Installing Residential Elevators
Building the Hoistway
The walls of the hoistway can be concrete, masonry, or standard
framing material. Extra blocking is required in the side where
the guide rails are installed (Figure 3). I recommend sheathing
that wall with 1/2-inch plywood nailed every couple of inches.
It's not required, but it stiffens the wall and prevents it
Figure 3.In a wood frame, one side of the shaft
gets blocked for rails. Here the walls are blocked with
vertical 4x4s, but some elevators require horizontal blocking,
built-up members, or a hardware connection.
Most installation specs say that the walls in the hoistway
should be within 1/8 inch of plumb. They should also be square.
If they're not, there will be an uneven gap between the
building and the open side of the car. It looks bad, and if the
gap is too large, it poses a safety problem.
Building codes require you to finish the inside of the hoistway
with fire-resistant materials. Concrete and masonry can remain
exposed, but framing should get at least one layer of 5/8-inch
drywall. Talk to the building inspector before you lay out the
opening, because some will ask for two layers.
The hoistway extends below the bottom floor and forms a pit.
This allows the cab to descend far enough for its floor to be
flush with the bottom floor of the house. The pit is 8 to 12
inches deep and is part of the ground-floor slab (Figure 4). If
there is any concern about subsurface water, the pit should
include a drain or sump.
Figure 4.The bottom of the hoistway is dropped to
accommodate the sling that supports the floor of the
Small elevators take up about as much floor space as a closet.
Most of the elevators I install are slightly larger: They
require a hoistway that's 50x56 inches inside.
Guide rails. The cab is
connected to a pair of T-shaped guide rails on one side of the
shaft. The rails come in sections and should be installed
straight, plumb, and parallel to each other. If they're not,
the ride will be rough and will wear out the brackets that
connect the cab to the rails (Figure 5). It's possible to
adjust the rails, but we can go only so far before the cab
starts to scrape the wall on the other side of the shaft.
Figure 5.A pair of guide rails keep the cab
aligned in the hoistway. The brackets that hold the rails to
the wall can be adjusted in, out, left, or right. In the photo
above, the installer is using a piece of conduit to gauge the
spacing of the rails.
Cabs. An elevator cab is
basically a plywood box attached to a moving platform (Figure
6). A small cab might be 36x48 inches inside; one large enough
for someone in a wheelchair plus an attendant would be around
Figure 6.Large L-shaped brackets project from the
rails to support the cab. A flat, traveling control cable hangs
from the cab with enough slack for the cab to go up and down
the shaft without stretching the wires.
It's not hard to build the cab so that it can be entered from
one side at one floor and from another side at the floor above.
This makes it easier to design floor plans because you're not
locked into a single entry point. It's also possible to
fabricate custom shapes. I recently installed a five-sided
elevator. The corner was clipped so it would fit into an
Every elevator must comply with a set of standards called ASME
17.1. The standards were developed by the American Society of
Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and have more to do with how the
elevator is constructed than with how it's installed. In some
states, the building code specifically refers to residential
elevators. In other states, they're not mentioned in the code
and may not be subject to inspection.
Authorities in some jurisdictions have amended the code to
include specific requirements for residential elevators. The
added rules typically have to do with safety and cover things
like smoke detectors, ventilation, and fire sprinklers. A
friend of mine who installs elevators in Los Angeles County has
to comply with a stricter set of rules than I do in other parts
of the state. A similar situation may exist in your area, so
talk to a local installer before designing anything related to
Our equipment is installed late in the job. By the time we
arrive, the hoistway and any machine room should be framed and
drywalled, the elevator doors should be hung and trimmed, and
the electrical circuits and phone wire should run to where the
lifting equipment and control panel will be. This work is
performed by other trades; it's the GC's job to make sure it's
In an existing building, the hardest thing about installing an
elevator is finding space for it. Installation is obviously a
lot easier in additions and new construction.
Planning for future
installation. Homeowners sometimes make provisions for
installation of an elevator in the future. Perhaps they can't
afford the equipment when the house is built, or they may want
to use the space for something else but be able to convert it
easily should the need arise. We tell them to build a pair of
stacked closets that are sized to fit an elevator. The closet
floors should be framed so they can be removed without making
structural repairs necessary. A hoistway can be created later
by gutting the closets and removing the floors.
If you're installing a winding-drum unit, the lifting equipment
has to be close by, so the cable can travel between the drum
and the sheave at the top of the shaft. If the equipment goes
in the shaft, you'll have to provide extra headroom and a large
access door for the installers and repair people. In some
cases, the equipment can be installed in the attic, but it's
usually better to put it in the basement if there is one,
because the noise is less intrusive there. That location also
makes it easier for rescuers to access the controls for
manually lowering the cab.
