Towable Lifts Rolling Steady

Towable aerial lifts are truly a win-win product. They not only make money for their owners; they also save money for their users.

In the overall universe of lifting equipment, towables often don’t pop to the top of the awareness list. They aren’t physically dominating and flashy like 80-, 120-, 150-, or 185-ft. big booms, and you rarely see them featured on high-profile, mega-projects that attract media attention like major bridges, skyscrapers, stadia, and airports.

You are far more likely to spot them being used for unspectacular but vital everyday jobs like building maintenance, landscaping, installing or changing outdoor lights, trimming trees, washing windows, putting up siding, tuck pointing chimneys, installing signs, or hundreds of other common jobs done every day everywhere in the country.

But although towable boom lifts may not be physically as impressive as some other aerials, experts say their return on investment matches or surpasses that of any other lift.

Great Lakes Access, Grand Rapids, Mich., buys and sells all types and brands of aerial lifts. It also operates a rental fleet of more than 100 lifts, including 20 towables. Owner Tom Hammerslag says: “Towables have the best return on investment of any aerial. You can buy one for half the cost of a self-propelled lift and yet get the same rental rate for it.”

Great Lakes Access reduces its initial outlay for towables by buying used equipment. “The technology and styling don’t change much from year to year, so a five-year-old unit looks about the same as a new one but costs about a third as much,” says Hammerslag, noting that towables’ key components live a long time. He says that his fleet’s towable rigs are always busy, with near-100% utilization.

In 2012, industry veterans Andrew Huggins and Andrew Johnson founded Aerial Titans, Conklin, Ga. The company sells and rents new and used aerial lifts of all major brands to customers all across North America. It operates a 16-unit rental fleet of Niftylift equipment, half of which is towables.

Huggins and Johnson say that their eight towable lifts are consistently at 100% utilization because, “The towables are just ideal for so many users, from home owners, home inspectors, and painters, to roofers, siders, sign companies, and surveillance system installers.”

In addition to the usual end-users, Doug Attema, owner of Attema Marketing, Pella, Iowa, an independent sales rep for Haulotte Bil-Jax, says he sees farmers turning to towable lifts for work on barns, and some rural electric utilities use them for substation work.

Hammerslag says that although large national rental companies may keep a couple of towables at each branch, the mobile lifts are more commonly found in smaller independent rental fleets, at home-improvement stores, and in contractors’ equipment fleets.

Jon Hedlund, vice president of North American sales and operations for Niftylift, also says independent rental stores are among its top customers. “Niftylift has done very well with independent rental stores,” he says. “Success hinges on the features of the machine and education at the store level. Store people need to know the equipment and how to make customers comfortable using it.”


Easy to move
One key reason users choose towable lifts is that they don’t need a tractor-trailer or large truck to move the equipment from job to job. They just hitch the lift to an SUV, pickup truck, or service van and drive to the work site.

The 19 models of towable lifts available in North America weigh from 2,630 to 7,700 lbs., depending on make and boom length. Even the heaviest towable weighs far less than a 30- to 60-ft. self-propelled boom lift, which can run from 10,000 to more than 20,000 lbs.

About four years ago, Electrical Maintenance Corp., an electrical contractor in Allendale, Mich., switched from renting self-propelled lifts to using towables when it needs to work at height.

Owner Bill Ruso says: “We used to pay $125 to have a tractor-trailer truck move a rented self-propelled aerial from job to job. Now we rent a towable lift, hitch it to one of our service trucks, and take it ourselves. Today I’m doing three elevated jobs, so using a towable lift is saving at least $375 in transportation cost.”

In addition, because a towable lift arrives along with its user, there is no chance of a missed or delayed delivery. And towing the lift is easy. “You can hardly tell it’s back there,” says Ruso, who also notes that no special vehicle or CDL is needed to tow one.


Other advantages
Fans of towable lifts praise their easy setup and simple operation. The user simply positions the lift, puts down the four outriggers, and goes to work. Some models make setup even easier by lowering all the outriggers and leveling themselves automatically at the touch of a button.

Proponents of towable lifts also point out that their light weight makes them less likely to damage lawn or other sensitive turf. In addition, almost all of the towables run on battery power, either as the standard system, or as an option, and the diesel or gas engines used on towables are small and relatively quiet, so they can work unobtrusively in residential or other areas where low noise is important.

Huggins and Johnson of Aerial Titans say that towables are, in general, easy to repair, which also makes them attractive for rental. “If something goes wrong,” they said in a recent conference call, “It can be fixed easily without having to call out a specialized mechanic.” They add that system simplicity is one reason they’ve standardized on Niftylift models for their rental fleet.

