Lifts for less

For rental businesses looking to meet a demand for lift equipment with limited resources, towable boom lifts can be just the ticket. For a price tag that ranges from 30 to 50 percent less than a self-propelled boom lift, a rental business can acquire a towable boom that rivals the self-propelled models in terms of utility.

There are towables in existence which can reach as high as 100 feet, but most on the market in the U.S. range from 35 to 60 feet. They generally come in two types: articulated knuckle booms and telescopic booms. Knuckles are the most popular because they offer versatility in places they can reach. With a knuckle, the boom can get close to the structure and then reach over it, whereas telescopic booms are limited to just reaching up.

Towables are priced as low as $25,000, making them an affordable option for the rental business not prepared to invest upwards of $75,000 to get into the lift market.

"The initial acquisition price for towable boom lifts would be lower than a comparable platform height self-propelled boom lift primarily due to their not being equipped with the very expensive drive systems that are representative of today's self-propelled boom lifts," says Mark Mohn, product manager-boom lifts with JLG Industries Inc. "Towable boom lifts do have optional drive systems, but these would be to deliver more basic drive and grade requirements."

Aimed at serving the needs of light contractors, landscaping professionals and homeowners, towable booms have the potential to bring lift equipment to markets previously untapped by your rental business.

"They're ideal for homeowners," notes Brad Dilling, product manager at Genie Industries. "They're a very big rental items for that market."

Mohn adds, "Towable boom lifts are attractive to a wide range of customers beyond larger contractors, creating new streams of revenue for the rental company."

He notes, however, that "towable booms are for lighter-duty applications than typical self-propelled booms and have a limited drive capability when optionally equipped. Self-propelled booms generally have larger platforms to allow multiple workers in the platform while towable booms are more typically for one-person operations."

One reason for the appeal of towables to the homeowner market is their ease of transport. "No special carriers are required. Your customer's personal vehicle outfitted with a trailer hitch (as many pickup trucks and SUVs are now purchased) with a minimum towing capacity of 3,000 pounds will get [them] on the road," explains Mohn.

This is good news to small, independent rental businesses that don't have a large fleet of delivery trucks. With one or two towable booms in their fleet, they can still provide lift equipment to their customers without a lot of additional overhead.

Another aspect to towables that makes them ideal for the weekend warrior is the simplicity of the controls. As Mohn notes, fewer machine functions facilitates training for new operators.

Lightweight and level

While they're easy to transport away from your rental yard, towable booms are not made to move around a jobsite with the boom extended, as are their self-propelled cousins.

"You can't drive towables while up in the air," says Alastair Robertson with Niftylift, which has been making towable boom lifts since 1981. "Most towables today offer a [drive and set] arrangement so the operator can walk-behind or drive the machine from the platform in the stowed position."

Because they can't be driven with the boom extended, towables are not designed for every application. "It takes more time to move the machine a lot," says Dilling. "You have to keep coming down and going back up."

Towables are, however, ideal for applications where vehicle weight is a concern.

"The platform on towables is made of aluminum, whereas on self-propelled models, it's steel," says Dilling. "This is done to keep the weight down."

Robertson notes that a 40-foot self-propelled boom typically weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 pounds. Towables, on the other hand, hover around the 3,000-pound mark, enabling them to work on the upper levels of structures where a lot of weight is undesirable. They are also less damaging to turf, so landscape professionals can operate them with less fear of disturbing lawns or flower beds.

One way that towables achieve a lighter weight is through the use of outriggers as opposed to counterweight, which provides self-propelled models with the stability necessary to rise to high heights. As a result, a towable's footprint is larger, usually about 14 feet across. Despite the wider wingspan when in use, towables can fold up to just 3 feet 6 inches, making it possible for them to fit into tight spaces like backyards and around buildings, etc.

In addition, says Mohn, "The outriggers offer a leveling capability and a firm lifting base of operations that is beneficial in areas of great land undulation."

Dilling at Genie agrees, noting that Genie towables can level themselves on up to an 11-degree slope, while most self-propelled booms have a 2 1/2-degree slope capability.

A question of stability

If their lightweight and leveling capability are defining characteristics of towable boom lifts, the next question to follow is often, "How stable are they?"

According to Robertson with Niftylift, towables are just as stable as self-propelled boom lifts. They are required to meet safety standards just like self-propelled models. It's the perception of stability that's sometimes in question. "When you're up in the air, you don't look down on a big base beneath you, but you've got a 14-ft. spread from the outriggers," Robertson notes.

Still, as Dilling at Genie points out, operators might notice a different "feel" when using a towable as opposed to a self-propelled unit. "There's a bit more deflection, so the boom might feel a little softer," he says. This deflection, or slight movement of the boom when extended, is due to the use of lighter materials. Because self-propelled units are not restricted in terms of weight, the booms can be constructed to be a bit more stiff, and this is sometimes perceived to be more stable, when in fact, there is no technical difference in stability.

What to look for

Towable boom lifts today offer many of the same basic features, such as drive and set systems, self-leveling hydraulic outriggers and towing speeds up to 65 mph. The main difference between brands is often after-sale support.

"As a rental business shopping around for a towable boom lift, it's important to choose a reputable manufacturer that will support the product with training, parts supply, etc.," says Mohn. Other factors to consider include the design of the machine. Is it rugged enough to hold up to the rigors of over-the-road transport? How are the "feel" of the platform controls and the outrigger deployment system?

Power options are another area to think about when choosing a towable for your fleet. Some models are electric, which makes them ideal for indoor use, and some are gasoline powered. There are also bi-energy models which combine the best of both worlds and make it possible to perform more applications with just one machine.

Whatever model you choose for your rental inventory, it's crucial that you educate your staff and customers about safe operation. Make sure your counter employees are knowledgeable enough to effectively train customers on the equipment before it leaves the yard, particularly on the required use of safety harnesses. Towables are the ideal lift equipment for the weekend warrior, but homeowners are frequently novices on such equipment, so keep safety in mind when renting to this market.