This Way Up: How to choose the best lift for your shop

Lift choices are dictated by everything from the vehicles being serviced to the nature of work being conducted. (Stertil-Koni photo)

TORONTO, Ont. — Nothing reinforces the need for well-chosen shop equipment better than a truck suspended over your head — and that’s exactly what’s involved when it comes to choosing the lift for a service bay.

“We’re encouraging people, when we talk about heavy-duty, to walk under 10,000 to 120,000 lb. of vehicles above us,” says Automotive Lift Institute (ALI) president R.W. “Bob” O’Gorman, referring to the trust that mechanics place in such systems. “We’re encouraging people to do what other industries say you don’t do.”

Aside from the safety considerations, the right lifts and hoists certainly make a dramatic difference in a shop’s productivity, too.

There are plenty of options depending on the available space and work to be completed. Mobile columns can be wheeled from one bay to the next, engaging with vehicle wheels and relying on synchronized controls to ensure a level lift. There are multi-post runway designs that lift vehicles by their tires and offer full access to the undercarriage. In-ground lifts tuck all their mechanisms below the surface of a garage floor when not in use.

The right choice will largely be dictated by the nature of the vehicles being supported.

“What vehicles are you going to service?” asks Peter Bowers, sales support manager for Stertil Koni, a maker of heavy-duty lifts. A local heavy-duty service bay, for example, might need to tackle equipment as diverse as an upfitted Ford F-450 to an over-the-road crane.

What service will the lift perform?

But the type of service being performed will make a difference of its own.

“When you look at service, you’ve got PMs or preventive maintenance,” Bowers explains. “About 70% of the stuff that’s done on a vehicle is done with the brakes and suspension because that’s what takes the impact from the road.” Other shops, meanwhile, might require lifts to suspend equipment for an extended period of time during comprehensive rebuilds.

Each task will require access to different components, which might require variations in the chosen lift. Platform lifts mounted on a concrete floor, for example, might require rolling bridge jacks that are used to elevate axles and allow wheels to roll free.

It’s why Rotary Lift stresses the importance of evaluating available space, traffic flows, vehicle lengths and turning radius when considering equipment.

Increasingly popular mobile columns, which can be moved throughout a shop, are a good choice when there’s limited space to be had.

“Mobile column lifts generally have the lowest upfront cost of any heavy-duty lift, plus there are no installation costs,” the company says on its website. “However, when comparing the cost of lifts, it’s imperative that you consider the overall lifetime value and choose a manufacturer that has the reputation and financial stability to be around for the life of your lifts. Top-quality manufacturers will provide superior support and offer products through distributors who are fully equipped to provide installation, service, inspections, and repairs to minimize any downtime.”

Further flexibility is emerging through lifts that run on battery power and synchronize their moves through wireless connections.

“You don’t have requirements to hook them into the building, you don’t need to have three-phase power, and you don’t have any problems with tripping hazards,” says Stertil Koni’s Bowers. How things change. “Ten years ago, mobile columns were all connected with cables that ran on the floor and a high tripping hazard.”

One Stertil Koni option known as the Green Lift even incorporates an active energy retrieval system which captures the energy that would otherwise be wasted when a lift is lowered. The end result extends the time between charging by about 35%.

Updates to in-ground lifts, a popular option for drive-through service bays, have included better approaches for containing the pistons and plumbing underneath.

“They [once] had a lot of environmental problems because you had steel pipe that was buried in the dirt,” Bowers explains of the lifts gone by. Today’s models hold the hydraulics inside a containment box, keeping groundwater out of the lift vault, and any oil inside the box. “Your ability to have any environmental leaking is pretty much eliminated.”

A typical inground lift can require a pit that’s about nine feet deep, with the power units mounted underneath and controls mounted on the floor or wall. In contrast, the pit needed for a scissor lift will be much shallower. Just remember that the extra moving parts will equate to more maintenance than a simple hydraulic piston.

Of course excavations are not always an option, certainly in a leased shop, so that has led to the increasing popularity of mobile column lifts that can sit on a flat slab or concrete shop floor. A mobile column rated at 18,500 lb., and used to lift a Class 8 truck, can sit atop nothing more than six inches of 3,500 psi concrete and a single layer of 6×6 welded wire fabric, Bowers says. “It’s not a highly reinforced slab.”

Gone are the days when power came directly through a cord. Battery-powered lifts eliminate a common tripping hazard.

Lifts meeting the ALI standard

Deciding on the style of lift is just the beginning, though. Purchasing teams need to keep an eye on design features that will deliver the all-important confidence in equipment.

That’s where the Automotive Lift Institute comes in.

The group’s gold labels identify products that are certified to meet a series of standards. First among them are the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) safety-related requirements to construct, test, and validate automotive lifts. Essentially, the third-party tests verify structural integrity, properly functioning controls and load-holding devices, proper loading speeds, and the all-important overload protection. Part of the process involves loading everything to 150% of the rated capacity to ensure none of the structural elements or components deform.

Uniquely Canadian requirements ensure that the underlying electrical systems meet CAN/CSA C22.2 Number 68. “It’s going to have to deal with all of the resistors, the flame protection, the fire protection of the components – everything you would expect when you talk about protecting a building or a product from an electrical issue,” ALI’s O’Gorman explains.

Some lift designs clearly fall short.

“There are some manufacturers who are building products specifically for the U.S. market and they’re not intending it to cross the border. The electrical requirements are similar, but they do differ,” O’Gorman says.

It’s not the only way that a lift’s country of origin can make a difference, particularly if a non-certified lift is imported from outside North America.  “There may be no way of you getting that lift into operation because you can’t prove that it meets the Canadian code for electrical, and you can’t prove that it meets the ALCTV [Automotive Lift Construction, Testing and Validation safety standards] – which a lot of the labor ministries have in their requirements,” he says. A European-produced lift might be validated by a CE marking, but not be accepted in Canada or the U.S.

Grey-market offerings that have largely copied other designs present further dangers. Their manufacturers might not understand why an altered structural piece was used begin with, and they certainly wouldn’t have access to the tests that led to the final decisions, O’Gorman says.

Maintaining your lifts

The focus on a lift doesn’t end when it’s installed, either.

“When you go into maintenance shops that are in the business of maintaining vehicles, one of the things that generally sees the least maintenance is part of the infrastructure – which is the lifts. People have a tendency to only worry about them when they break down,” Bowers says.

Daily inspections, in large part, should focus on things like unusual noises, erratic operations, or evidence of metal chip or filings. But some maintenance activities will vary depending the lift being used, O’Gorman says, referring to replacement intervals for wire rope as an example.

“You put it in the air, you walk around it, you make sure it’s safe and there’s no form of deformation,” Bowers adds of the regular checks. He also stresses that shops have the expertise needed for monthly inspections. “These folks that are using these lifts, they’re in the repair and maintenance business.”

Periodic maintenance activities are covered in the ANSI/ALI Automotive Lifts – Safety Requirements for Operation, Inspection and Maintenance (ALOIM), and most provincial labor ministries require annual inspections that align with it.

“Typically that qualified lift inspector’s going to be somebody from outside of the facility,” O’Gorman says of the annual inspections. About 500 ALI-trained people are conducting inspections across North America, and there is at least one in every province.

“Many OEMs recommend or even mandate which truck lifts dealers should install. In some cases, the OEM has worked with a lift manufacturer during the vehicle design process to determine how to best pick up the vehicle, especially in situations where the lifting points are difficult to reach,” Rotary adds.

It makes sense to pick up the phone to ask a few questions before buying equipment that will pick up vehicles rolling through the bay doors.


John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking,, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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