Elevators Vs. Lifts

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Multistory self-storage units continue growing in popularity as facility owners build higher structures to stack additional rentable space on smaller parcels of lands, making those developments more economically feasible and attractive to customers.

One of the most basic decisions in planning a new multilevel facility (or adding a second floor to an existing facility) is how to move customers’ goods from the ground floor to the upper levels. Lugging appliances, furniture, and boxes up several flights of stairs is not attractive to most potential customers–and may be impossible for some. An automated solution to move items from the ground floor upstairs (and back down) helps attract customers to the upper floors, thus improving revenues.

But, what’s the best solution? Elevators that carry both people and goods or lifts that can only transport cargo?

There are pros and cons to each solution, so the answer depends on your particularly facility. At first glance, the equipment costs for a lift (also known as VRC or vertical reciprocating conveyor) are lower than that of an elevator. However, those costs must also be weighed against other factors, such as customer convenience and retention. 

“We see VRCs used most often for two-story storage facilities,” says Todd Canham, product manager for lift products at Wildeck Inc. in Waukesha, Wisc. “After two stories, facility owners tend to go with elevators. Most of them don’t want their tenants to walk up more than one or two flights of stairs.” At multilevel facilities, people want to be able to ride up with their materials, so elevators are more common in those projects, he adds.

For two-story facilities, “It’s pretty attractive to put in a VRC next to the stairway,” Canham continues. Customers can load their materials at ground level, push a button to send the unit up to the second floor, walk up the stairs to meet the lift, remove the cargo, and put it in their storage unit. Lifts are “a convenience that makes the second level more attractive for rentals,” he adds.

Lifts are simple, robust industrial equipment that use hydraulic power units to move materials. Canham notes, “There are not a lot of working parts, so they are easy to maintain and cost effective.” The most common size features a five-foot by nine-foot-deep carriage. The VRC has swing doors at each end of the landing, and manual controls to operate the lift.

VRC equipment also features various safety devices. Canham says Wildeck has “never really had issues with accidents or injuries. The units have warning systems and diagnostics systems that indicate if something is going wrong, or when an authorized technician is needed to correct it. It’s rare to have mechanical issues with VRCs in the 25 years we’ve sold them.”

However, it is important for the facility owner top set up a preventive maintenance service contract. Most companies work through a network of local dealers. “They have a presence close to the facilities, so there is a quick response when needed,” says Canham.

Safety standards are different between elevator and lifts. Lifts fall under the safety standard for conveyors. Regulations vary by state and among local jurisdictions. In some states, VRCs are regulated by the elevator authority. “It’s not a bad thing to have them come out and inspect the equipment on regular basis,” Canham says. “That way, you’re not going to have things break down and cause you problems. But, regardless of whether the facility is located in an “elevator state”, owners should still sign up for preventive maintenance.

“Elevators are subject to a lot more regulations because they carry passengers,” Canham notes. “There are requirements for emergency phones, power lighting to the carriage, fire-rated shaftways, automatic doors, alarm systems, fire suppression systems, and so on.”

Overall, Canham adds, “Elevators are more expensive and more complicated.” The upfront costs are higher than for a lift, as well as the added costs of maintaining and inspecting the equipment over its lifetime.

Still, most projects designed by Jordan Architects of California use elevators rather than lifts, according to Bruce Jordan, the company’s president. Jordan Architects specializes in self-storage projects across the country and around the world. Jordan jests, “We’ve probably done more self-storage projects than any architect on earth.”

“Basically, a lift is an elevator-sized dumb waiter–you can’t ride in it,” he says. Lifts usually cost less than $30,000. During design, “You typically place the stairs next to the lift so customers can go to the upper floor to meet their cargo,” Jordan continues. That design “triggers the need to put in additional stairs.”

In most facilities, the lift or the elevator is located in the middle of the building rather than at one end. Otherwise, customers whose units are at the opposite end of the floor have a long way to travel. Typically, the building codes require a pair of emergency exit stairs at the extreme ends of the building. “So, adding a lift in the middle of the building forces you to add an extra stairwell and stairs where people can walk up,” says Jordan. “Otherwise, it’s not as convenient for customers to go upstairs.”

Jordan acknowledges lifts cost less than elevators, “but you also lose rentable space for the extra set of stairs. If you need a 10-by-20 stairwell on each floor, you’re losing 400 square feet of rentable space. Once you put a value on that lost income over time, the project may not look as good. You’re giving up both the lift space itself plus the extra stairwell.”

As a result, Jordan Architects only “use lifts sparingly in some unique situations”. The vast majority of company designs use elevators. Those are typically multistory facilities with a sizeable footprint for the second and third floors. The elevator cost averages around $80,000 for a two-story facility and $100,000-plus for three stories.

The size and number of elevators depends on such factors as the square footage being served and the cycle time of the elevators. “At peak time on Saturday morning, you don’t want a large group of customers waiting for the elevator,” says Jordan, so most designs use more than one elevator.

For a two-story facility, 50 percent of the customers have their units on the second floor; for a three story, two-thirds are on the upper floors. “We’ve never done a three-story facility without multiple elevators,” Jordan notes. “Occasionally we will use one elevator if there is a small second floor, but usually it’s at least two.”

Jordan adds that the company normally specifies an elevator cab that is 10-foot tall. “That allows customers to stand up things vertically, so they get a lot more use from the elevator.” Jordan also generally specifies a 5000-pound elevator, “not so much for the added weight but because of the larger cab. It’s more like a hospital elevator.”

Moreover, Jordan recommends using durable materials inside the elevator. “A lot of people use Formica or plastic laminate, but those tend to get banged up and damaged,” he says. “We prefer using diamond plate materials on the floor and half way up the wall so it will wear well.”

Which seems to be the best solution for your facility: elevators or lifts? Cost is certainly a factor, but only one of many considerations. As Jordan notes, “customer satisfaction is a measure of the success of a facility.”

Bobby L. Hickman is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta.

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