Determining the Right Elevator: A chat with industry expert Dave Hardin

“It starts with need,” says David Hardin, 27-year elevator industry veteran who is now a senior consultant and National Co-Director of ATIS Elevator Consulting. “You have to design an elevator installation for the true needs of the customer. Where will the elevator be used? Who will be using it? Do you expect heavy usage? How far will it travel? All these things matter.”

Dave Hardin Elevator Consultant
ATIS Elevator Consultant Dave Hardin

For example, an elevator operating in a college dorm or hospital must be extremely robust, as opposed to a rarely used church elevator. And most hospitals and universities require installations that can last several decades – with base equipment lasting up to 50 years – whereas other types of buildings may only be concerned about the next 25 years.

“The elevator industry has changed tremendously in the past 20 years,” explains Dave. “Like the rest of the construction market, it’s trying to go green. In doing so, they’ve moved away from hydraulic elevators. They’ve also diminished the traditional overhead traction elevators and pushed Machine Room-Less (MRL) carriage traction products. Though I support the use of MRLs, I personally think the near elimination of traditional products by the major manufacturers has been a mistake that limits customer options.”

Today most elevator manufacturers are bidding only pre-engineered models they can install quickly and often sell at a lower cost. The problem comes after the installation, when certain services or components may only be purchased from the original manufacturer. And worse, the former industry standard – “serviceable for 25 years”- no longer seems to apply. In addition, renovating or replacing those MRL elevators in the future could pose an enormous and costly challenge.

Dave explains, “Most MRL elevators have tight quarters for machine and control equipment, as well as thin metal gauges for primary components. Complete rip-out and replacement may be required with some models. The cost of that could far exceed whatever initial savings was made in the original purchase.”

Cost of ownership is where the big picture becomes clear. Energy costs are typically identified as a primary reason for the change to MRL traction elevators, yet based on some industry sources, the average annual consumption costs for hydraulic elevators are actually less than that of MRLs for low-rise applications. However, the real difference is in cost of maintenance. Owners should expect to pay more than double the maintenance costs for an MRL traction elevator – easily reaching an additional $80,000 over 25 years of ownership. This, coupled with the real potential of a necessary renovation or total replacement in 15 years, can mean paying $200,000 or more over 25 years.

While the need for green technology is clear, the case against hydraulic elevators may not be entirely accurate and depends on the elevator’s usage. In two-to-three stop applications, hydraulic elevators have been shown to use 10% less energy than an MRL traction unit. Only when used in a six-stop application does the MRL elevator have less consumption (Elevator World, April 2012).

“To me, the bigger green issue is the unsustainability of manufacturing equipment that is not designed to last,“ states Dave. “How green is it when we are putting elevators in landfills every 15 years? In the past we built elevators with robust base equipment designed to last 50 or more years. The car structure, the entrances, the rails, a traction drive machine – these parts were built to last at least two lifespans.”

As an elevator consultant for ATIS – and not a sales representative from a manufacturer – Dave is able to approach each installation objectively and focus entirely on what best fits his customer’s needs. And after decades in the business, he can’t help but think long term for every installation.

“I understand that architects may prefer the convenience of an MRL installation in which they don’t have to give up real estate for the machine room. But I’m looking at the next 25 years beyond the build, when the owner benefits from lower maintenance costs, easier repairs, and isn’t wed to the original manufacturer.”

“It doesn’t have to be complicated,” adds Dave. “Once we determine the right installation for a customer’s need, I insist on ‘serviceable for 25 years’ in the contract.”