This drive-on scissor lift is equipped with additional lighting and air jacks, two very handy options which greatly increase the utility of the lift.
Photo credit: Hunter Engineering
There are literally hundreds of different vehicle lifts on the market, made by dozens of different companies. Every one of those companies wants you to buy the lift that you really need, but choosing the right lift for your shop is not a simple matter. While price is a major consideration, it might not be the most important. You need to consider the kind of work it will be typically used for, how much space is available, who will support/maintain the lift … the list goes on. You should also assess your business so you can choose lifts based on what you’ll be doing in the future, not just on what you’re doing today.
Choosing a lift dealer may not be simple either, but there’s no doubt that the better lift dealers know the questions you need to ask yourself in order to help you make the right choice. In this section we’ll explain the basic lift designs and show you some of the questions you’ll face.
Why do you need a lift?
An automotive lift is a device that raises a vehicle to a comfortable working height off the floor. It’s used for two main reasons: to increase the shop’s productivity and to preserve the health and safety of the workers. These are simple concepts, but they can be easily overlooked.
A lift does more than just reduce the time needed to do specific jobs; some jobs almost can’t be done without one. That means the lift has to be the right tool for the job. A lift used primarily for general service and repair work may not be the right choice for something more specialized, such as alignments or exhaust work. It’s also important to make sure the lift doesn’t take up so much space that it prevents you from doing other jobs in the bay when the lift isn’t being used.
A lift does more than make a job easier; it saves wear and tear on your body. It’s possible to do brake work all day long with just a floor jack and jack stands, but over time even young and fit technicians can suffer real and lasting injuries working that way. When the weather is nasty and the shop floor gets sloppy, having the job at “a comfortable working height” becomes an important safety issue.
So as you make your way through the decision process, be sure to remember these two main reasons for owning a lift: productivity and safety.
A lift is a piece of capital equipment, possibly the most expensive piece you’ll buy for your shop. Price is definitely a major consideration, but the purchase price and installation costs are only part of the total cost of ownership. Like all machines, maintenance, inspection and occasional minor repairs will be required. Those costs are influenced by how well the lift is built, maintained and matched to your real needs. A lift that’s often over-worked, poorly maintained or otherwise misused can wear out faster. After the warranty expires, one major repair can easily cost 50 percent of the original purchase price.
Ask the dealer about a lift’s overall cost of ownership. The costs of repairs and downtime from a cheap lift can more than outweigh any upfront price savings. You want a lift that has a proven track record for consistent uptime with lower lifetime repair costs. When comparing the purchase price of lifts from different suppliers, be sure to ask what is included in the quoted price. Does the quote include accessories like rolling jacks, alignment kits and adapters, or are they additional costs? Ask about shipping and the price of professional installation.
And don't forget about safety. Do you want to stand under the lowest-priced lift you can find?
There are six main types of lift used in professional automotive service facilities: in-ground, two-post surface, four-post surface, scissor lifts, parallelogram lifts and low/mid-rise lifts. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and some are intended for specific types of work.
In-ground lifts are available with one or two posts and with a wide range of vehicle frame contact configurations, including three-stage arms and adjustable pad adapters. The controls can be mounted on a wall or a free-standing pedestal, and the posts, power units and hydraulics are all located in the ground under the shop floor. Light-duty in-ground lifts are usually rated for 9,000 to 12,000 pounds.
By a wide margin, in-ground lifts take up the least amount of space in the shop, making it easier to move vehicles and equipment around them. With single-post lifts, it’s also easier to move and work around a vehicle on the ground because the whole lift is underneath the vehicle. However when the vehicle is lifted, this situation is reversed: parts of the vehicle will be difficult to reach because the lift is in the way. For instance, on a single-post in-ground lift, it may be difficult to remove the transmission from a rear-drive vehicle.
Older in-ground lifts have been known to leak hydraulic fluid into the ground, so there may be local regulations governing their installation. Some newer designs use organic hydraulic fluid and have all the in-ground components encapsulated in a plastic housing. This might easily meet environmental regulations, but it's been known to impact the service life of the lift. Normal maintenance of a modern in-ground lift is pretty simple, but older designs can be more complicated and expensive to maintain and repair. Traditionally, an in-ground lift has a longer service life than any other type, usually 30 years or more. However some newer above-ground designs are proving to be just as durable.