Because the power unit for a roped hydraulic system can be
installed away from the hoistway, I frequently install pumps in
garages or in utility rooms with the furnace and electrical
Machine room. All
manufacturers recommend building a dedicated machine room to
house the lifting equipment, control panel, and electrical
disconnects. In some places, this is required by code; in
others, it's optional. I prefer a dedicated machine room to
prevent unauthorized people, especially children, from getting
to the equipment (particularly the exposed moving parts of a
A machine room should have interior lighting, a door that
locks, and sufficient access to maintain and repair the
Controls & Power
The elevator is controlled by call stations, wall-mounted
buttons used to summon the car, and a pair of control panels
(Figure 7). The main control panel is mounted near the lifting
equipment, while the car operating panel is in the cab. The
panels are connected to each other by a flexible traveling
cable that hangs down the hoistway wall. The cable contains
control wires, 110-volt power, and a phone line. The car
operating panel contains buttons for each floor, a digital
position indicator, an emergency stop switch, and an alarm
Figure 7.Sophisticated electronic controls tell
the elevator when to start, where to stop, and how fast to go.
The control panel in this machine room will be connected to a
smaller panel in the cab.
The alarm button activates a ringer at the top of the hoistway.
In an emergency, the occupant can use it to alert other people
in the house. It's not much help if the occupant is home alone,
however. Many elevators have built-in phones so the occupant
can summon outside help. I refuse to install an elevator
The electrician should provide a dedicated 30-amp 220-volt
circuit for the hoist and a 15-amp 110-volt circuit for the
cab. Both lines should run to disconnects near the machinery.
The elevator installer makes the final hookup. You may have to
upgrade the electrical service if the elevator is going in an
Every cab is equipped with ceiling lights or wall-mounted
fixtures. Most elevators have self-charging backup batteries to
run the lights and machinery during outages. If the power
fails, the backup light comes on and the cab is automatically
lowered to the bottom floor. The cab can only descend; the
battery does not have the power to lift it. Once the car is
down, the occupant can open the door and exit.
An elevator cab is like an automobile: You can get it stripped
down or loaded. A basic model might have plain melamine walls
and simple trims. The next level might have a plastic laminate
or veneer plywood interior. A top-of-the-line car includes
raised-panel woodwork and upgraded trims (Figure 8). Cabs are
frequently supplied unfinished, so the GC can install custom
millwork or trim them to match adjacent rooms.
Figure 8.The cab interior can be basic, or it can
be upgraded with raised panels, additional lighting, and
fancier trims. Notice how this elevator is entered through a
The floor of the elevator is usually finished in the field by
another trade. It can be carpet, hardwood, tile, or stone, but
we need to know how thick the finish will be before we order
the elevator. Cabs are normally installed flush to the
subfloor. It's easy to adjust the stopping position at upper
floors, but there's a limit to how far you can drop into the
pit. If the finish floor in the cab is unexpectedly thick,
there might not be enough room to bring it flush with the
bottom floor of the building.
Every elevator has some kind of automatic brake or slack cable
mechanism to lock the car onto the rails in the unlikely event
that the cable fails.
Doors. Residential elevators
are accessed through 36-inch solid-core passage doors and
entered through a gate into the cab. The passage doors are
often the same as those used in the rest of the house, with the
same hinges and passage sets. But in some jurisdictions you
have to use one-hour fire doors or two-hour doors with metal
jambs. Check with the inspector before installing anything.
There is at least one passage door for each floor the elevator
Elevators are designed so that only one passage door opens at a
time, and no door will open unless the cab is right in front of
it. This prevents people from opening a door and falling down
the shaft because the car isn't there.
A door zone switch is wired to an interlock at each floor. One
side of the interlock is bolted to the face of the passage
door, and the other is screwed to the jamb. The interlocks
automatically engage to prevent doors from opening when the cab
is moving. When the cab arrives, the interlock at that floor
lets go (Figure 9).
Figure 9.Part of the door interlock is bolted to
the inside of the door to the cab. When the elevator is
activated, the interlock latches on to the door and won't let
go. It releases upon arrival but can be manually opened in an
The control panel is connected to the interlocks and won't
allow the cab to move unless all the doors are closed. Many
contractors put spring-loaded hinges on the doors to prevent
people from being stranded when someone exits on another floor
and forgets to close the door.
Gates. Most cabs are equipped
with gates to prevent occupants from reaching or leaning into
the hoistway. Gates are not required in every jurisdiction, but
I would not install an elevator without one. I prefer accordion
gates because they're solid; children can reach through a
A switch prevents the elevator from operating unless the gate
is closed. I recommend upgrading to an automatic gate because
it prevents anyone from accidentally disabling the elevator by
leaving the gate ajar.
The installed cost for a roped hydraulic elevator is around
$20,000, but you can easily spend twice that amount.
Winding-drum elevators run 15% to 20% less. The price depends
on the type of equipment, lifting capacity, and number of
stops, and it goes up for custom sizes, fancy trim, and options
such as automatic doors and gates. Having to make room for an
elevator in an existing building will obviously add
Greg Cookis a second-generation elevator installer
and the owner of Shasta Elevator in Fresno, Calif.