Like any piece of equipment, towables have some limitations. For example, because they all rely on outriggers for stability, they cannot travel while the boom is elevated. If the lift needs to be repositioned, it has to be stowed, moved, set up, and leveled again. Fortunately setup takes only minutes.

At least one company has seen high repair rates. Coast2Coast Equipment, Cleveland, Ohio, still sells towables but has stopped offering them for rent. President Carly Cahlik says, "We were making frequent and fairly expensive repairs, for example when users would forget to release the parking brake before towing, so we pulled towables from the fleet.”

Major manufacturers
Six major manufacturers make the most commonly available towable lifts sold in North America. Genie offers the TZ-34/20 and TZ-50; Haulotte’s lineup includes the 3255 A, 3632 T, 4527A, and 5533 A; JLG’s Tow-Pro models include the T350 and T500J; Niftylift offers the TM34, TM34T, TM42T, TM50, and TM64; Omme offers the 2500E and 2900E; and Snorkel’s roster includes the TL 34, TL 37J, TL 39, and TL 49J. Both Omme models and Haulotte’s 3632T are straight-boom telescopic lifts. The rest feature articulating booms.

This class shares general maximum platform heights from about 34 to 55 ft. (the exception is Omme—its two towable lifts reach up 82 and 95 ft.); maximum horizontal reach from about 16 ft. to 40.; and up-and-over reaches from 16 to 24 ft. Their platforms measure from 27 to 34 in. front to back and 44 to 55 in. wide, and their platform capacities range from 440 to 500 lbs.

Niftylift is the only maker that offers continuous turret rotation. All the others range from 359° to 700°, non-continuous.

All but two have a 24V DC battery power system (the 33-ft. Snorkel TL 34 runs on 12V and the 49'6" Niftylift TM 64 comes only with a diesel engine), and almost all offer hybrid or bi-energy options that combine DC battery power with a diesel or gasoline engine.


Key features
Genie product manager Marie Engstrom says a few of the unique features of its towable lifts are a telematics-ready connector that lets  owners hook up a system to get critical data such as GPS location and running time. She also cites user-friendly pictographs that identify the controls, and the ability for the user to move the primary and secondary booms individually for more precise control.

An upcoming drive-and-set option is expected to simplify moving Haulotte towables on the job, according to Buddy Dieter, vice president of sales and service for Haulotte North America. He also notes that Haulotte’s standard two-year warranty, automatic outrigger leveling, and ability to set up in 30 seconds are key features to its products. 

JLG product manager for boom lifts Cory Raymo lists ease of use, auto-leveling outriggers, a drive-and-set option, an accessory tray, and a simple controller that allows the user to operate all boom functions with one hand as some of JLG’s important features.

Easy use, ease of maintenance, proportional full-pressure hydraulic-over-electric controls, and lack of an onboard computer are key features of Niftylift's products. “The operator is always in full control. There’s no computer making decisions for him or her,” Hedlund says. “Also, we use lots of low-maintenance Teflon bushings and very few greasing points. The machine is easy for the owner of a rental store to maintain.”

Amelia Pearce, marketing manager for Snorkel, says that extra features of Snorkel towable lifts that stand out include drive assist, automatic reverse and over-run braking when in transport mode, and 160° powered platform rotation.

Future solid to strong
Depending on whom you talk to, the future for towable lifts looks at the very least steady and solid, but in some cases bright with expectations for growth.

Because towable lifts suit such a wide range of applications across a broad spectrum of users, their success is not tied to new construction. They are needed whether or not new houses, stores, and factories are being built.

JLG’s Raymo says that although it’s difficult to predict exactly what markets are going to do, history shows that the towables segment has remained fairly stable. He notes that new entrants to the market or new solutions to the need for mobile, lightweight lifts could present challenges. Raymo also said that potential changes to the ANSI standards for aerial lifts might bring changes to towable equipment.

Haulotte’s Dieter foresees continued growth coming for trailer-mounted lift market, with higher-reaching units becoming a lower-cost alternative to standard, self-propelled aerial lifts.

Hedlund is perhaps the most optimistic. He says Niftylift sales have grown by double digits every year for at least the last decade. “The do-it-yourself market is strong, and I see it only getting bigger as people get away from using ladders,” he says.

ReachMaster CEO Ebbe Christensen is also hopeful about the towables market. Just before this edition of Lift and Access went to press, he told us that ReachMaster will soon begin selling Denka and Dinolift towables in the United States. Between the two brands, ReachMaster will offer lightweight towable lifts with maximum heights from 34 to 98 ft. and a variety of power options.

As long as towables keep making profits for their owners and saving money for their users, there’s no reason to think they will do anything but grow more popular.