Cool Tools: Personnel Lifts

Most commercial and industrial projects have electrical work that must be done above floor or ground level, and a wide range of push-around and self-propelled personnel lifts provide a practical alternative to ladders and bulky scaffolding, which can be time-consuming to assemble and dismantle.

Basic lift equipment ranges from single-­person models with vertical masts to scissor lifts, telescoping booms and articulated booms to go up and over ductwork, fixtures and other obstacles. Typically, however, electrical work does not require the high reach of telescoping models. Self-propelled scissor lifts are popular with electricians because their platforms provide a stable workspace with room for equipment and tools.

While basic designs of lift equipment are essentially unchanged, advances in technologies mean today’s models are easier to operate with simplified troubleshooting and maintenance.

Many large electrical contractors own the lift equipment they operate, while others prefer to rent them to meet specific immediate job needs only for as long as necessary. Estimates vary, but many industry sources estimate that rented lift equipment active on projects today exceeds 75 percent. Because rental businesses replace inventories regularly, renters generally find late-model lift equipment if they choose to rent.

Three manufacturers discuss the features and benefits of their current models and how they apply to the electrical industry.

Jeff Ford, global product director, JLG Industries, said: “JLG offers portable lift platforms, scissor lifts and vertical mast lifts. Nineteen-foot scissors and 20-foot self-propelled vertical mast lifts are the most popular among contractors today. The reason for their popularity is primarily their compact dimensions. For the vertical mast lifts, low gross vehicle weight, combined with compact dimensions and a tight turning radius, drive the demand for these products.

“In the emerging low-access market, lighter weight, more portable units with working heights in the 10–15-foot range are growing in popularity due to their lightweight portability and compact design. Because most of these applications typically require only a single operator, capacities range from 300 to 500 pounds.

“We have observed a solid trend that shows more companies searching for new solutions to help prevent workplace falls while working at height. This ‘want’ has become a necessity due to various regulations, as evidenced by the fact that there are approximately 9 million emergency room visits each year resulting from fall-related injuries.

“Facility owners and operators are looking for an alternative to ladders that provides the productivity of a work platform, like the ability to work with both hands within an enclosed platform, while maintaining the portability and compact dimensions of a ladder.

“Our products are available via a global network of both regional and national rental channel partners, and this serves as the primary channel, particularly for vertical mast and scissor-style platforms. For construction, rental likely accounts for about plus-or-minus 90 percent of the scissor and vertical lifts on the job; but, for facility maintenance, some will choose to own,” Ford said.

Steve Watts, Snorkel’s vice president of sales and marketing–the Americas, said: “The selection of portable lifts is increasing all the time. There is, however, a shift in demand from push-around to self-propelled with the 10-foot-and-under scissor lifts. This is because the self-propelled lifts deliver even more productivity and safety benefits over the push-around versions, so they are preferred by major contractors who will have truckloads of lift equipment delivered to a job site. The smaller or individual contractor will continue to favor the push-around sector, as these machines are lighter and, therefore, easier to transport in their own truck.

“Push-around mast lifts really come into their own for atrium work in commercial or public buildings and also in shopping centers. They have maximum platform heights ranging from 26 to 40 feet and lift capacities of up to 350 pounds—less lifting power than the smaller scissor lifts—but our customers tell us it is more than adequate for one person and the tools they require for jobs at those heights.

“True portability comes with a product with a gross weight of around the 1,000-pound mark, so it is easy for one person to move around and to transport. Simple, integrated mechanisms for loading or unloading these machines from a pickup truck are invaluable for any electrician working alone. Because mast lifts are designed for working inside, a stowed height of less than 6 feet is desirable for passing through interior doors. However, many lifts also have a user-friendly integrated tilt-back mechanism to bring the machine below this height, ensuring the operator doesn’t damage any doorframes while reaching the job site.

“Finally, when specifying a mast lift, I would also look at platform stability when fully elevated. Some products have a little wobble in them when at full height, and that can cause problems if a user is engaged in a job requiring precision and a steady hand. Portable mast lifts are mature products, so the innovations are largely about reducing cost or incremental gains in performance.

“The new generation of these mini-scissors now have more aerial lift-style features, such as tilt alarms, slide-out trays for ease of maintenance, and a generally more robust and durable design.

“The maximum platform height of portable scissor lifts ranges from 6 to 10 feet, depending on model. Ten feet usually is sufficient for jobs in offices, hotels and hospitals. These are one-person machines, so a platform capacity of 500 pounds is more than adequate for the operator and his tools. These models are for indoor use, so they have to be extremely lightweight and have compact dimensions—typically less than 30 inches wide and less than 4 feet long. Weight is increasingly an issue as architects continue to take concrete out of buildings and on project in office blocks that have suspended computer flooring. In these instances, a portable lift needs to weigh well under 1,000 pounds, and 900 pounds is ideal.

“Snorkel push-around mast lifts are popular rental products. The percentage of portable Snorkel lifts that are owned is slightly higher than for self-propelled lifts, around the 35 percent mark, meaning about 65 percent is rented. On average, around 70–80 percent of Snorkel lifts is sold to equipment rental companies. This is because a lot of smaller contractors still prefer to own their lift, particularly if they specialize in working at height,” Watts said.

Marie Engstrom, associate product manager, Terex Aerial Work Platforms (Genie), said: “As job sites continue to limit the use of ladders, contractors turn to aerial work platforms in increasing numbers each year.

“Genie offers a complete range of lift solutions for electrical contractors. Recent changes in our products include a new and improved control system on many of our self-propelled products. Intuitive fault readouts allow the user to troubleshoot technical problems quickly and easily on the job site without the use of additional tools and also allowing the user to operate the machine with ease. Software updates can be easily implemented without special equipment.

“Smaller self-propelled lifts are very popular with electricians, particularly for new construction. The bases on these machines are very compact and highly maneuverable, which can be useful for electricians accessing tight spaces [that] are already finished.

“Various platform sizes including an extension deck are also available, so users can choose the best configuration to suit their job sites. Scissor lifts are also popular for this type of work. Manually propelled personnel lifts are commonly used for electrical maintenance.

“Our customers also are looking for increased ‘up and over’ access for specialty applications. For this type of job, there are vertical mast products with a jib and a compact base with rotation. These machines are perfect for light industrial applications and accessing lighting over work areas.

“Electrical work tends to be carried out in lower height ranges. Users occasionally need specific platform sizes to provide access into dropped-ceiling tiles or tight spaces. In this case, they often look for a platform with widths of less than 2 feet. Lifting capacities tend to be 350 pounds or less. Datacom projects frequently pose concerns about floor-loading and the distribution of weight over sensitive surfaces, so lighter weight machine options and configurations are needed.

“Our lift equipment is readily available from both small and large rental centers, with most carrying multiple models and heights. The percentage of equipment on job sites that is owned or rented varies depending on the type of job, type of equipment needed and length of time the equipment will be in use. This number also fluctuates depending on economic conditions,” Engstrom said.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Griffin, Oklahoma City, is a construction journalist specializing in the electrical, telecommunications and underground utility construction industries. Contact him at .

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