Although an in-ground lift can be added to an existing service bay, that’s an expensive way to buy a lift. In-ground lifts are more commonly installed during new construction.
Two-Post Surface Lift
The two-post surface lift is the most common lift in the industry. It has two pairs of lifting arms attached, one each, to two vertical columns. The vehicle is parked between the columns and the arms are moved to position the lifting pads under the designated lifting points on the vehicle’s frame. They are available as symmetrical, asymmetrical and variable-symmetry designs. Lifting capacity can range as high as 30,000 pounds.
There are many advantages to this type of equipment, but the most obvious are lower initial cost, ease of installation, and it can be moved to another location. It’s easy and less expensive to inspect and maintain, and since it’s completely above ground, there are no special environmental concerns. There are a wide variety of adapters available for this type of lift, making it easier to accommodate different types of vehicles. Other accessories include weight gauges, drive-on adapters, wheel lift adapters, and more. Some are available with controls on each column, additional lighting and/or electrical outlets, air hose connections and more.
A two-post lift is completely outside the footprint of the vehicle, so it’s completely out of the way when working under the vehicle. This also makes it easier to position the arms, particularly on vehicles with difficult-to-reach lift points. Above-ground lifts are often available in different heights to accommodate taller vehicles or lower ceilings.
The main disadvantage of surface lifts is that they take up a lot of space even when not in use: this can add a lot of steps to your day. Depending on the design and shop space available for installation, the columns sometimes prevent opening the vehicle’s doors all the way. Those with an overhead cable guide limit lifting height of taller vehicles, but as noted earlier, that can be addressed if there’s enough height in the shop. Finally, some (but not all) of these lifts have a shorter expected service life.
Four-Post Drive-On Surface Lift
A four-post drive-on lift has ramps and steel runways which the vehicle is driven onto. When raised, the vehicle is still resting on its wheels. It may have a floor, but most are open between the runways. Drive-on lifts are fast and easy because no set-up is required to raise the vehicle. Often this type of lift is fitted with movable jacks that can lift the vehicle a few inches off the runways. A light-duty four-post lift is typically rated for 12,000 to 14,000 pounds.
Although this is the most common type of wheel alignment lift, it’s also used for quick lube service, long-wheelbase vehicles, exhaust work and other jobs requiring loaded suspension. It’s available in a variety of lengths and capacities, and it can be made as a drive-through model. When fitted with jacks between the runways, they can be used for almost any type of job. Compared with in-ground hydraulic lifts, they tend to be less expensive to purchase, install and maintain, and they can be relocated because everything is above ground.
A four-post drive-on lift is more expensive than a two-post lift (although cost of ownership is usually about the same). When not in use, they have a larger footprint and are several inches high, limiting the utility of that service bay. Earlier models have a service life of about ten to 15 years, but newer designs last much longer.
Scissor lifts use a scissor design to lift the vehicle. There are no columns. They are available as frame-contact models or with runways for drive-on lifting. Alignment models are available, and while there are usually low-rise models, there are also several types that can raise a vehicle a full 6 feet. Many are rated only for light-duty vehicles, but there are also models that will lift a city bus. Drive-on models are typically used for quick-lube service, exhaust work and, when properly equipped, for alignment and suspension work.
Light-duty, frame-contact scissor lifts have a very low profile and a small footprint. They’re completely self-contained, so installation is fast and easy. They can be surface mounted or, with larger models, ‘flush-mounted’ into the shop floor, and some models are portable. Frame lift models are commonly used for quick-lube service and the types of jobs done in shops that specialize in tires and/or brake work. Although light-duty models have a small footprint, the working cylinder is often inside that footprint, limiting access/working space directly under the vehicle. For light-duty vehicles, these are usually the least expensive lift to purchase.
The parallelogram lift is for lifting heavy vehicles. Like a scissor lift, the parallelogram lift has no post. It’s mounted on the floor, often flush-mounted or recessed into the floor, and it’s a drive-on lift. It’s available in different lengths up to 48 feet and can be fitted with additional jacks, plumbed for air lines and wired for lights and electrical outlets. Typically used for busses and other long, heavy vehicles, there are models that will lift up to 100,000 pounds.
