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Your guide to home elevators, presented by Craig Jones of Country Home Elevator

Home Elevator Safety

Is a home elevator really safe? This is an appropriate question when you are talking about a device that is specifically intended to transport people who may already be disabled. There are two major, opposite fears associated with elevators: One is falling free, and the other is getting stuck.

Elevator safety brake inventor Elisha Otis Elevator safety brake inventor Elisha Otis

Freefall protection for home elevators

The danger of any elevator falling free to a fatal sudden stop was largely overcome in 1854, when Elisha Otis developed his deceptively simple gravity-powered safety device. A slightly modified version of Otis' device is still used today. Typically, each T-rail (the track along which an elevator slides up and down) is equipped with dual springloaded brakes. If the elevator should come loose from its cables, these brakes actuate themselves without any outside mechanical force, bringing the cab to rest swiftly and safely.

The springloaded brake is the first line of defense against freefalls, but not usually the last. Depending on the drive system of your home elevator, it may be equipped with several types of redundant protection. Systems that use counterweights usually have a slack-cable safety device that stops the motor immediately if the cab comes loose from the cables. This prevents the counterweight from jamming in the top of the shaft and further damaging the system by burning up the motor. Additionally, some units have an overspeed detector which backs up the mechanically actuated safety measures. If this device detects the elevator going faster than it should be, it smoothly and automatically shuts down the system and applies the brakes.

In short, time spent worrying about falling to your death in a properly built home elevator is generally wasted. Getting stuck is a more plausible scenario, which we'll look at presently.

Getting stuck in a home elevator

For those with claustrophobia, the idea of being stuck for hours in a home elevator is not very pleasant. Getting stuck is unlikely but always possible, and minimizing the impact of this problem is more about dealing with the right contractor than it is about choosing the best elevator. "The right contractor" means somebody with more than one or two guys and a truck, whose place of business is within easy driving distance of the home elevator installation. It also means somebody who offers 24-hour emergency home elevator service. Spending half the night camped out in an elevator cab four feet square is strictly no fun.

This is yet another reason to be wary of national elevator contractors whose "local" presence often consists of nothing more than a part-time handyman, if that. Even if the handyman happens to be available when you need him - which is by no means certain - you may end up sitting around in a stuck elevator longer than necessary, while he flips through the manual to try and figure out how to actuate the emergency lowering device.

You should not need to fear getting stuck for a long period of time provided your home elevator has the two things necessary for rescue: A working phone, and a qualified installer who knows the meaning of "emergency service."

Can I Build My Own Home Elevator?

Given the cost of a home elevator, it is understandable that enthusiastic do-it-yourselfers would be tempted to consider rolling their own. Before even contemplating this possibility, however, it's worth seriously considering something else: What a home elevator means for your family. A home elevator transports the people most dear to you - your parents, grandparents, or little kids - through the levels of your home, an environment where they feel, and ought to feel, completely safe. Even if you built your own home elevator and did it 99% perfectly, a single neophyte mistake in the wrong spot could easily make this refuge of safety into a very dangerous place indeed.

A home elevator is much, much more than a box with a motor strong enough to carry it up and down. The system has dozens of elements such as safety brakes and electro-mechanical door interlocks, all of which must work together in perfect harmony or the system won't work properly at all. If even one piece is wrongly implemented, you could end up like this New Jersey couple, whose 20-year-old homebrew elevator fell 25 feet with them in it. In this case the couple survived, but 10-year-old Zachary Waddell of Kentucky was not so fortunate a year earlier, when a church's unregistered homemade elevator took his life during a wedding.

These are not isolated incidents. Accidents happen occasionally, even with professionally built elevators - particularly in cases where proper inspection and maintenance isn't done. That risk is incalculably multiplied when a homeowner decides to play with fire by installing a makeshift home elevator.