It sounds like the result of the common New Year's resolution to slim down in time for spring, but light and low are key words in a fast-growing segment of low-level, lightweight aerial work platforms, offering safe and convenient access in some very specific applications, and a worthy alternative to ladders and scaffolding in many more.

Low-level access equipment is generally considered anything under 19 feet, and the segment has exploded over the past two years as the recession was pummeling utilization and rental rates in the mid- and high-level access segments. Low-level access applications are everywhere and the opportunity for rental businesses to expand their fleet into this emerging niche are growing, with more new product offerings in this category being introduced early this year.

“We believe that low-level access will undergo major growth in North America as more and more people swap podiums and stepladders for lightweight, compact aerial lifts,” says David Smith, president of Snorkel North America. “The market is still in its infancy, but there is huge potential for this type of product.”

According to the manufacturers interviewed by RER, reasons for this growth are many. This new segment of machines provides a safer and more ergonomic alternative to ladders and scaffolding, offering lower step heights, time savings from repeated climbing up and down to and from height, as well as a means to differentiate rental equipment providers from their competitors that may not offer these low-level AWPs. In addition, these lighter weight lifts are well suited for use in areas with weight-sensitive floor panels such as computer server rooms and hospitals.

“Architects are increasingly under pressure to take out concrete and this usually means floors with less load-bearing capabilities,” Smith says. “Virtually all self-propelled scissorlifts are just too heavy to work on many of the new suspended flooring systems used to cover ducts for computer network cables, so it's either back to the old school with stepladders or use a more lightweight product like Pop-Up.”

Absolute E-Z Up's managing partner Mike Buley also points to the evolution of commercial building and remodeling as a factor in the fast growth of the low-level access market. “First of all, because of [the nature of] construction growth, pressure on architects and engineers to design higher buildings, floor space becomes critical and more expensive,” Buley says. “Floors are being made out of special composite; covered with different material; mezzanines; computer floors that allow only certain floor loads; and more.”

“We experienced tremendous year-over-year growth on our entire Genie Runabout family in 2010,” says Jeff Weido, senior product manager, Terex AWP. “Feedback from our customers has been that they wanted to differentiate themselves in the aerial rental marketplace, especially with such competitive rates on 19-foot scissorlifts. We also have heard from our customers that the demand for lighter floor- loading aerial work platforms has been a growing trend in certain commercial construction applications such as hospitals and office buildings.”

Because this is a relatively new segment of access equipment, the potential for rental businesses that add them to their fleet mix is still growing and developing. As evidence, several manufacturers pointed to the number of new low-level AWP introductions to the market just in the past year.

The compact nature of the low-level machines make them small enough to fit several on a jobsite, allowing multiple contractors to work simultaneously side by side, and applications include everything from HVAC installation and maintenance, plumbing, fire sprinkler work, suspended ceiling and AV systems installation, drywall, painters, electricians, and other maintenance work.

“The boom and scissor market is where everyone is competing with each other, offering the same products, running the rates down, creating more supply than demand,” says Buley. “But what rental companies should be looking for are ‘nicheଁ and ‘specialization’ applications to replace the lightweight scaffold tower and the small to medium stepladder, which will mean less competition and new areas to explore for higher revenues.”

Additionally, these units provide a significant productivity and safety advantage over scaffolding and ladders. Unlike scaffolding, which requires advance set-up and assembly and offers zero maneuverability, low-level access equipment arrives onsite ready to work and is generally compact enough to fit through narrow doorways, into elevators and even to make tight turns around sharp bends in hallways. In addition, there are no parts to get misplaced and lost from jobsite to jobsite. These units offer a safer alternative to ladders by providing the comfort and security of a fully guarded work area and the convenience of being able to easily lift tools and equipment precisely to the working height required from ground level.

“Powered low-level access is especially beneficial where there is repetitive work at height,” says Paul Kreutzwiser, senior product marketing manager, Skyjack Inc. “The SJ12 is drivable at full height, allowing the operator to quickly reposition to continue work without having to lower, reposition, then lift/climb.”

An independent time and motion study conducted in the United Kingdom by Laing O'Rourke, a major construction contractor in Europe and the Middle East, and cited by Snorkel's Smith, showed that low-level AWPs were up to three times more productive than ladders or podiums, and that the rental rate for a low-level AWP was more than balanced by the reduction in accident claims and worker hours lost from injury, plus the costs of replacing lost pieces of scaffolding.