If you need a lift with these capabilities, purchase and installation costs are only part of the total picture. The cost of scheduled, professional maintenance is more important because of the cost to your business if the lift becomes unavailable for any reason.
Low-Rise and Mid-Rise Lift
Low-rise and mid-rise lifts are designed to raise vehicles 2 to four feet off the ground. They are either frame-contact or drive-on lifts, and they are often portable so they can be rolled around the shop, or even used outside. Lifting capacity is typically from 6,000 to 10,000 pounds.
Low- and mid-rise lifts are above-ground devices with a small footprint and a low profile. They have no special requirements; they’re usually electric and operate on 110V. They’re typically used for wheel and tire work, brake work, body work and even auto detailing. They’re ideal for jobs like these in shops with low ceilings, and portable models add even more flexibility. Although they usually raise the vehicle no higher than a floor jack, it is a full-vehicle lift that’s usually the least expensive type available.
No matter what kind of lift you buy, your insurance company, your finance company and/or local government regulations may require the lift to be certified as safe to use.
Every lift manufacturer advertises the certifications bestowed upon their products by various safety organizations and trade associations. The list of certifications is long and covers manufacturing standards, electrical standards, safety standards and more. However some of those certifications may be incomplete, obsolete or not applicable. Some are issued by trade associations or “testing” organizations with highly questionable credentials, and some product certifications are intentionally misleading. However, there is one certification that matters more than any other to a professional service facility, to their insurance company, and to health and safety regulators: the gold sticker issued by ALI/ETL.
The Automotive Lift Institute (ALI) is a trade association whose members are lift manufacturers in North America and lift manufacturers in other countries with an established sales and service business in the U.S. The ALI has engaged ETL/Intertek, an independent Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL), to test its members’ products to verify that they conform to design, construction, safety and performance standards set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). A properly certified lift will have a gold label with the ANSI, ALI and ETL logos, a statement that it meets the provisions of ANSI/ALI Automotive Lift Construction, Testing and Validation (ALCTV) standards set in 2006, and a serial number on the label.
There are other certifications, some that apply to specific components, some that apply to installation by a certified professional. Some additional certifications may be required by local governments. But the ALI certifications described above are the most important and are available only from the lift manufacturer.
What do you really need?
Since the above-ground two-post lift is by far the most popular design in the industry, the rest of this article will focus mainly on that type of lift. However, most of this information applies to other types as well.
Every company representative who contributed to this article said it’s important to meet with a professional installer/maintenance agent before purchasing a lift. Their job is to help shop owners understand what kind of lift they really need, and they have a good understanding of what their vendors’ lifts can do and how to match them to a shop’s real needs. Installers will also train the shop owner and technicians on the proper use and maintenance of their new lift.
The first question a distributor will ask is, “What do you plan to lift?” The most common mistake people make when buying a lift is choosing the wrong weight rating. Every lift has a maximum weight rating, and you can safely lift a 10,000-pound truck with a lift that’s rated for 10,000 pounds. But Jon Bailey, an installation/service dealer for Challenger Lifts, said “It’s like driving your car at full speed all the time. It can be done, but it means the lift will wear out faster and need more maintenance.” Bailey advised lifting no more than about 3/4 of a lift’s capacity during normal everyday use.
A vehicle’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is listed on the door post of all vehicles, but commercial vehicles like contractors’ trucks with added storage compartments might be modified to handle more weight. That means if you’re planning to regularly lift a 3/4-ton pick-up truck that’s loaded with tools, your lift should be rated for at least 25 percent more weight than the heaviest truck you expect to service.
That's because overall lifting capacity is only one consideration.
