Hydraulic or Mechanical Dock Leveler: Understanding the Differences

Deciding between a hydraulic and mechanical dock leveler is a long-term investment which can carry huge implications to your overall bottom-line. Helping to improve productivity and safety at the loading dock, choosing the right leveler for your operations should be a clear and easy decision.

Regardless of your decision, the best dock leveler will check all the boxes:

  • Fit your budget
  • Provide years of operation
  • Help prevent free-fall
  • Manage heavy loads and bustling workflows
  • Maintain a smooth transition from the floor to the trailer bed
  • Facilitate future communication upgrades
  • Help keep forklift drivers and engineers/operators safe
  • Offer an exceptional product warranty with maintenance/repair/upgrade options

What is a dock leveler?

Before discussing the difference between the various types of levelers, it is important to establish the importance of a dock leveler at a facility. A dock leveler is a structure that bridges the gap between the warehouse floor and trailer bed, primarily used during loading/unloading. Based on the requirements of the facility, the leveler needs to be the right length and width to handle the products being transported, provide a safe transition for the forklift and operator and be rated to handle the load. Although there are many types of levelers, the most common are mechanical and hydraulic.

What is a mechanical dock leveler?

Mechanical dock levelers are spring-levelers, requiring the operator to pull a chain to position the leveler from the loading dock to back of the trailer bed.

How do mechanical dock levelers work?

When the operator pulls the chain, it frees the hold-down system which releases the tension on the springs, allowing the platform to ascend and the lip extend. Once the lip is extended, the leveler operator walks onto the platform and use their body weight to manually force the leveler onto the trailer bed. Walk down requirements can range from 120-175 (or more) lbs depending on the capacity and configuration of the mechanical dock leveler.

The mechanical leveler relies on more moving parts -- from lip latches, springs, chains, pulleys, and hold-downs -- that are constantly under tension, so they will require more maintenance and replacement over time. Even in a “resting position” on the trailer, they are being pulled and locked.

What is a hydraulic dock leveler?

Hydraulic dock levelers are operated with the push of a button on a control panel, no longer requiring the operator to manually use a pull-chain. Instead, the operator uses a control or a button to raise and lower the leveler and extend or store the lip.

How does a hydraulic dock leveler work?

Hydraulic dock levelers use hydraulic cylinders and hydraulic pumps to lift and place the leveler and lip automatically. Some models are even equipped to stop the platform at any time during leveler deployment. After use, a hydraulic dock leveler can be automatically programmed to return itself back to the stored position.

Cost of hydraulic dock leveler vs mechanical dock leveler

Although hydraulic dock levelers traditionally cost more than a mechanical dock leveler, the facility will spend 6 times more in overall maintenance expenses on a mechanical leveler over the 10-year life of the system. Regular maintenance will complement its sturdy platform construction.

Are hydraulic dock levelers safer than mechanical dock levelers?

There isn’t anything inherently unsafe with mechanical dock levelers, but there are several safety advantages to using a hydraulic leveler system.

  • Hydraulic levelers are more ergonomically friendly because they don’t require pulling a chain or using the operator’s body weight to position the bridge. This means your team won’t be bending, reaching or “jumping”, resulting in fewer injuries. This is becoming increasingly important as the overall workforce ages.
  • The hydraulic dock leveler will “adjust itself” as the trailer floats above and below dock height, ensuring a safe and smooth slope between the facility floor and the trailer bed without experiencing the jarring effects of leveler “stump-out.
  • Built-in velocity fuse safeguards prevent the platform from free-falling in case of a hydraulic pressure loss.
  • Some upgrades, like the Safe-T-Lip® system, also automatically serve as a forklift barrier when returned to the stored position, helping to prevent fall off from vacant loading docks.

Loading dock traffic, budget, long-term upgrades and the level of safety you need to extend to your team are all important factors when deciding if a hydraulic or mechanical dock leveler is right for you. Safety advantages, the potential to work with communication upgrades, and durability are some of the biggest differences to remember when you choose to install a new leveler. With so many options, it is important to partner with loading dock experts to help determine which leveler is best for your unique application.

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