Maintaining the Heavy Lifters – Telehandlers 

Words: Joanne Anderson

Words: Joanne M. Anderson
Photos: AMS-Merlo


The slang interpretation of “heavy lifting,” courtesy of Wiktionary is: “The most demanding part of an endeavor; work requiring the most effort, resources or consideration.” In the masonry business, “heavy lifting” is quite literal as bricks and CMUs most often constitute a load that needs to be moved up, over, through, or into a space. 

Enter telehandlers with tele- meaning “far” in Greek and the common prefix tele- translating to “long-distance.” Think telephone and telegraph, and the new kids on the block like telehealth and telemedicine. Those all involve long-distance communication, while telehandler connotes long-distance management of materials.  

It is no news flash to this reading audience that anything with a transmission, engine, tires and moving parts requires routine maintenance to deliver optimum performance. Without normal attention in myriad places, any telehandler can be damaged or simply quit working and bring an entire project to a standstill, potentially costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. 

“Daily and weekly checks are big items — checking your fluids, all your filters, the oil levels, air pressure, tire pressure, wear pads. Greasing the boom is a big issue, too. It needs lubrication,” advises Brian Hatch, Technical Trainer for Applied Machinery Sales (AMS) in Rock Hill, S.C. The town, just south of North Carolina’s largest city, Charlotte, is home to its own Rock Hill Fire Department Museum, completely designed and built by local firefighters. AMS is an importer and distributor of world-class heavy equipment. Its headquarters house staff, machines, parts and accessories to serve a nationwide dealer network. 

Also called a reach forklift, teleporter, or telescopic handler, the machine is a versatile, efficient piece of equipment on construction sites with stonemasons on the job. While the attachments include a muck grab, winch, and bucket, the pallet forks are the most useful for relocating bricks and CMUs. The forward reaching capability is especially appealing for placing pallets of bricks inside a building.

Telehandlers come with big price tags and all kinds of safety instructions, warnings, maintenance outlines, and information for safe operation and premium performance. Any company purchasing one needs a person, team, or department responsible for and knowledgeable about its care and maintenance. 

Break-In A New Telehandler

Much like scuffing new tires on a vehicle, a telehandler has a break-in period as well. Car tires have a lubricant coating to prevent them from sticking to the molds after curing, and residue on brand new tires can be slippery, not providing the best traction. Additionally, the layers of rubber, fabric, and steel need to begin compressing and working well together. The general rule of thumb for any car is easy driving the first 500 miles on new tires with gentle accelerating, braking, and cornering. 

Avoid scuffing the tires with a rotary sander as competitive NASCAR racing teams might do. It invalidates your warranty and is unnecessary for normal drivers. Warmer temperatures help break in tires faster than cold, and new motorcycle tires need the same easy treatment, at least for the first 100 miles. 

Tires on a new telehandler may not need to be so gently broken in, but the machine itself needs its own break-in period of 50 or 100 hours. “At 50 or 100 hours, [depending on the brand and model] change all the fluids,” Hatch states. “This will remove all the contaminants in the manufacturing process and assure fresh, proper, recommended grease, oil, and lubricants in the machine.”

Maintenance Overview

Maintenance of this beautiful, useful, well-designed piece of equipment is extensive. There are things that need to be done routinely, as well as tasks performed at usage and time intervals. Usage is calculated by hours, and time is just that. Usage requires diligent attention because how much a telehandler is in service determines when some of the fittings need to be greased or engine oil changed or checking belts for wear and many other things. 

Benjamin Franklin was spot on with his “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It can be very expensive, often for multiple contractors and subcontractors on a job site, to have something like a telehandler out of service for half a day, never mind a week or more waiting for parts or the company’s mechanic to return from an elk hunting vacation in Colorado. 

