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...


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.

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