Buying a Lift

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...


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.

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