Vehicle lifts are laborsaving devices designed to safely raise and hold up vehicles to facilitate maintenance. They allow technicians to work underneath the vehicle while standing up, an ergonomic advance over lying under a vehicle on a creeper.
When compared to using floor jacks, jack stands, creepers, and pits, vehicle lifts offer a number of advantages. Among them: increased productivity and profitability, improved worker safety, and better employee recruitment and retention.
In fact, productivity studies conducted by fleets and truck maintenance providers have found that installing a single vehicle lift in the shop can save upwards of $75,000 in terms of annual profits or reduction in labor overhead.
“The biggest factors affecting vehicle technician productivity are access and clearance,” says Roger Perlstein, heavy duty sales manager for Rotary Lift, a leading manufacturer of vehicle lifts based in Madison, Indiana. “When technicians have room to work and convenient, comfortable access to components and serviceable parts, they can get more done in less time.”
Vehicle lifts provide ergonomic working heights, letting technicians operate in a natural position, with convenient access to tools and equipment and less strain on their bodies. Lighting is also improved. All of which can help decrease accidents and injuries suffered by workers, resulting in healthier employees and fewer lost work hours, Perlstein says.
Another benefit of vehicle lifts is a reduction in expensive roadside service. “When a technician can easily walk around under a vehicle and see any components that are leaking, binding, or showing wear, the problems can get fixed in the shop,” explains Perlstein. “But when it's more difficult to see those issues, perhaps because the technician is on a creeper or the lighting is bad, then they're more likely to be missed, leading to a failure taking place on the highway.”
Moreover, he says vehicle lifts can even help companies recruit and retain trained diesel service technicians, of which there is a growing shortage.
Along with higher pay, better benefits, and more vacation time, many companies are now touting better working conditions as a way to attract qualified technicians. Studies show that given the choice, most technicians would prefer to work on a vehicle standing up with the vehicle raised to a comfortable position, rather than having to slide under the vehicle on a creeper.
Six main types of lifts are used in truck maintenance facilities: inground lifts, pit lifts, two-post surface lifts, four-post surface lifts, parallelogram lifts, and mobile column lifts.
Inground lifts are available in two- or three-post designs. They engage the vehicle by its axles. Intended for most preventive maintenance and repair tasks, lifting capacity is typically up to 90,000 pounds.
Pit lifts, common in European service garages, are new to North America. Axle-engaging lifts are added to existing service pits to expand the maintenance and repair tasks that can be performed. Lifting capacity is up to 44,000 pounds.
Three pit lift models are floor-running, rail-mounted, and suspended. Floor-running pit lifts have caster wheels so technicians can roll them anywhere in the pit. Rail-mounted lifts move along a rail system at the bottom of the pit. Suspended pit lifts ride on rails installed at the top of the pit.
The most widely used vehicle lifts in the world are the two-post frame-contact surface design. Two sets of lifting arms are attached to two columns. The vehicle is driven between the columns, and the arms are manually positioned under the vehicle to lift it at designated pick-up points on the frame. Two-post lifts typically come in asymmetrical and symmetrical designs. Lifting capacity is up to 18,000 pounds.
With four-post drive-on surface lifts, the vehicle is driven onto a runway that is then raised. These lifts are one of the fastest to use because no set-up is required to raise the vehicle. Lifting capacity is up to 60,000 pounds.
Parallelogram lifts, as their name implies, rise using a parallelogram motion. Similar to the four-post drive-on surface lifts, the runway is raised after the vehicle is driven onto it.
Three versions of parallelogram lifts are surface mount, surface with recessed mount, and flush mount. Lifting capacity is up to 130,000 pounds.
The fastest-growing category of above-ground lifts for the heavy duty market is mobile column lifts. This design consists of four or six portable columns linked by a common control circuit.
The columns are wheeled to the vehicle, then connected together via control cables for synchronized lifting. The columns engage at the vehicle's wheels. Lifting capacity ranges from 60,000 to more than 90,000 pounds.
To maximize return on the purchase of a vehicle lift — as with any type of equipment — selection should be based on current and future needs, Perlstein says. The types of services the maintenance facility performs and will perform in the future are important considerations.
So are facility layout (bay widths and ceiling heights), types, sizes and weights of vehicles to be lifted, accuracy and speed at which a vehicle can be properly positioned on the lift, and safety features.
Some lift manufacturers offer free facility planning assistance, including recommendations on which lifts to install, and where, in order to maximize service technician productivity and efficiency. Ask your local distributor or lift supplier if this service is available, recommends Perlstein.
Again, as with any equipment purchase, after the type of vehicle lift is selected, shop for the lowest overall total cost of ownership, not just a low purchase price.
When comparing the purchase price of lifts from different suppliers, Perlstein suggests asking what is included in the quoted price. For example are accessories, shipping, and installation included? Costs for lifts can vary greatly between brands and suppliers.
So can after-sale support. Find out if factory-trained installers and technicians are available locally to handle all lift installation, inspection, and maintenance needs.
Since not all vehicle lifts are built to the same levels of quality, it is also advisable to look for the “gold label” that signifies a lift has received ALI (Automotive Lift Institute) certification. The certification indicates that the lift has been independently tested and verified to meet ANSI (American National Standards Institute) performance and safety standards.
“The gold label is your only guarantee that a particular lift has been third-party tested and certified to meet industry standards,” says Perlstein. “Don't put your technicians and vehicles at risk. Only buy certified lifts.”