in forklift operating conditions will help readers evaluate tire designs in the next section.
- Terrain – the safety and stability of a forklift can only ever be as good as the ground beneath it. Different terrain and ground types call for different forklift tire designs, in order to assure that the lift can gain traction and resist damage from the ground being traversed.
- Ride Quality – professional operators spend long hours driving their lift trucks, and ride quality makes a major difference in their comfort and ability to perform work appropriately. Different tires will provide different qualities of ride, and should be selected for the desired combination of performance and comfort.
- Maneuverability – a forklift’s ability to turn and maneuver heavily relies on tire selection, and is a function of load type as well. Large, high-weight loads are more stable at lower speeds and large turn radii, whereas smaller loads can tolerate higher speeds and tighter turn patterns. Tire design, style, diameter, and width all play a role in maneuverability.
- Environment – in terms of safe forklift handling, wet, muddy outdoor environments are a world apart from clean, dry indoor environments. Different tire selections offer different performance and reliability points across the wide range of environments that a forklift might be operated in.
- Load Capacity – forklift tires serve as the compressible surfaces that transfer the weight of the materials being transported to the ground. Overloading tires beyond their weight capacity almost always leads to unsafe handling, forklift instability, and very often, accidents. It is critical to assure that your tire selection supports the loads intended to be handled, with some safety factor to account for normal aging of the tire as well.
- Forklift Classification / Design – forklifts as complete vehicles are often rated and designed for particular applications, environments, and duty cycles (i.e., how often they’re used under load in a day). Tire selection is one piece of this overall rating, and tires are often selected simply to comply with the lift rating. Forklifts chassis are specifically designed for one type of tire and wheel set, so converting a lift from one tire type to another is often not possible.
Forklift Tire Types
Now that we understand the various criteria that go into selecting forklift tires, let’s compare the most common forklift tire options available.
When you imagine “normal” automobile tires, the image that comes to mind is that of a pneumatic tire. Pneumatic tires are made of rubber or advanced synthetic materials, with tall sidewalls and embedded traction treads around their horizontal surface. Forklift pneumatic tires are often reinforced with internal steel bands, and are installed over a metal rim or wheel just as they are for automobiles.
Pneumatic tires are traditionally filled with air, compressed and pressurized to keep the tire inflated. Recent technological advances have found ways to improve upon this design for appropriate applications, replacing the compressed air inside of the tire with a solid rubber fill. This introduced a confusing alteration of the nomenclature used for such tires, which we’ll explain as follows:
- Air Pneumatic Tires – the version of Pneumatic Tires filled with compressed air are today referred to as Air Pneumatic Tires. Yes, the ‘air’ and ‘pneumatic’ are redundant terms, but the distinction is necessary to differentiate the newer alternative below.
Air Pneumatics are selected for their ride comfort, dexterity on rough/uneven terrain, adaptable traction (which can be improved when the tire is slightly deflated), and high performance in aggressive outdoor environments (including poor weather).
Potential downsides of selecting Air Pneumatic Tires can be found in their sensitivity to puncture, higher rate of wear (given the thinness of the tire wall), and potential to deflate as their seal to the metal rim wears.
- Solid Pneumatic Tires – this alternate design describes a solid, entirely rubber design known as Solid Pneumatic Tires. The term ‘pneumatic’ is kept in the name so as to describe the overall profile of the tire, which is unchanged compared to the Air Pneumatic Tire.
Solid Pneumatic Tires appear the same as Air Pneumatics from the outside – same tall sidewalls, aggressive traction treads, and solid mounting to a metal rim. Replacing the internal compressed air with solid rubber eliminates the potential downsides of deflation and puncture, but at the cost of ride comfort, heavier weight, and higher expense.
You may have the opinion from the above section that Pneumatic Tires are ‘heavy duty’, designed for outdoor and aggressive environments, and you’d be right! Does this suggest that there may be a better choice for indoor, clean, dry environments? Yes – we find a less robust but more appropriate design for such conditions in Cushion Tires.
Cushion Tires are effectively bands of solid rubber, thinner in height than Pneumatic Tire sidewalls, and are molded onto steel bands instead of larger rims. These Cushion Tires take a step down in tread depth, ground traction, and shock absorption, being intended for tidy indoor environments generally found in warehouse and manufacturing spaces.
The less-robust design of Cushion Tires tends to make them the more economical choice, rated for lower weight capacities, lower ride quality, and overall smaller forklifts. That said, Cushion Tires are ideally suited for higher maneuverability, lower ground clearances, and higher duty cycles. Cushion Tires can be provided with tread patterns or completely smooth, further reducing costs where applications allow.
Which tire should be selected for your given application? You’ll want to discuss this with your forklift distributor as well as your Environmental Health and Safety representative, as tire selection (and overall forklift selection) must meet the demands of both the expected handling jobs as well as your overall site safety requirements. To start that conversation, here are the most common reasons why businesses will select each of the above tire types:
- Air Pneumatic Tires – selected for heavy duty, outdoor environments that routinely involve uneven, rough, varying terrain (such as gravel, dirt, mud, and mixed media surfaces). Heavy loads and long duty cycles benefit from the shock absorption, high ground clearance, and smooth ride of these tires. Air Pneumatic Tires are the default selection for unimproved construction site, heavy industrial, agricultural, and off-road applications.
- Solid Pneumatic Tires – selected for heavy duty, indoor/outdoor environments where consistent terrain can be expected (such as compacted dirt, smooth gravel, concrete, asphalt, and similar surfaces). Plenty capable of heavy loads, solid tires fit well with lower duty cycles, intermittent use, or where reduced ride quality can otherwise be tolerated. Also, these tires are selected over Air Pneumatics where puncture risks are prevalent. Solid Pneumatic Tires are the default selection for improved construction site, maintained lumber and service yard, manufacturing, and all-season indoor/outdoor applications.
- Cushion Tires – selected for indoor (or light outdoor), lower load size, lower weight, high speed applications where smooth, clean floor surfaces are expected (such as in finished concrete floor warehouses). Cushion tires that stay indoors on dry surfaces may be selected without treads, whereas indoor/outdoor use or use in altered environments (such as frozen storage rooms) may call for treads to be included. These tires are superior in their maneuverability and speed, making them the default selection for material handling warehouse, distribution center, general commercial and light manufacturing, and small-space applications.
We hope that this discussion on Pneumatic and Cushion Forklift Tire Types has been helpful to your commercial material handling needs.
Fairchild Equipment is the Upper Midwest’s premier Material Handling Equipment and Service resource, with headquarters in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and 11 locations in 5 states ready 24/7 to serve your needs. For more information or to discuss which Warehouse Optimization solution might be best for you, please send us a message, or give us a call at (844) 432-4724.