Every operator must be trained in visually inspecting a telehandler prior to climbing into the cab or inserting the key into the ignition. “Every morning or before every shift, the operator should visually inspect the SkyTrak,” cautions Jim Koontz, president of Aero Lift, Inc. Based in the small village of Milford, Mich., Aero Lift has been renting, selling, and repairing SkyTrak equipment for two and a half decades. Their rental fleet tops 230, and the company boasts the largest and widest selection of clean, inspected, used SkyTrak parts. Their expertise in diagnosing and fixing broken SkyTrak telehandlers could well be unsurpassed in the industry. 

“With the machine off and key out of the ignition,” Koontz continues, “the operator should check all fluid levels, inspect tires and lugs, look for puddles and drips and ensure that all covers and safety guards are in place. Downtime is expensive and often can be prevented by following the appropriate procedures. It is also suggested that a reputable and reliable, professionally-trained service technician install high-quality replacement parts when repairing a forklift or telehandler.”

Machine Usage 

This can be the most imperative area of routine attention because it is through use that belts wear and tear, fluids may be consumed, clamps can loosen and filters accumulate particles. The boom needs to be lubricated every 8 hours or every day. 

Each manufacturer’s operation and maintenance manual should outline times for checking specific things, most often measured in hours. Every 1,000 hours, one brand recommends replacing the transmission oil and filter, and at 2,000 hours, the hydraulic oil should be replaced. Shorter usage time recommendations include:

  • checking lights and coolant levels every 10 hours
  • greasing fittings every 50 hours
  • changing engine oil every 250 hours
  • replacing the fuel filter every 500 hours
  • and on and on.

Thus, one of the most important little things on the whole machine is the hour meter, duly connected to the engine recording all the usage hours. It must be completely sealed against dust and moisture, and it needs to be observed daily to know when milestones are met that require another round of examination. “Never ignore the notification lights in your telehandler,” advises Hatch. “The reminder lights should be followed to ensure proper performance of the vehicle.”

Time And Weather 

Several maintenance procedures are conducted monthly, quarterly, or annually, regardless of machine use, like:

  • Winterizing cooling system
  • Keeping radiator screens clean
  • Replacing fan or alternator belt
  • Checking fuses and relays
  • Adjusting parking brake
  • Checking tire pressure
  • And more.

“At Aero Lift, we have a thorough 50-point checklist monthly that covers electrical, hydraulic and mechanical connections,” states Koontz. 

Telehandlers in large, extremely dusty job sites may need more attention than where it’s the only piece of equipment moving around on a paved surface. Service schedules may be reduced by half when the machines are used for long periods in very cold or very hot conditions. Once source suggests very cold as under 5° F or very hot above 91° F. Check the manual or contact the dealer or manufacturer for temperature specifics. 

Moist ocean air carries salt particles which can attract more moisture and corrode insufficiently painted and protected metal parts. Correct any rusty, exposed places in any environment, but especially near the sea. 

Renting, Buying, Replacing 

Only a company’s decision-makers and bean counters can evaluate the pros and cons of buying vs. renting a telehandler or two or any piece of large construction equipment. Renting can relieve one company of all the myriad maintenance tasks associated with the machine. On the other hand, buying outright might be the most financially savvy over the long run for another firm. 

“If your repairs begin to outweigh the price of a new machine, then it’s time to replace it,” says Hatch. “Similar to a car, if your month’s repairs cost greater than your monthly payments, then it is time to look into a new vehicle. Our machines, the Merlo, last for 17,000 hours, and we have yet to see the one which needs to be replaced. The estimated life span of a telehandler is 12,000 hours.”

Caring for a telehandler often and properly preserves time and money while providing a dependable, hard-working piece of machinery. The owner’s manual may not be your preference for reading material, but it is when you recognize the cost, the value, and the best practices for peak performance across years of use in all kinds of conditions. 

The whole world is now educated on PPE – personal protective equipment – which is an old hat to stonemasons. Hatch recommends that all telehandler operators are wearing the correct PPE on every job. Pair that with excellent telehandler maintenance, and you’ll have well-protected personnel and well-oiled machines at every job site. 

Joanne M. Anderson is an SW Virginia-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Masonry Magazine. These days, she has her own little collection of required PPE in every vehicle. www.jmawriter.com

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