Uplifting Experience

Reprinted with permission of MOTOR Magazine, August 1995

What do oil changes, brake jobs, tranny pulls, suspension work, exhaust replacements and oil pan R&R have in common? They all go a heck of allot faster and smoother when a lift keeps a vehicle at just the right height for your techs’ experienced hands.

Face it, you’d be hard pressed to find a piece of equipment that’s’ more versatile or important to your shops productivity than a lift. And that fact certainly hasn’t eluded lift manufacturers, as evidenced by the myriad of new designs that have exploded onto the scene in recent years.

Over the next few pages, we’ll explain what it takes to be an informed lift buyer. We’ll start with some of the key questions you should ask yourself before purchasing a lift. Next, we’ll discuss the pluses and minuses of some of the more popular designs. Finally, we’ll focus on what you should be looking for in a lift and a lift manufacturer. Let’s get started.

Careful Analysis

When all is said and done, a lift purchase is a major capital investment. And as such, it requires some careful forethought just like any other pricey piece of shop equipment. Remember once you buy a lift you’re stuck with it, regardless of whether or not it fulfills your expectations. Here are some of the key questions you need to answer when shopping for that perfect lift.

What type of work do you do and what type of vehicles do you service? Shops vary just like lift designs, so the type of jobs you handle should have a major influence on your buying decision. Body shop technicians, for example rarely need a vehicle more than a few feet off the ground to do sanding, grinding or paint work, so you’ll often see low-rise parallelogram or scissor-type lifts in collision shops.

General repair shops, on the other hand, are much more diversified handling everything from brake jobs to transmission replacements. Using the latter job as an example, look for a lift that provides full undercar access with an unobstructed floor to jockey your tranny jack into position. That means an above ground unit with a “clear-floor” design.

The types of vehicles you service is just as important as the type of work you perform. Independent shops will generally tackle anything that rolls in the door, from the smallest compacts to full sized light duty trucks. These shops should look for a lift that combines low swing arms — to accommodate low riding small cars — with a full set of adapters to reach the frames of high ground clearance vehicles such pickups, vans and sport/utes.

What capacity lift will you need?

Determining the right lift capacity is trickier than you think, especially if your contemplating a frame engaging lift. Many shop owners simply look at the heaviest vehicles they service say, 6000 pounds fully loaded and figure a 7000 pound capacity is more than enough to handle anything that comes in the door. Big mistake!

Actually, the capacity of a lift is more a function of its arm strength than its internal mechanisms with each arm designed to handle one-fourth of the load. For a 7000-pound lift, that’s 1750 pounds per arm.

Let’s see how this can get you into trouble: Suppose a plumbers van comes into your shop for an oil change. It weighs in at 6000 pounds, but 4000 of those pounds are concentrated at the rear of the van where the plumbers stores his pipes, fittings, adapters, etc. Each rear arm now has to support 2000 pounds- well over the 1750 pound per arm limit. The lift will still get the truck up in the air, but you’re putting yourself and your techs in jeopardy by getting underneath it. Our advice: When in doubt, get a lift with more capacity than you originally planned.

What’s your shop layout like? The depth, width, ceiling height and floor and soil quality of the bay in which you’re planning to install the lift should always be prime consideration prior to purchase. Many two post above ground lifts use cables or chains mounted in an overhead cover to mechanically equalize the two carriages. Unfortunately, the cover can interfere with the lifting of higher profile vehicles, such as full sized conversion vans and delivery trucks.

Many manufacturers now offer optional extenders for their lifts, which give you added clearance necessary to get those vehicles up to the proper working height. If your thinking of going this route, don’t forget to measure your ceiling height to figure out what length extenders the bay can comfortably accommodate. Rather that overhead cables or chains, some lift makers rely on steel lines to provide hydraulic equalization of the carriages. The advantage here is that the lines can be adjusted to any height or width, and can even be routed underground, if need be. This added flexibility also allows you to install the lift columns closer or wider to accommodate different bay widths.

