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Why you need a garage car lift

It can be a twinge in your neck, or a persistent ache across your shoulders, or a dull soreness that never quite leaves your lower back. A day spent working under a car, flat on your back, twisting and straining, blind hands groping for tools that have rolled just beyond reach, is a workout that leaves you feeling like a used punching bag. Besides the discomfort of assuming awkward positions, there is the time-consuming hassle of safely jacking each end of the car and making sure that it rests securely on the jack stands. Who hasn’t deferred needed maintenance because the thought of squeezing between the concrete floor and the car for hours on end just makes you want to stay in bed?

If you are a serious DIYer, it’s time to invest in a garage car lift. The prices have never been lower, the range of manufacturers and model choices has never been greater, and the installation has never been easier.

Lots of choices, reasonable prices
Currently there are about 60 garage lift makers selling products in the United States, with prices ranging from about $1,000 for a simple electric scissor jack to $10,000 for an in-ground hydraulic lift that propels your vehicle upward on a cylinder that rises out of the floor, giving your humble home garage some of the capability a full-service car dealership.

Once you have changed your car’s oil while sitting comfortably on a stool, swapped out an exhaust system without ever kneeling to the ground, or stacked two cars on top of each other in a space where you used to park only one, you’ll wonder how you managed without a garage lift for so long.

With so many lift suppliers, lift types and models to choose from, it’s hard to determine where to start. A lot of money is on the line, so it pays to do your research before you buy. Not only are the lifts themselves expensive, but the damage that a poor-quality lift or a poorly installed lift can do to your car and your house is also expensive, as well as dangerous. Installed and used properly, a car lift will perform years of perfectly safe service, but it behooves the lift shopper to spend some time researching the options and pitfalls.

The space case
Before you start the hunt for a lift, you need to do some measuring. Car lifts don’t fit very well in garages that are less than 22 feet deep. Ideally, the ceiling should be at least 11 to 12 feet high (though this author has used one – carefully – with a 9 1/2-foot ceiling). Don’t forget about overhead hazards such as garage door openers, door tracks and the doors themselves. Chances are excellent that you’ll want to open the garage door with the car on the lift at some point, so measure your clearance with the garage door both opened and closed. For garages where the open door may collide with the roof of a lifted car, consider backing the car onto the lift. It requires extra effort and precision, but a car’s lower hoodline may squeak under the open door where a roof or a trunk collides.

Now that you’ve measured the ceiling and the walls, take a look at the floor. Although weighing it at 1,500 to 2,000 pounds (yes, without a car aboard), most garage lifts will work on a typical residential concrete slab, or one that is between 4 1/2 inches and 5 inches thick.

If you don’t know your slab thickness, buy a three-eighth-inch concrete drill bit at the local hardware store and slowly and carefully drill into the slab near where you plan to locate the posts of your lift. Don’t drill at the corner of the garage; concrete thickness can vary near the perimeter. Use a light-duty drill rather than an impact drill, which could fracture the concrete when the bit breaks through. Once you hit dirt, clip a straight section of coat hanger and bend a little 90-degree elbow at the end. Stick it down the hole and try to catch the edge of the concrete with the elbow. Mark the wire where it emerges from the hole and measure the length. If the hole bothers you, fill it with concrete epoxy, which is strong enough to repair fractured holes as well.

Which car lift?
Lifts come in a variety of configurations. For a good basic overview, check out the website of the Automotive Lift Institute. Figuring out which lift is right for you depends on what you plan to do with the lift and how much space you have for it. Home garage lifts fall into two basic categories based on how they lift the car.

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  • “Frame-engaging” lifts have arms that reach under the car to lift it at secure jacking places near the perimeter of the frame, such as at the suspension attachment points and rocker panel boxes. Some have fixed-position pads, while others use four heavy steel arms that swing horizontally and can be pulled out or pushed in so that the lift pads can be easily adjusted to align with your vehicle’s securest lifting points. Because these lifts raise the frame, the tires dangle and wheels-off work on the suspension and brakes is easy.