“The U.S. has always led the way in the adoption of more efficient and safer working at height,” says Snorkel's Smith. “Pop-Up is unique in that it originated in the U.K., but we expect the U.S.A. to be Pop-Up's biggest market. This is a low-cost, high-yield machine that can deliver full ROI in less than 12 months and will undoubtedly be popular with major construction contractors.”

The productivity increases that contractors can achieve with low-level AWPs are undeniable. Most units have a platform large enough to support both the operator and several tools and materials needed for the job. Unlike ladders and scaffolding, the need for trips up and down to retrieve additional items is nearly eliminated.

“A rental business should consider replacing some of their current ladders and scaffolding because they can ‘sell’ time to the renter,” says Steve Gooding, director of marketing and aftermarket support, Haulotte Group. “The additional time it takes to assemble scaffolding and the ups and downs with a ladder are eliminated with the LiteRiser 10SP. This reduces what could potentially take days with a ladder to mere hours. This also increases the number of times the rental company could rent out the machine, increasing ROI.”

Always safety first

According to an internal study conducted by JLG Industries when it was developing its low-level AWP LiftPod Series, more than 90 percent of facility managers and building owners said safety was “very important” when selecting facility maintenance equipment. Safety was also the most important criteria decision makers used to evaluate new equipment — factors that bode well for the growth of low-level access equipment.

“Safety is a top priority in the workplace as companies are seeking new ways to increase productivity while helping keep safety costs down,” says Randy Marzicola, director channel development, JLG Industries. “OSHA's most frequent violations for 2010 involve scaffolding, fall protection and ladders. In fact, the National Safety Council has estimated that the average per incident cost of a workplace injury is about $28,000 in direct and indirect costs. The LiftPod is designed to replace ladders/scaffolding and can help facility managers avoid potentially deadly falls from height while on the job.”

Like any work at height, operator training is necessary to ensure safe use. Low-level scissor-category lifts do not require personal fall protection as long as they are fully guarded with a rail, according to Tony Groat, executive vice president for American Work Platform Training. A newly published document jointly produced by The American Rental Association, Association of Equipment Manufacturers, Associated Equipment Distributors, the International Powered Access Federation and the Scaffold Industry Association fully outlines the proper use and regulatory compliance of AWP personal fall protection. It states that manually propelled elevating aerial platforms as well as self-propelled elevating work platforms do not require additional PFP as long as a full guardrail is in place. The document, Statement of Best Practices of Personal Fall Protection Systems for Aerial Work Platform Equipmehnt, is available for download at www.ipaf.org.

“Work at height is a demand for all work environments and industries, and these smaller machines provide a safer and more efficient means of access,” says Groat. “Ladders require climbing and do not keep the workers in a safe envelope. Workers can overreach and fall. These falls can be serious in nature despite their low height. Scaffolds require many pieces, time to assemble and climbing. These low-access machines provide infinite adjustment in height and a fully guarded railed platform.”

Inspired as a reinvention of the ladder, low-level AWPs are designed to provide a safer, more productive means to work at height. The machines offer a quick ROI for rental businesses and a more productive jobsite for their customers.

JLG Industries

The FS60 is the newest addition to the LiftPod line of aerial work platforms. The unit's 30-inch base enables operators to move the LiftPod through doorways and some elevators without having to take it apart. With an enclosed platform, 12-foot working height and 6-foot standing height, the FS60LiftPod allows workers to move hands-free in a 360-degree range of motion. Like other units in the line, the FS60 consists of three lightweight components, each weighing about 50 pounds, for assembly in about 30 seconds. The LiftPod is powered by an 18-volt drill or an optional power pack. It includes an attachable work tray that holds up to 33 pounds of tools and materials and has a 330-pound rated total capacity.

“We listened to our customers and developed the FS60 in response to their requests for a model that can fit through doorways and under eight-foot ceilings,” says Marzicola. “We also added non-marking rear caster wheels, which further improves the mobility and portability of the lift, while increasing efficiency for our customers to provide a solution for applications in healthcare, education, hospitality and office building markets.”