If your leaning toward an above ground lift, your bay will need at least 5 inches of solid concrete to adequately support the columns that will be bolted to it. If you don’t have that, you’ll need to contract with a reputable concrete mason. In-ground lifts require an excavation pit for the lifts guts, plus repatching of the shop floor once the lift is in place. In addition to the added expense of the inground installations there’s the issue of soil quality to consider. Some soils are more acidic than others. Acid soils, when combined with moisture, tend to promote electrolytic currents, which can pit and corrode the lifts pipes or supply tank and lead to underground fluid leakage-a disaster both environmentally and economically.

The Players

Lifts fall into two basic categories- in-ground and above-ground. In-grounds made their first appearance on the automotive scene in the 1920s, borrowing from the technology found in-of all things-a barbers chair! In general, in-ground lift take less floor space than above grounds, meaning you maybe able to fit an extra lift or two in an unusually large shop.

On the negative side, in-ground lifts are more expensive to install and can cost you a bundle to fix something goes awry underground. And because in-grounds are considered “permanent” installations, they make absolutely no sense for the shop owners who lease rather than own the premises. With the EPA cracking down on repair shops seemingly on every front, lots of shop owners today have become wary of purchasing in-ground lifts for fear of the astronomical cleanup costs they can incur should hydraulic fluid leak into the soil.

It’s estimated that 75% to 90% of all lifts sold today are of the above-ground variety. As we mentioned, above-grounds take up a little more floor space than in grounds, but they have advantages that far outweigh this shortcoming.

Above-ground lifts are generally cheaper and faster to install than in-grounds. They can be easily uprooted and reinstalled if you change or expand your shop’s layout or move to another location. They can also be fitted with power outlets for operating air and electric tools and accessories. Probably the biggest advantage of going the above-ground route is the great variety of lift capacities and styles available.

The two post asymmetric lift has gained tremendous popularity in recent years. This above-ground, frame-engaging lift provides for a “clear floor” while allowing full opening of the vehicle’s doors-basically putting it on par with an in-ground. The asymmetric design is achieved by either rotating the columns slightly toward the rear of the vehicle or putting a bend in the front swing arms of the lift. Critics of the latter method claim it places undue stress on the arms while allowing the beefier columns to take it easy. Proponents counter that there haven’t been any major mishaps and that the design works just fine. Talk to a few lift suppliers and fellow shop owners before making a decision.

As versatile as asymmetric lifts are, they’re not for all vehicles. Some full-sized trucks and vans, for instance, are long that you can’t place the doors where were you want them and still position the vehicle’s center of gravity properly on the lift. Since improper spotting is probably responsible for more lift accidents than all other reasons combined, it may be wiser to go with a symmetric lift if you do lots of truck work. Four-post lifts allow the vehicle to be driven onto the runways. They’re great if you do lots of high volume quick-service jobs, such as oil changes and lubes, and if you work on heavier trucks. Add an optional rolling jack and turntable and this lift becomes ideal for wheel alignments and almost any other type of service.

Full-rise portable lifts are also gaining favor with today’s shop owners. The advantage to this type of lift is that it provides complete undercar access to handle any type of repairs while allowing you flexibility to create a service bay in just about any area where there’s a level surface. Some of these lifts are powered by 12 volt batteries, so your techs can even swing them outside on a nice sunny day.

Don’t Pinch Pennies

We’re all looking to get the most bang for our buck. But shopping for a lift-particularly an above-ground lift-on price alone can end up costing you big time in the long run. If your offered what you perceive to be a sweet deal by a guy in a checkered suit, selling an off brand lift, always ask what’s included with the lift with regard to warranties, freight and delivery charges, installation costs, service fees and adapters. The answers you get could be eye-openers.

With reputable lift makers, freight, delivery and installation are often included in the price of the lift. In addition, you can expect a very generous warranty period covering almost every part of the unit, and service is usually included free of charge.

Don’t forget to ask about insurance. Quality lift makers carry ample liability insurance, so even if your tech gets hurt through his own ignorance, you wont get stuck footing the bill alone for medical or legal fees.