  • “Wheel engaging” or drive-on lifts support the car at the tires, as if the entire road surface is rising. Between the two decks supporting the tires is a large open space allowing free access to the car’s engine and underbody. These lifts are better for overhead storage of the vehicle while providing good access to the center of the underbody. For wheels-off work, an extra set of crossbeams and hydraulic jacks must be purchased.
  • From there, the lifts break down into several types. Here are the most common, with their advantages and disadvantages. As for cost, figure that professional installation of an above-ground lift may add another $500-$600 to the bill.

1. Scissor-type or hinge-type. These frame-engaging lifts lie flat on the floor, allowing the car to drive over them. Once the arms are positioned to align with the jack points, an electric, hydraulic-electric, or pneumatic system raises the lift by means of scissor-action joints or a hinged parallelogram of beams. Home users usually buy them in low or medium lift heights, ranging from 36 to 48 inches. Cost: $1,000-$2,400.

  • Pros: Cheaper than other lift configurations; compact so it can be used in any garage; doesn’t need to be bolted to the floor; leaves the wheels dangling for easy brake and suspension work.
  • Cons: Consumes space on the floor; low-riding cars will have trouble clearing some models; low lift height; access to the underbody is hampered by the jacking mechanism; often billed as “moveable” but they weigh 500-700 pounds.

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2. Two-post surface lifts. This common frame-engaging lift design supports the vehicle’s weight with metal arms attached to two posts at the side of the vehicle. There are a multitude of designs, but they generally fall into two categories: “symmetrical” lifts that support the vehicle in the middle and “asymmetrical” lifts that offset the posts forward, mainly to allow the doors to open. Cost: $2,000-$3,400.

  • Pros: Can support heavier loads; can lift the car to 6 or 7 feet; allows full access to the wheels and underbody; uses relatively little floor space.
  • Cons: Must be bolted to the floor and, because the posts rock slightly during normal use, the bolts must be checked periodically for correct torque; more challenging to use than drive-on lifts; body work can be harder because posts partially block access to the body sides.

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3. Four-post drive-on lifts. These are wheel-engaging lifts with two runways on which the vehicle parks and four posts to support the runways as they rise, generally by means of a hydraulic piston pulling on heavy cables. Access to the underbody is through the large gap between the runways. Cost: $2,500-$3,800.

  • Pros: Easy to drive on and off; four-post stability means no bolting down is required; the lift can be easily moved if necessary; the best for long-term overhead car storage.

  • Cons: Wheels-off work is more cumbersome and requires extra cross beams and jacks; the lift takes up a lot of space; runways block access to parts of the car.

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4. In-ground lifts. This ultra-deluxe frame-engaging lift design raises the car with one or two cylinders that rise out of the floor. These are typically found in dealerships and service stations, though some well-heeled hobbyists swear by them. The machinery is below ground, located in a 9-foot-deep pit dug into the floor. As you might imagine, installation costs can be steep – usually $3,000 to $4,000. New “cassette-style” designs prevent hydraulic leaks and are thus more environmentally friendly. Manufacturers often specify using Mobil 1™ synthetic grease to keep them lubricated. Cost: $8,000-$10,000.

  • Pros: Full 360-degree access to the body and wheels; uses the least amount of floor space; practically disappears when not in use.
  • Cons: Princely priced; lifting cylinder doesn’t allow for multicar overhead storage; hard to take with you if you move.