According to Steve Perlstein of Mohawk Lifts, “lifting symmetry” might be a more accurate way to determine the weight rating you need. This doesn’t refer to lift configuration; it’s about the distribution of the vehicle’s weight on the lift. Each arm of a lift is designed to carry one quarter of the lift’s rated weight. That means a lift that’s rated for 9,000 pounds is designed to carry 2,250 pounds on each arm. When lifting a 7,500-pound truck with that 9,000-pound lift, there is still plenty of extra capacity. But if the truck carries 5,000 pounds on the rear axle, each rear arm will be supporting 2,500 pounds, which is more than its rated capacity. Perlstein stressed that the most important thing is "to get the right capacity lift so that none of the arms are ever overloaded."
He also noted that the configuration and adjustability of the arms can play a big role in a lift’s real capacity and longevity. There’s no doubt that a 3/4-ton dually loaded with plumber’s tools is heavier at the rear, so even if the lift has enough reserve capacity to avoid overloading the rear arms, it would also be best if the arms have enough adjustment to move the truck farther forward between the posts. Ideally, the vehicle's center of mass should be as close as possible to the fore-and-aft center of the lift. This will minimize wear-and-tear on the lift, but it doesn’t really help to stabilize or balance of the load: you’ll still need tall jack stands to hold the truck steady on the lift or to remove the weight of the engine or transmission.
It’s common for 10-year-old rear arms to wear out from improper lift loading. Ideally your shop should have two types of lift, or variable symmetry lifts that can handle both balanced and unbalanced vehicles. Basically, these will have front arms with a longer reach.
For two-post lifts, make sure you see the arm sweep diagrams for each of the lifts you’re considering. This is particularly important for shops that service vehicles that are low to the ground or have a short wheelbase. These often have pick-up points that cannot be accessed by all lifts.
Preparing the shop
Whether you’re replacing an existing lift or designing a new shop, it’s worth consulting an experienced architect or shop planner. Some lift manufacturers and/or their installation contractors offer free planning assistance, including recommendations on which lifts to install and where to position them. Some of the factors they’ll consider include space availability, traffic flow, concrete and soil quality, vehicle length and turning radius, and whether the property is leased or owned.
Even if there’s already a lift in place, the shop floor should be evaluated before a new lift is installed. Water and soil conditions in some areas may be unsuitable for in-ground lifts, while others may not support surface lifts. The typical two-post above-ground lift requires a concrete floor that’s at least 4 inches thick. Jon Bailey said it’s surprising how often the customer assures him that the floor is suitable, only to discover otherwise when drilling the hole for the first bolt. It’s highly recommended to drill a test hole before ordering a lift. If the floor is not thick enough, Bailey said one option is to pour concrete piers under the floor to support the lift posts.
The size of the typical service bay has grown over the years. It’s possible to fit a two-post above-ground lift into a bay that’s only 10 feet wide, but that creates a difficult and exhausting working environment. A 12-foot bay is acceptable, but today's shops are being designed with 14-foot service bays. Many of the lift manufacturers offer layout design tools and detailed dimensional drawings of their lifts, and most installation companies offer design services to make sure your lift is located properly in the bay.
Ceiling height and overhead clearance are other important details that are often overlooked. Bailey doesn’t rely on a customer’s estimate; he asks the shop owner to actually measure the height. Even so, just because the shop has a 14-foot ceiling doesn’t mean you’ll be able to lift that dually all the way. It may be necessary to relocate or work around roof members, door tracks, ventilation systems or other equipment.
Most commercial lifts operate on 220 volts AC. It’s recommended that each lift be powered through its own circuit breaker. In addition to not having to share power with a compressor or other piece of equipment, this also makes it possible to shut off the power to an individual lift when it’s time for service or repair.
Ask your lift supplier what design elements make a particular lift reliable. Ask technicians and other shop owners about their experience with various lifts and which brands they recommend. Talk to them about the utility of lifts they have used, how often they are down for repair, how easy they are to maintain, how user-friendly the owner’s manual is and how installation went. Ask your lift supplier for shops in your area that use lifts you’re considering so you can check them out yourself.
Remember that another measure of product quality is after-sale support. Make sure that factory-trained installers and technicians are available locally to handle all of your lift installation, inspection and maintenance needs.
The most important safety consideration is whether the lift is certified to meet the ANSI/ALI ALCTV-2006 safety standards described earlier. Look for the gold “ALI Certified/Validated by ETL” label. Only lifts that have passed independent safety testing can use this label. Without ALI certification, buyers have no guarantee that a lift meets accepted industry safety standards.