Also think about how long it will take to get a broken lift working again. Better lift companies realize that down lifts cost people money and that their reputations as manufacturers are directly reflected in the service provided by their distributors. Distributors who can’t cut the mustard get axed in a hurry. Expect distributors of name-brand lifts to get you up and running again quickly, often within 24 hours. Lift adapters are an absolute necessity these days due to the proliferation of high-frame vehicles such as pickup trucks, vans and sport/utes. So look at what type of adapters are available, and whether they’re included in the lift price.

Adapters fall into three general categories- then flip up pad, the screw-in pad and the quick connect stacking adapter. The flip-up pad is what you typically find on an inground lift. Its chief advantages are that it adjusts easily to several fixed heights and is self contained. Disadvantages include longer set-up times, less contact area with the frame and a relatively high profile, which may effect low riding cars. The screw-in adapter is infinitely adjustable and provides for a large frame contact area. But even at its lowest point, it may create clearance problems for low riding vehicles. In addition, set-up takes some time because the four pads must be adjusted equally to prevent unequal weight distribution and possible slippage.

More and more lift manufacturers are turning to the quick connect stacking adapters. Think of this set-up as being similar to your ratchet extensions-just keep adding the things until you’ve got the length you want. Stacking adapters can be installed in a flash, offer a large frame contact area and can be stacked as high as needed, yet allow the lowest possible arm clearance to accommodate even the lowest riding sports cars.

Safety First

With 4000 pounds of metal hanging over your head day after day, you obviously want a lift that has every possible safety feature built into it. Any lift worth considering should be equipped with mechanical locks, or safeties, to prevent a vehicle from coming down before its time. On some lifts, the safeties don’t engage until the lift is significantly off the ground, which leaves a small window of opportunity for a mishap. On others, the safeties kick in right away, but must be reset manually when you stop the lift at mid height. Some manufacturers provide automatic engagement of the safeties every few inches. That means that the locks are poised for action from the moment the lift arms contact the frame to when the vehicle is lowered back down to the floor- and everywhere in between.

Hydraulic safety systems are designed to shut down the lift if they sense a severe loss of hydraulic pressure from, say, a burst line. Some systems have the added ability to detect minor pressure differentials between cylinders. So if one cylinder is leaking slightly or you inadvertently lower the lift onto a tool box, the system will automatically sense an imbalance and lock the lift. In 1990, The American National Standards Institute updated its lift design and safety standards (ANSI B153.1-1990) by requiring that all two post lifts be equipped with some sort of restraint mechanism on the swing arms to prevent accidental shifting of the vehicle while its in the air. As a result, most major lift manufacturers today equip their lifts with either manual or automatic swing arm restraints.

Manual restraints work just fine, assuming your techs have enough common sense to engage and release them when they should. Automatic restraints take the technician out of the equation by automatically locking as soon as the lift leaves the ground. And they stay locked until the lift is safely lowered to the floor before releasing. There are so many other aspects of lift safety that we simply can’t cover them all here. But there is an organization that can provide you with any information you might need- the Automatic Lift Institute.

ALI is a consortium of lift manufacturers that was started almost 50 years ago with the intent of providing top-quality lifts and lift information to the automotive repair industry. The institute has worked closely with ANSI to develop lift standards, including the latest version we’ve already mentioned, ANSI B153.1-1990. In the past , ALI members were required to self-certify that their lifts met and complied with the National Standard. That changed on March 31 of this year, when ALI enacted a change to its bylaws requiring members to have at least one lift model third party tested. ETL Testing Laboratories, one of only 12 such laboratories in the country acknowledged by OSHA, was chosen to administer the program. Among the test ETL performs are a maximum load test, a lowering test, a static load test and a structural test, which checks the integrity of the suspension components , mechanical locking devices and the arm restraints under a load. Lifts that pass get an ALI/ETL certification label affixed to them.

Things will get even more interesting for ALI members after December 31, 1995, when new bylaws go into effect requiring that fully 70% of all lifts sold by them undergo the same third party certification process. Tough? You bet! But as a shop owner who depends on a lift for both your livelihood and your life, you deserve nothing but the best. To see if the lift you’re about to purchase passes muster with ALI/ETL, talk to your lift distributor. Or contact ALI directly at P.O. Box 33116, Indialantic, FL 32903-3116. Happy shopping!