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Choosing the Right Low–Rise Elevators   
By Sasha Bailey, LEED BD+C

Low-rise elevators are increasing being installed in churches, schools, retail stores, and small commercial buildings in order to meet ADA code. Over the last decade, the building industry has slowly inched towards installing more complex traction elevators in low-rise buildings, even if they only need to travel a few feet.

This trend can offer improved ride quality, and, in some cases, regenerative drive technology that offers energy savings. Some types of elevators also do not require a separate machine room to house the machines that operate the equipment. The machine-roomless (MRL) elevator option appeals to architects who can use the extra space in the building footprint design. When using MRL, contractors don’t need to feed power or ventilation to a separate elevator space, and building owners don’t have to pay to heat and cool that same space. But owners should consider the total costs of installing, operating, and maintaining their elevators over a period of 25 years; not just the initial costs. Dollars spent on maintenance over 25 years can actually be almost as much as the initial cost. So it is important to understand the differences in maintenance needs for both traction and hydraulic elevators.

For over a century, the hydraulic elevator has been the workhorse of the vertical transportation industry. It moves weight efficiently through the simple displacement of fluid and has very few moving parts. It is easy to maintain and can run for years without any major part replacement. However, as the construction industry eased into green building, the hydraulic elevator became a dark horse due to its usage of petroleum-based hydraulic fluid to operate. In part, this was the catalyst for the move toward using traction elevators. Some manufacturers even stopped selling hydraulic elevators all together. But perhaps a more effective response to market demand is an elevator designed specifically for low-rise applications that does not depend on the use of petroleum-based hydraulic fluid.

Petroleum-based fluid that is traditionally used in hydraulic elevators is a non-renewable finite resource. In order to move away from using petroleum in hydraulic elevators, our industry needs to develop alternatives or partner with organizations that provide environmentally responsible lubricants. In fact, there is at least one existing partnership that supplies a canola-based hydraulic fluid produced specifically with elevator operation and efficiency at its core. It offers a 99 percent petroleum-free fluid that is rapidly renewable, 100 percent recyclable, biodegradable, and certified by the USDA as a Bioprefered Product. The remaining five percent is made up of synthetic anti-wear and foam additives required for optimum operation. Elevators with this fluid have shown an improvement in performance and energy usage.

Now manufacturers concerned with responding to these trends will need to perform Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) and Life Cycle Costing (LCC) studies on low-rise elevators to help customers understand their economic and environmental impacts. An LCA is a scientific method for measuring the environmental footprint of materials and products over their entire lifetime. The LCC takes the LCA one step further to look at the direct monetary costs involved over the product’s entire lifetime. Owners can look at both the LCA and LCC in order to make an educated decision about the long term costs and environmental

Building owners should also see that low-rise hydraulic elevators do not use as much energy when compared to traction units. When you take a closer look at 2-3 stop traction and hydraulic elevators, you will see that neither type of elevator uses very much energy. In fact, a 2,500 lb. elevator, traveling a single floor (12 feet) at 100 ft/min that operates 100 runs a day does not even use $600 worth of energy in an entire year. So assuming the hydraulic uses more energy than traction, you could have a differential of perhaps just $150 a year in energy cost. That extra $150 a year would not even cover one month of maintenance for most traction MRL elevators.

Owners should consider the following advantages of hydraulic elevators when choosing an elevator for a low-rise building: the availability of non-petroleum based hydraulic elevators, the insignificant energy usage when compared to traction elevators, and the lower maintenance costs in comparison. Over 25 years, the cost to maintain a three-stop traction MRL is $173k compared to the same hydraulic MRL which cost $91k. That is quite an investment in service costs for an elevator that is only installed to meet ADA code.

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