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Atlantic Racing Scene

When it comes to Lifts – better safe, than sorry!

xBy John Cannell

In recent issues I have discussed vehicle lift quality, price, product certification, off-shore vs North American manufacturers, etc. My conclusion? An ALI/ETL tested lift from an established manufacturer, installed by factory technicians with local parts inventory and service is always your best bet. The installers should, of course be covered by adequate liability insurance and workman’s compensation for the purchaser’s protection.

What about proper use of a lift? Having been in the automotive equipment business for fifty years, and dealing with vehicle lifts for at least 40 of these years, I have not ‘seen everything’, but, I must be getting close. It is absolutely amazing how much trouble people can get into, even if they started out with the best of intentions.

A few examples: Many years ago I used to sell Malcan lifts until they went out of business, largely due to the fact their bread and butter 9000 lb was simply too expensive to build. It was a very strong lift, but they could not make money on it. One of the first units I sold was installed in Truro. A week after installation, the owner called to report he had a bent lift arm. When I asked him how this happened, he said he had no idea – he was just lifting a 4 door sedan when the arm just sorta, bent. He added that the lift was just no . . . good!

These arms are made of ½” cold rolled steel, reinforced by ¾” plate, so I told him I would have to see the lift. When I arrived, the owner said “What are you going to do about this”? My reply was, “If you can tell me how you really bent this arm, I will give you the new one in my trunk”. Out came the truth. They had used one arm to lift the left rear of a loaded tandem dump truck in order to replace a blown tire!!

Recently, an individual was seriously injured when he lifted the front end of a vehicle with only two of the four arms on a two post lift, leaving the rear end on the floor. Predictably, the car slid off and the mechanic was hurt quite badly.

Another unfortunate individual could not get his lo-rise airbag type lift to lower with a car on it, so he pulled the safety off and started unscrewing the hose fitting at the cylinder. His intention no doubt, was to back out the fitting enough to let the air bladder leak down, but unfortunately, it must have been secured by only a few threads because it came out all the way, dropping the load like a stone. Sadly, this victim did not survive.

These mishaps all occurred in the Atlantic region, and only constitute a few of the many I know about. Across Canada people are injured on a daily basis simply because of incorrect use of a lift, or carelessness. Yes, carelessness, and over familiarity can also be lethal.Many techs prefer to work on four post lifts. There are many reasons for this preference, including the fact the vehicle sits on all four wheels just as it does on the road, and it is very rare for a vehicle to fall off a four poster. Nevertheless, you can still get into trouble.

An alignment shop in New Brunswick used a four post lift with two travelling air jacks for wheel alignment. The alignment tech allowed an elderly vehicle owner to drive onto the hoist, and remain in the car while he raised the lift to the preferred alignment position. The front wheels were not centered in the turnplates so he shouted at the old man to move ahead. Startled, he pushed the gas pedal to the floor, resulting in the car leaping ahead and demolishing the alignment machine, and an innocent wheel balancer nearby. The car and the lift also sustained damage.

The answer here is obvious, You do not allow customers to drive their vehicles onto the lift, or, remain in their cars while on the lift. Not only can damage and injury result, but then you open the window for legal problems. I could go on and on with these anecdotes but I want to offer some tips which you do not normally find in your owner’s manual or lift instruction books.

The best two post lifts have a hydraulic cylinder in each column. A pair of cables cross over the top (or through the bottom tray on baseplate models) the sole purpose of which is to equalize the load from side to side. All vehicles vary in side-to-side weight. For example a pick-up truck with a full 20 gallon fuel tank on one side will be 200lb heavier on that side, so the cables compensate.

There is a tendency with lift owners for them to over-tighten these cables which has the effect of changing your lift into a single post lift with the cables lifting ½ of the load. You do not want this. The cables should be just snug, no more. Never use the equalizing cables to level a lift that seems to raise its load unevenly. Shimming of the base on the low side is the proper way to correct this. Never use the cables to synchronize the safety locks. Hire a competent serviceman to fix these problems. If he starts adjusting the equalizing cables, throw him out!

Be certain the lift pads are securely contacting the vehicle. Reposition the load if they are not. If your lift is equipped with armlocks, be certain they work. Have them repaired immediately if they are defective. Do not wait until the next lift inspection.


Keep your lift pads in good condition. Whether they are rubber, serrated steel, or polymer, they are designed to discourage movement of the lifted vehicle. Steel to steel is not safe.

Symmetric vs Asymmetric. What is the difference? A symmetric two post lift is built with the columns directly facing each other and all four arms approximately the same length. At one time all two post lifts were symmetric. Symmetric lifts tend to be a foot or more wider than asymmetric, and since the vehicle sits right in the middle at the centre of gravity, they are more suited to vans, 4wd and LWB pick-ups.

Asymmetric lifts are built with long rear arms and short front arms so that the vehicle sits further back on the lift, allowing the doors of the vehicle to open much wider. This also allows the lift to be narrower so it is often possible to fit eleven lifts where ten symmetric lifts would go. The best asymmetric lifts have their columns turned 30 degrees so that the center of gravity is projected to the same position it would be with a symmetric model thereby combining the convenience of an asymmetric with the stability of the symmetric and ensuring that the loading of the concrete anchors are equal.

When using asymmetric lifts to work on long wheelbase vehicles, it is wise to use a pair of tall jack stands at the rear to stabilize the load, particularly for exhaust work.

Most modern lifts use ‘latching’ type safety locks . With four post or two post be sure the vehicle has settled fully on the locks when you commence major work. If you find it difficult to engage the locks on one corner or one side, get a competent lift service person to adjust the locks. Again, DO NOT use the equalizing cables for this purpose.

If you have one of the few remaining lifts which use friction or wedge type safeties, you would be wise to use tall jack stands as an extra guarantee of safety. If your shop has a scissor type lift be sure to keep the base trays clean and clear of debris. The scissor rollers run in these trays and obstructions can be dangerous. Also, be aware that, in many cases, if a major obstacle (tool box, oil drain, wrench across the scissor trays, etc.) stops one side of the lift while lowering, that side will stop but the other side may continue its descent with possible catastrophic results.

Whatever the make, model, or style of your lift, take a few minutes every morning before you use it, to look for any changes such as loosening anchors, frayed cables, sticking switch, unusual noises, worn out pads, uneven arms, oil leaks, all of which can cause you grief. Things you might not notice after a hard day.

If you have a four post chain type lift be sure to lubricate the chain eyes at the bottom of the columns. Most people slather the chains with grease but do not think to lube the chain eye at the bottom of each column. They rust and seize, then break off. Not good, ruins your day!

ALI (Automotive Lift Institute) offers a variety of material to guide you in care of your lift and safety issues. Log onto and you will find a long list of available items. I recommend “Lifting It Right” which is a comprehensive guide to lift safety and maintenance, ALI/LP Guide which gives you 18 years of lift point locations for all domestic and import vehicles, ALI/LP Guide CD-ROM which is the same thing on CD, Safety Tips Card, to hang on or near your lifts.
The American Lift Institute may be contacted by fax at 607-756-0888 or online here. Further information, manuals etc. may be obtained from ALI’s local representative, Kim Darragh, MJS Holdings Ltd., 902-461-1045.

You can contact John in Saint John, New Brunswick here