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The Ins and Outs(and Ups and Downs) of Residential Elevators

We were surprised to recently learn that the installation of home elevators is projected to climb by over 33% in the next five years. Once considered an extravagant luxury, elevators are now rapidly growing in popularity not just for the sake of convenience, but for two other reasons as well: an aging population and people with mobility challenges looking for better ways to move between the levels of their home. New technology is also playing a role with recent design innovations that make elevator installations simpler and less expensive.

Aging in place and disability contractors and designers are at the forefront of this trend and recommend these devices as cost-effective options for their clients. In this post, we’d like to give you a little insight into the world of residential elevators. “Elevating” your knowledge will help inform your current and future aging in place and home access planning. So, here’s some info covering the most common types of residential elevators on the market and a few pros and cons of each. In a future post, we’ll do a survey on stairlift devices; here too, technology is on the move.

For starters, you need to know that home elevators come in several different flavors. Here are the main types.

The Hydraulic Elevator. This is similar in design and technology to elevators you’ve been riding in office buildings, department stores, and other commercial establishments. It uses hydraulic mechanics to move the elevator up and down on a pulley and rope system. These are roomy, can be customized and operate very smoothly. However, they require the construction of an elevator shaft and generally need a separate machine room to house the hydraulic equipment, including compressors and hoses. For this reason, they can be pricey.

The Winding Drum Elevator. An elevator design that replaces the hydraulic system with an electric motor, cables, and counterweights to raise and lower the cab. These systems are generally louder than hydraulics and not quite as smooth, but they’re cheaper to install and cost less to operate. Another plus: they don’t require an additional machine closet; the motor can be placed at the top or bottom of the elevator shaft which saves space and construction costs.

The Pneumatic Elevator. A technology for residential use is the pneumatic or vacuum tube elevator. As the name suggests, these systems use air pressure to move a small cab up and down inside a clear plastic tube. Pneumatic elevators use much less space and don’t require the construction of a separate shaft or machinery room; design features that can lead to substantially reduced installation costs. But this is relatively new technology which can be of concern for those who prefer more traditional systems.

How do you choose? A primary consideration is whether the elevator is part of new construction or is being retrofitted into an existing structure. As you might expect, the options are greatest with new construction. That’s because you’re free to locate an elevator shaft almost anywhere and decisions about elevator size, it’s concealment and decorative features don’t face the limitations of existing structural requirements. And with new construction, building out space for a room to house a hydraulic system is more straightforward.

Retrofitting an elevator to an existing home changes the calculus. Hydraulic and cable elevators take up space space because they operate within a shaft and require room for motors and compressors. If demolition and other construction are required to accommodate shaftways and machine closets, costs can escalate. Of course, the additional expenses have to be weighed against the roominess of the cab and the operating features which these more traditional elevators offer.

Pneumatic elevators present a less complicated alternative; they’re space efficient and can be installed almost anywhere. The elevator “shaft” is simply a tube(usually transparent), which can be placed against a wall, inside a closet or wherever you find aesthetically pleasing. But there are downsides: the pneumatic elevator cabs have less carrying capacity (often single or at most double occupancy) which can spell trouble if a wheelchair is in the picture. And some find the “in your face” visibility of many of these systems objectionable.

Some other considerations: The cost of installing a home elevator can be steep, depending on the system chosen. But many realtors consider elevator equipped homes to be more marketable and report higher sales prices as well. So much, if not all the cost of installation, may be recouped on resale. And if the elevator is considered medically necessary, some of the expense can be offset by tax subsidies and deductions. Always check with your accountant.There’s much more to know about home elevators that is beyond the scope of this short blog. To get a more complete understanding of costs, elevator styles, the construction process and specific issues of accessibility, don’t hesitate to use an aging in place or disability planner as a resource. We’re here to help you make the best decisions possible regarding this and other aging in place and disability issues. Please give us a call at 604-259-9774 or post an email to [email protected].