Management & Operations

User's Guide to the World of Vehicle Lifts

Posted on June 1, 2004 by Thuy Chu, Editorial Assistant

With today’s bus maintenance performed primarily on lifts, and with manufacturers constantly developing new features, choosing the right vehicle lift is of great importance.

“Lifts, both permanently installed and mobile, provide technicians with the full capabilities necessary to perform preventive maintenance, undercarriage repairs, brakes, suspensions, etc., with ease and flexibility,” says Paul Condran, equipment maintenance manager of CityBus in Culver City, Calif.

When looking to buy lifts, agencies should factor in the type of maintenance performed, the space available and the safety features of different types of lifts, suggests John Burt, president of Auto Equipment Co. Inc. in Johns Island, S.C. Other factors to consider include customer referrals, manufacturer’s track record, user friendliness, reliability and environmental compatibility.

Here are some helpful tips for purchasing the best vehicle lift for your agency.

Permanent installation
Generally, vehicle lifts fall into two categories — in-ground and above ground.

One option is the immovable, in-ground lift. Installed beneath the floor of the shop, in-ground lifts require pistons to raise the vehicle for repairs and services. The vehicle is lifted by the frame or chassis, without the wheels being touched, allowing work to be done on the brakes and wheels. Lifts with three or more pistons are commonly used for larger vehicles such as coaches, school buses and transit buses.

A major advantage of in-ground lifts is that they save space in the garage. When not engaged, they don’t have to be moved or stored anywhere.

“There is nothing in the way, nothing obstructing the view,” says Steve Perlstein, marketing director for Mohawk Lifts in Amsterdam, N.Y.

The in-ground lift has traditionally been the most common model. But today, says Jean DellAmore, president of lift maker Stertil-Koni in Stevensville, Md., it’s becoming more popular for agencies to purchase more than one type of lift to handle multiple applications. “More and more transit operations are buying mobile lifts combined with in-ground lifts, or parallelogram lifts combined with mobile lifts,” she says.

A portable option
Above-ground lifts come in a variety of options, including mobile, post, surface-mounted and frame- or wheel-engaging hinge models.

Surface-mounted lifts are bolted to a garage floor and powered by electric motors through a hydraulic pump or screw-type drive. These lifts, which also include drive-on parallelogram models, have replaced the in-ground hydraulic lift as the most popular type of vehicle lift in use today.

For smaller shops that don’t have room for in-ground or surface-mounted lifts, mobile or post models provide a good option. Vehicles are lifted by two, four, six or eight columns from a single control panel.

Paul Wojcik, director of sales for Railquip Inc., a lift supplier in Atlanta, says flexibility is an advantage of mobile lifts. For example, two mechanics sharing mobile lifts and using support stands could be working on two cars simultaneously, and four mechanics could be working on four cars, he says.

Bill Gibson, marketing director for Automotive Resources Inc. (ARI-Hetra) in Manassas, Va., says mobile lifts save time. “Mobile lifts dramatically decrease the time it takes to service vehicles,” he says.

Cost and maintenance
As always, price is important when purchasing a vehicle lift. Prices vary upon lift type and capacity. In-ground lifts range greatly in price, starting at about $70,000, including installation. Mobile lifts range between $20,000 and $80,000, and parallelogram lifts range between $40,000 and $70,000.

One benefit of surface-mounted lifts is the price, which does not require the costly installation needed for in-ground lifts. The installation of in-ground lifts also takes up more time.

However, if an in-ground lift is planned during the construction phase of a new building, it will cost considerably less than adding an above-ground lift, according to Mohawk’s Perlstein.

As for maintenance, agencies are encouraged to inspect their lifts at least once a year. Perlstein suggests having authorized representatives from lift manufacturers inspect equipment because parts and pieces are specific to each manufacturer.

Often, the lift type dictates the frequency of maintenance. For example, the Milwaukee County Transit System, which uses both in-ground lifts and surface-mounted electro mechanical lifts, performs maintenance work every 30 days. This includes lift lock inspection, superstructure movement, chain repair and seal replacement, according to Bill Schaller, manager of administration, safety and training.

Safety issues
DellAmore of Stertil-Koni recommends making sure that lift manufacturers are certified by an independent testing facility such as the Automotive Lift Institute (ALI). “Lifts are products that carry a high liability,” she says. “Purchasing from a non-ALI member is a very risky proposition.”

Members of ALI must have at least 70% of their lifts certified by Intertek Testing Service’s ETL SEMKO (ETL), a third-party lift tester and an OSHA-designated Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory.

In addition to being certified, lifts should have special safety features. For example, ARI-Hetra has a self-locking mechanism, operating independently from the drive screw, which blocks the support directly to the columns and prevents the vehicle from coming down in case of an accident, according to Gibson. Engaging a safety wedge will immobilize the system.

Similarly, Rotary Lift in Madison, Ind., produces lifts with a safety tape switch that can shut a lift completely off if the tape switch feels two pounds of pressure, preventing worker injury and damage to the lift.

Railquip’s mobile lifts are operated from a remote computer console to ensure the safety of operators. “It allows the operator an unobstructed view of the lifting or lowering operation while maintaining a position outside the danger zone created by a vehicle in movement,” says Wojcik.

Lift technology is continuously improving. Stertil-Koni is working on a wireless mobile lift that will reduce the risk of someone tripping on control cables. “Wireless electronics are the next frontier with lifts,” says DellAmore.

Environmental attention
An important environmental concern facing in-ground lifts is the leakage of hydraulic fluid. Since these lifts are stored beneath the surface, it is harder to detect leaks. Surface-mounted lifts, on the other hand, allow for easier leak detection.

Still, leakage is greater in some lifts than in others. DellAmore says the volume of hydraulic fluid per column in mobile lifts is relatively small — less than one gallon of hydraulic fluid per column. “I have never heard of one incident where a customer lost all his fluid capacity. Leaks, when they occur, are relatively small and easily contained,” she says.

The LoRiser lift from Auto Equipment Co. is designed with a double containment system in all areas where there are hydraulic fluids. The hoses that run from the power unit to the vaults are lined with a conduit in the concrete and are steel enforced. “This ensures easy repair and no environmental impact if a leak develops,” says Burt. “A simple fix and wipe up is generally all that’s required.”

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