The Low-Down on Lifts

January 2007, Government Fleet - Feature

by Paul Dexler - Also by this author

From the earliest days of the automobile, getting underneath itto perform repairs or maintenance has always been required. Originally, garages had pits over which vehicles could be driven, and then the tech could go down into the pit and work from below.

However, as vehicles became more diversified, a “one-size-fits-all” hole in the ground was no longer sufficient. In addition, as concrete floors replaced compacted dirt for shop floors, excavatinga hole in the floor of an existing shop building was no longer economically viable. Devices were developed to lift vehicles above the shop floor, so that technicians could still work from underneath.Here are some issues to take into account as you create or modernizea shop with lifts.

The first thing to consider is how large is the largest vehicle you may service in the shop. If the vehicle is not larger than a passenger car or pickup truck, a 7,000-lb. capacity lift would be sufficient. On the other hand, if your service facility’s menu includes fire engines, articulated city buses, or aircraft refueling trucks, something a bit larger would be in order. Contemporary liftmanufacturers can meet these needs.

To decide on a specific lift for your service facility, you must know the size and weight of the vehicles to be serviced on the lift. It is dangerous to underspecify a lift, and it is financially wasteful to overspecify one. Next, you need to know the type of work you perform on the vehicles. For simple lubrication and oil changes, a ramp-type lift can be used. On the other hand, extensive chassis work on suspension, brakes, and other such systems, requires a lift that leaves the wheels free.

Then, mounting issues must be considered. With traditional hydraulic column lifts, the posts are sunk into the floor. This requires either designing the lift into the building before it is built, or very expensive concrete work on an existing building. The same is true of the parallelogram-style lift, which can also be designed so that it is flush with the shop floor when lowered. Basically, if the lift is to sink fully into the flat bay floor, concrete work is required.{+PAGEBREAK+}

Six Types of Lifts Available
Steve Perlstein at Mohawk Lifts noted that manufacturers offer six basic types of lifts today. They are the two-post, four-post runway or platform, mobile column, scissor, parallelogram, and ingroundhydraulic lifts.

While the first lifts developed used a winch and cables to lift a platform onto which the vehicle was driven, most modern lifts use an electro-hydraulic system. Platform lifts are still used, because theyare easy to drive on and off. The problems with platform lifts include working around the platform to access those parts of the vehicle obscured by the lift itself, and the fact that the car is still sitting on its wheels, which makes performing brake and suspension work more difficult. A plus with modern platform lifts is that they do not require expensive concrete work for installation; they are simply bolted to the garage floor.

Until roughly 25 years ago, the most common garage lift was the in-ground hydraulic lift. With these units, 1-3 large hydraulic cylinders are located below ground, with platforms above to engage the vehicle’s chassis or lifting points. While sturdy and reliable, the cost of installing and developing safe and strongsurface-mount units have caused use of this type of lift to decline. The overwhelming majority of lifts purchased in the U.S. today are surface-mount lifts.

Two-post lifts have brackets that swing out to meet the lifting points designed into all vehicles. Two-post lifts offer fullunder-vehicle access for all repairs, take up minimal bay space, and leave the wheels hanging free for tire, brake, or any other necessary repairs.

Four-post lifts use a platform or runway to support the vehicle.While vehicles on a four-post lift normally rest on their wheels, some lifts can be fitted with jacks that roll along the runways and allow the vehicle to be lifted off its wheels for wheel, tire, or suspension work.

Scissor lifts use a system similar to the scissor jack that comes with many cars and trucks, but in this case, instead of a screwthat cranks up the lift, hydraulic cylinders do the heavy work. Scissor lifts are relatively inexpensive, but usually have a capacityof no more than 6,000 lbs. Since a scissor lift rests on the garage floor, it can be moved from bay to bay as needed.

Parallelogram lifts are hydraulically operated and can offer very high capacity for the heaviest vehicles. Capacities ofup to 100,000 lbs. and runway lengths of up to 48 ft. are available.

The latest development is the mobile column lift. Four, or even six, of these units can be used to raise any two- or three-axle vehicle. The units can be rolled up to a vehicle, and the lift armsraise the vehicle by the tires. Effectively, each unit is a small forklift. The units are electrically interconnected, so that they all work in unison. Large wheels allow the columns to be moved with ease, and the weight of the vehicle sets them solidly down on the shop floor.

“One of their major advantages,” Perlstein said, “is that they can be used in any bay in the shop. A single bay does not have to be dedicated to the lift.”

Any column can be used as the master control unit to control all the others. As an added bonus with this type of lift, if a vehicle needs extensive work, it can be supported on heavy-duty jack stands,while the lift columns are moved to another bay to lift another vehicle.

Consider Lift Safety
When raising an object weighing several thousand pounds into the air to position a technician beneath it, safety questions arise. Is the lift going to stay in the raised position and not come down on the technician’s head or dump the vehicle onto the shop floor? Can the hydraulic and electrical lines be trusted not to spray hot oil or hot voltage around the shop? Will the lift design prevent a bumbling technician from driving a raised vehicle off the end of it? And when the lift is lowered, will it become a hazardous obastacle on the shop floor?

Furthermore, is the lift manufacturer reliable? Offshore manufacturers occasionally offer bargain-priced lifts, but do they usehigh-grade materials and the best technology to ensure that the lift will not become an expensive chunk of iron in a short time? Is the lift designed without cross-connecting beams or cables that could present a hazard to movement in the shop?

The Automotive Lift Institute (ALI), to which all domestic lift manufacturers belong, can answer many questions about safety and construction standards. ALI can be reached on the Internet at

Which is Cost-Effective?
The mobile column lift is the most cost-effective lift available today. A set of four columns, through discounted government contracts, sells for about $20,000, depending upon capacity. A four-post lift of similar capacity is about $60,000, and a parallelogram can cost about $80,000. An in-ground unit is also about $80,000, dueto required concrete work and excavation. “With all other above-ground types of lifts, after they’re delivered, all you have to do is plug them in, and maybe bolt them to the floor,” said Perlstein.

In any government entity, Perlstein added, there is a ratio of eight or 10 light vehicles that can be lifted on a 10,000-lb. capacitylift to each heavier vehicle that would require a more specialized device.

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