Relatively new to the rental scene with limited customer awareness, rental companies see a potential growth market still in its infancy.
If you play “word association” and you mention “aerial work platforms,” the first thing most people picture would be booms rising high in the air — 60, 80 or 100 feet up.
However, in the rental industry, there is a growing place for what is generically described as low-level access. Because most low-level products are relatively new on the scene, a lot of rental companies have yet to seriously consider their potential, and a lot of rental customers aren't aware enough of them to request them.
But that is changing. Awareness on the part of rental companies and their customers of the existence and potential of low-level units is growing quickly and will likely increase significantly in the coming years. Many rental companies RER spoke with are enthusiastic about the potential for low-level access units, while admitting they have only been pursuing the market for short periods of time. Rental companies are finding interest from industrial, commercial, remodeling, and maintenance segments; electrical and drywall contractors working on hospital and office jobs; from nuclear power plants and refineries; and construction on buildings where restrictions on ladders and scaffolding are strict and weight restrictions preclude heavier machines.
“Especially in urban areas where sprawl is not an option, a large percentage of facilities are being built with multiple-story design or tighter hallways to where a unit with five feet or less width could be utilized to turn into rooms off of a standard 4- to 5-foot-wide hallway without making multiple turns, which also helps to minimize wall damage,” says Mike Jordan, eastern regional fleet manager for Greenwich, Conn.-based United Rentals. “Now throw in the current era of advanced data management, transmission, as well as storage, and this introduces a plethora of raised floor data-type designs that greatly limit the type of units that can be used to access the ceiling areas above these elevated floors. This has created a huge market for many units in the light weight, highly maneuverable sector.”
Jordan adds that with lighter weight units, contractors can “get on slab” sooner to start their work, and with bidding tight, a faster production schedule is one of the few ways to maximize profitability by meeting or exceeding performance bonus clauses.
Customers appreciate the light weight of machines they can use on the second floor of buildings that could not support the weight of a 19-foot scissorlift. The units are small and lightweight enough to fit on many elevators and many customers are attracted to maneuverability and light weight.
“I see the potential market being in a variety of applications where a large stepladder or scissorlift is currently being used,” says Joel Theros of Gainesville, Va.-based Theros Equipment. “Big stepladders such as 12 foot or 16 foot are cumbersome and take up a large footprint at the base. Having a smaller piece of equipment that is lightweight and easier to move around is attractive. Low-level access products are also being requested on commercial and government jobsites where 12 to 15 feet is tall enough and the weight limitations for the decking are a factor.”
Regulations on ladder use will push the usage of low-level units on many jobsites, points out Henry Gray, operations manager for Knoxville, Tenn.-based Stowers Rents. There are other applications as well, he adds. “We currently have some small Runabouts in the rental fleet that are good rental items for hospitals, schools and office jobs that have tight areas to work in or maximum PSI requirements for the floor,” Gray says.
The most potential is in the industrial market say some rental people. “The reduction of ladder use is always welcome in the industrial market,” says Larry Workman of Lemont, Ill.-based Illini Hi Reach, whose company has primarily sold rather than rented JLG's Liftpod.
Rick Dahl of Sugar Grove, Ill.-based Metrolift, says his company has seen a “tremendous increase” in demand for smaller, lightweight aerial work platforms. “Our customers who work in hospital and university settings were asking us to go and find the smallest and least heavy products in the marketplace,” Dahl notes.
Some rental people point to the potential in big-box-type buildings for industrial and boiler-room maintenance as well as general cleaning, maintenance and signage and decoration work. One Canadian rental fleet manager says his company sees a strong potential market in HVAC, elevator and maintenance departments and is planning a sizeable investment in the segment.
Some rental companies say the demand for drivable units is ahead of that of push-around machines. “At this point, our customers are not asking for the ‘assemble’ or push-type units, however we have added the drivable style based on customer demand,” says James Dennis, director of fleet operations for Fort Mill, S.C.-based Sunbelt Rentals. “They have performed very well in comparison to the traditional push-around single manlifts.”
Some rental companies question the return on investment on low-level access units. “The potential for rental is limited because they are so cheap, if you need one you can buy one,” says David Griffith of Modern Equipment, Bristol, Pa. “But small rental stores would likely carry them.” With rental rates still far below what they should be in the aerial segment, rental companies say without the maintenance of a solid rental rate, ROI makes low-level units not worth the effort.
“There is not enough rental revenue to consider,” says Workman. “If they run into any trouble due to operator error upon setup or teardown and we were to send out a tech to repair or set up, the service call would probably be more than the rental itself.”
For some rental companies, the use of low-level units is a market maturation process as they wait for the market to grow before making the investment, especially in the current market with many rental companies being extremely cautious about their capex commitments.
All in all, this is a market to watch with a lot of potential. Some rental companies are far from convinced, but many see it as a matter of time before the market develops, with a lot of upside. How much remains to be seen, but many are already participating and many others watching closely.