Compare safety features and systems on the lift models under consideration. Safety systems should be user-friendly, or technicians will be tempted to ignore or override them. Some of the most common safety features on the market are:
- Mechanical locks
- Air locks
- Automatic wheel chocks
- Emergency stop buttons
- Non-skid ramp surfaces and runways
- Lockable disconnect switches
- Arm restraints
- Multi-position locking systems
- Wheel spotting dishes
- Work steps
- Slack cable guide arms
A good lift will require minimal maintenance while offering years of reliable service. Compare the maintenance schedules for the lifts you’re considering. Any time a lift is down for service or repair, it reduces the shop’s productivity, and that should be counted as maintenance costs too. Ask the dealer who is going to take care of the lift once it’s installed. Find out if an in-ground lift can be maintained without pulling it out of the ground. Find out what is covered under warranty and find out how warranty work is scheduled and performed. If the lift is built outside of North America, ask if OE replacement parts are readily available.
No matter who takes care of the lift, Gary McVay, Customer Service Manager for BendPak, says that you can easily do a visual inspection of the post(s), the lift head assembly (carriage) and the arms. ALI recommends those inspections be carried out daily. Look for obvious physical damage to the posts, and on surface lifts, make sure the bolts are secure. Lookinside the posts for metal chips that would indicate metal-on-metal wear. Look on the outside of the post for cracked welds on the base plate/post joint. Inspect welds on the carriag, and on the arms underneath where they slide in and out of each other. Look for metal-on-metal grinding at the arm pins, and check to see if the pin holes are out of round.
The most important inspection items are cables, locks, pulleys and anchor bolts. Check the cable tension, look for frayed cables and see that the pulleys rotate smoothly. Make sure the safety locks and the arm locks operate properly.
When you’re in the market for a new vehicle lift, your first task is to find a lift distributor. A good distributor has factory-trained staff who can come to your facility to help you determine the appropriate lifts to maximize productivity and profitability.
Even car dealers who plan to buy lifts through an OEM equipment program should start the lift-buying process by calling a lift distributor. Don’t choose your lift based on a picture and a paragraph of text. This is the most important point of this entire article: Research carefully, and get an expert to help you choose the lifts that will meet your needs now and in the future.
A relationship with a distributor should last well past your initial purchase. The distributor is your one-stop-shop for new lifts, accessories, professional installation, service and OE replacement parts. A local distributor is also a knowledgeable resource for answering questions about the lifts. For this reason, it’s important to know that your lift supplier can meet your long-term needs.
The following check list was provided by Rotary Lift to help you evaluate a lift distributor/installer:
- History, experience and reputation. How long has the distributor been in the lift business? How many lifts has the installer set up? Does the company have a reputation for prompt service, expert advice and strong customer support?
- Factory authorization. Is the company authorized by the manufacturer to sell, install and service its lifts? Factory-authorized representatives have access to the most current product, installation and service information available. Using a factory-authorized installer also can often mean enhanced warranty protection and installation guarantees for your new lifts. Lift manufacturers may only allow their authorized companies to install certain products, to make sure installation meets their high standards.
- Factory training. Ask if the distributor employees have been trained on proper lift installation, operation and maintenance by the lift manufacturer.
- Knowledge of local building and construction codes. Be sure you can rely on the distributor/installer to comply with local codes and regulations, know what permits are needed, and properly dispose of any old lifts and used hydraulic oil.
- Insurance. The distributor should have adequate liability insurance, as well as workman’s compensation coverage.
- Scheduling flexibility. Is the installer willing to schedule installation at a time that's best for you? How are emergency service calls handled?
- Guarantee. All installations should be guaranteed for at least a year.
- Parts availability. Does the company maintain an adequate inventory of OE replacement parts on-site to get lifts back up and running as quickly as possible?
The bottom line
Buying a lift takes time, research, leg work and lots of help from people who know what they’re doing. Buying a lift is not easy, but it’s a lot harder to live with the wrong lift or lift distributor. The article and the product descriptions on these pages are a good starting point. Now start searching for a knowledgeable and reputable distributor.