Skyjack

The SJ 12 self-propelled vertical mastlift provides an 18-foot working height, high-degree steer angle and zero inside turning radius. A 20-inch traversing platform offers increased access and the ability to reach over potential obstacles. A slide-away platform provides easy access to components when raised or in the stowed position. The SJ 12 is drivable at full height and weighs 1,720 pounds for use in sensitive floor load applications.

“The rental industry has higher expectations for the robustness and quality of the equipment in their fleets — a rental-duty type machine,” explains Kreutzwiser. “Skyjack covers this well, bringing its renowned design philosophies to the SJ 12 utilizing its standard color-coded and numbered wiring system and analog-based controls as well as service and maintenance friendly design.”

Absolute E-Z Up

The new CAWP-9.6 AWP, debuted at The Rental Show, features a maximum working height of 16 feet and offers 397 pounds of unrestricted capacity on its dual extension decks. The unit can be maneuvered and transported by one operator, but it is intended for two-person occupancy. The CAWP-9.6 offers 35-percent gradeability and its twin 12-volt batteries ensure more than 250 lift cycles or a drive distance of seven miles. Batteries can be recharged in a few hours using the on-board charger. At 1,212 pounds, the CAWP-9.6 has a low rolling tire floor load and is designed for use on a variety of floor surfaces.

“The CAWP-9.6 is a more robust construction-type model, made for the harshest and toughest construction sites,” says Buley. “It features an all-steel base with forklift pockets for easy loading or transport.”

Haulotte Group

The new LiteRiser 10 SP is a lightweight, compact 16-foot maximum working height AWP designed for maintenance or construction applications. With a full-length platform, a simple-to-use, smooth drive control system, and zero-degree inside turning radius, the LiteRiser 10 SP is designed as a versatile solution for rental fleets. Measuring 5 feet, 9 inches long and 2 feet, 8 inches in width, it can travel through a standard doorway.

“The LiteRiser 10 SP and similar machines have great potential in the rental market,” says Gooding. “Its simple controls, lightweight, easy transportability and elevator accessibility allow this machine access into places that traditional scissorlifts, scaffolding and ladders are not able to access as easily. With this machine's ability to be driven while in the basket, productivity is increased with reduced time moving from place to place where work needs done.”

Custom Equipment

The HB-830 and HB-P830 Push-Around Hy-Brid Lifts feature zero-turning radius, a 14-foot working height and a 500-pound platform capacity for high-productivity access in office buildings, hospitals and hotels. Standard features include an integrated battery charger with charge-level indicator, decent and tilt alarms, emergency tops, remote raise/lower control station, key operated on/off switch and automatic pothole protection.

“The new 830s have an expanded market due to their extreme maneuverability,” says Justin Kissinger, Custom Equipment marketing and advertising manager. “The HB-830 can go in more confined places than most AWPs on the market such as the ability to go down a hallway and turn into the office or to be able to get into a jail cell for maintenance.”

Terex AWP

The Genie Runabout is a compact, low-weight machine that is fully drivable when fully elevated for improved productivity. Designed to fit inside most passenger elevators and to be driven through doorways with the operator onboard, Genie Runabout models feature a zero inside turning radius, 30-percent gradeability, a spring-applied hydraulically released brake system and non-marking solid rubber tires. Platform heights range from 11 feet, 5 inches to 19 feet, 11 inches, and lift capacities range from 350 to 500 pounds.

“Genie Runabouts offer single-door access and zero set-up time for the user,” says Weido. “They also feature an industry-leading low step-in height of 15.5 inches.”

Operator training is necessary to ensure safe use of low-level personal lifts, but personal fall protection is not required as long as the platform is fully guarded with a rail.

Snorkel

New to the U.S. market, the Pop-Up PUSH Series scissorlifts are designed with the safety and productivity benefits of push-around lifts. With platform heights from 6, 8 and 10 feet, the lightweight PUSH Series was developed through feedback from contractors to ensure it can withstand tough jobsites. Pop-Ups do not require stabilizers and are available with auto-lock casters, which apply the brakes as soon as the machine starts to lift.

“The majority of Pop-Ups are sold to rental companies, some of whom reported a return on investment in the first year of ownership,” explains Smith. “The benefits of using push-around mastlifts are already understood; the Pop-Up range brings the same safety and productivity benefits to lower level access.”