Quality quandary
A 4,000-pound car lifted in the air never ever misses an opportunity to get back down to the ground again. Nobody likes to overpay, but being stingy with your lift budget could have serious consequences. Not all lifts are created equal, so before you buy, ask around in your car club and go online for personal recommendations. Don Opland of Dow’s Equipment Sales and Service, Inc., who knows lifts inside and out, offers these tips:

  • Only buy a lift with a slack-cable safety latch, also called a slack safety lock or slack safety device. All lifts have some kind of mechanical locking pawl – a beefy metal tongue, spring-loaded to slide into holes as the lift deck rises – that prevents the lift from dropping suddenly once it is set in the raised position. You release the pawls by holding a lever while you lower the lift. Because you are holding the lever, nothing prevents the car from slamming to the floor except for the hydraulic piston and its cables. The additional slack-cable safety measure prevents disaster by automatically locking the lifting cable should it go slack for some reason, such as a sheave (pulley) breaking.
  • Purchase a lift with adjustable safety locks. As mentioned, all lifts have a locking pawl that bears the weight of the vehicle while it is up. (The hydraulic cylinder only moves the car up and down; the pawls automatically slide into holes in the post and bear the weight once the car has reached the desired height.) Most residential garages have a slope built into the slab for drainage, typically a drop of 3 to 4 inches from the back wall to the door. Whether you assemble the lift yourself or have an installer do it, the lift must be installed so that the post-holes for the locking pawls are even. This is particularly important for a four-post lift. Unless the lock holes are even, one side’s pawls will engage before the others, causing the deck to sag at one end and the car, unless it has been parked with the emergency brake on or is chocked in place, to roll, usually with negative consequences. The lock holes must be aligned. Some lift makers supply shims, while others (usually manufacturers of the higher-end lifts) have screw adjusters that allow minute adjusting.
  • Look for lifts that have externally lubricated or self-lubricating sheaves. The lift’s cable runs through these sheaves and they take a tremendous load. Cheaper models have no bushings or bearings in the sheaves and they can quickly wear out, leading to premature galling and failure. Better lifts have large sheaves, which turn more slowly (hence, suffering less wear) and run on bearings or bushings.
  • Consider buying from a well-known and established company. Lift brands appear and disappear with shocking frequency, so it pays to go with an established brand as replacement parts become scarce if your lift maker goes out of business. Though many companies use the same design, and parts are sometimes interchangeable.

Other garage lift tips
Now that you have an idea of what type of lift to investigate, here are a few more tips from Opland, who owns several lifts himself and has been installing them professionally for more than 20 years.

Many lift companies offer an optional caster kit, usually costing several hundred dollars. When attached, these kits allow the lift to be rolled around the garage. Save your money, advises Opland. Most lift owners never move their lift. If they do, a pair of simple floor jacks and a table full of pizzas to entice your buddies to lend a hand will get it done in a matter of minutes.

For drive-on lifts, consider investing in a pair of lightweight aluminum ramps. The steel ramps that come with most lifts can weigh in at 50 pounds each, just enough to aggravate an already abused lower back. Also, buy an additional set of rubber wheel chocks. Most lifts come with metal chocks, which, in an emergency, could slide on the runway. A pair of cheap rubber chocks may mean the difference between a close call and dropped car. Says Opland: “If you put your ’67 Corvette through the kitchen wall, it’s definitely going to ruin your dinner.”

For frame-engaging lifts such as the scissor-type and side-post, always double-check that the car is secure on the lifting arms by first raising it so that the tires are just off the ground, and then bouncing on the back bumper. If the car rocks off the arms so low to the ground, it won’t be damaged. If it rocks off higher up, you’ll need a new car.

Many lift companies offer a choice of 110-volt or 220-volt lift motors. Going with the higher voltage speeds up the lift, but Opland recommends staying with 110. Most garages have 110-volt service with a requisite 15-amp circuit, and installing 220 often means hiring an electrician and ripping into drywall. With a 110-volt motor, the lift can be operated during a power failure by a conventional portable generator and even by a plug-in cigarette lighter power converter. If you move and take the lift with you, you’re more likely to find a 110-volt service in your new garage. Don’t assume the electric motor can operate on either 110 volts or 220. Most lift motors are designed to run on the specified voltage.

If a lift still seems like too much effort and money, consider how sore you were the last time you did a big job underneath the car, and how much licensed chiropractors charge per hour to work on your back. A high-quality garage lift makes DIY car repair far more civilized and comfortable and should be tops on your list of future garage tools.

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