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Running a full service auto recycling operation today typically means volume. In a lot of cases…it means thousands of vehicles per month. With a typical body weighing about 2,500 lbs., it’s a lot of weight to be shuffling around the yard. That’s why moving those hulks from one point to another is done more and more today with a wheel loader and specialized set of forks. While there are other ways to move auto bodies around the yard, a loader and forks is almost always quicker, safer and more cost-effective in the long run.

This month, we’ll look at wheel loaders and their role in auto recycling, along with the essential option of purpose-built forks. Traditional forklifts, as well as skid steers will likely be included in a future spotlight.

Plenty of choices
Wheel loaders – or in many cases “tool carriers” – have become the workhorse of the auto recycling industry. Like the four-legged variety, they come in a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes. For moving autos, buyers need to be aware of several key points.

Dan Snedecor, product manager – wheel loaders, for Volvo Construction Equipment said, “Safety is the single most important consideration, so we begin by helping customers size the machine correctly for their needs. Auto recyclers are lifting and moving around the yard with as much as 4,000 lbs. on the forks with a single vehicle. The loader must be stable under those conditions and operators should take into account the surface of the yard they’re working in. Rough ground requires higher load ratings for increased stability. The center of gravity of the load will shift as it moves across a rough yard. It’s all part of understanding the application,” he said.

Beyond sizing, there’s the need for a safe, sure lift. Advancements in lifting mechanisms on a lot of today’s loaders have improved safety considerably. According to Mr. Snedecor, “For auto recycling, customers should look for a loader that offers ‘parallel lift’ capability. Parallel lift is essential because the forks stay level as the boom is raised. Systems without parallel lift will let the forks tilt forward some as the boom is raised. This can pose obvious safety issues,” he said.

Next is the issue of visibility. Loader operators have several issues to deal with that require a clear line of sight. An unrestricted view of the tips of the fork is important to ensure he can load the vehicle safely, and for salvage operations - without damaging anything. In addition, it is often important to be able to see the front wheels of the loader; simply to be sure nothing is run over. The most significant consideration for visibility though, is making sure the driver can see where he’s going with a body on the forks. That’s where cab height comes into play. Some loaders, such as Kawasaki’s 60 K-Lift – designed specifically for the auto recycling industry – place the operator high enough to see what’s going on around him. When comparing loaders, there’s no better way to determine how high is high enough than by strapping yourself in for a test drive.

Another feature gaining in popularity today is the ability of a loader to offer full hydraulic control at lower engine speeds. There are essentially two types of hydraulic system designs – an open system, or a closed system. Open systems depend on the loader engine speed to drive the hydraulic pumps fast enough to provide sufficient lift and perform basic hydraulic functions. However, with the engine running faster, the loader can be more demanding to control. Low idle hydraulic performance enables the operator to lift, tilt and spot a vehicle, all while running the diesel engine at idle. It’s made possible by a closed hydraulic system. Closed systems rely on load sensing hydraulic technology and variable displacement pumps. The primary benefits of a closed hydraulic system is the operator has full hydraulic power, and a loader that’s much easier to control.

If space is limited, and the loader must get in and out of tight quarters in the yard, an articulated frame might be essential for the auto recycler. Articulated loaders are designed with a hinge in the middle of the chassis, roughly halfway between the axles. An integral part of the steering, movement along the hinge is modulated by hydraulic cylinders. When the chassis turns, it allows the rear wheels to track the same as the front. The payoff is a greatly reduced turning radius, allowing the unit to maneuver around tight places. “Articulated loaders are made for getting around in a crowded yard,” said Dan Snedecor. “The reduced turning radius means racks can be placed closer together, and the unit needs less space to get the job done,” he added.

Operating costs for loaders can vary over longer periods of time. Following the manufacturer’s recommended service intervals can minimize that expense, and keeping the unit properly maintained on a day-to-day basis makes sense. A primary benefit of the low idle hydraulic system design though, is lower operating costs. Volvo Construction Equipment says, “By running the loaders’ engine at a lower speed, less fuel is consumed, less noise is created and demands on higher wear parts are reduced. This translates to lower operating costs as years go by.”

Other considerations for loaders include: wheel size; ground clearance; transmission options; creature comforts and of course, dealer support in your market.

Put a fork in it
Once you’ve chosen the right loader, the right set of forks – designed specifically for auto recycling – can boost productivity even more.

A set of forks is made up of two individual blades or “tines,” and a rack. In most cases, the width between the tines can be adjusted to fit the load. The length, shape and material of the fork combine to determine its suitability for any given job.

Elmer Secker, president of SAS Forks, Luxemburg, Wisconsin, has been building custom forks for nearly 35 years, and offers more than 60,000 different configurations of forks. “A fork is only as good as the material it’s made from,” notes Mr. Secker. “And material types fall into three different classes. Entry level is T-1 steel that has a 90,000 lb. yield rating. Next up is a forged fork with a yield of about 120,000 lbs. But the best material is a custom alloy that we blend specifically for the highest performance, longest lasting set of forks you can buy. We don’t talk much about what goes in them though,” he mused.

Typically, auto-crushing yards use a shorter, side entry fork to load vehicles in the crusher and to remove logs or bales afterwards. It’s a versatile, lighter duty item that can be used for lifting just about anything under 5,000 lbs. A good set of auto body forks will cost between $3,500 and $4,000.

Today, many auto salvage and recycling operations use a much longer fork that lifts a vehicle lengthwise. This helps keep the undercarriage and saleable components on the bottom of the vehicle in the best condition.

According to Elmer Secker, “Many of the smaller yards don’t have a crusher on site, so a lot of autos are crushed with a fork. Crushing forks weigh around 3,000 lbs. and are designed for brute strength. With some practice, a good loader operator can flatten vehicles well enough for transporting to a shredder,” he said. Depending on if it’s a quick coupling, or a pin-to-pin design, a crushing fork will cost most recyclers about $4,500. The length, width and material type of the tines will also impact cost.

The key to choosing the right set of forks for your operation is understanding exactly how they will be used. The right forks for the right application can be used on a daily basis for years with no maintenance. Ten, twenty, thirty or more years is not uncommon.

Loader Manufacturers
Company Name
Contact Person
Phone Number
Bill Campbell
Hyundai Construction Equipment
Dan Bergman
John Deere
Jim Mitchell
Kawasaki Construction Machinery
Jim Simons
Nasco Equipment Company
Toyal Jackson
New Holland North America
Dawn Fox
Omega Lift
Greg Pannia
Lowell Stout
Volvo Construction Equipment
Dan Snedecor
Fork Manufacturers
Scott Parker
Bud Roberts Company
Jerell Smith
Gaylon Cowan
Craig Ferguson
Chris Nichols
Freeroll USA, Inc.
Neil Gordon
Jack West
Clara Kline
Elmer Secker