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This article is about the transport device. For other meanings of the word, see Elevator (disambiguation).

An elevator is a transport device used to move goods or people vertically. In British English and other Commonwealth Englishes, elevators are known more commonly as lifts, although the word elevator is familiar from American movies and television shows, just as some Americans are aware of lift from imported entertainment. Other languages may have loanwords based on either elevator (e.g. Japanese) or lift (e.g. Cantonese).



Elevators began as simple rope or chain hoists. An elevator is essentially a platform that is either pulled or pushed up by a mechanical means. A modern day elevator consists of a cab (also called a "cage" or "car") mounted on a platform within a enclosed space called a shaft or more correctly a "hoistway". In the past elevator drive mechanisms were powered by steam and water hydraulic pistons.

Electric Elevator Cars are pulled up by means of rolling steel ropes over a sheave, and balancing the weight of the car with a counterweight. Hydraulic elevators use the prinicpal of hydraulics to pressurize an above ground or inground piston to raise and lower the car. Roped Hydraulics use a combination of both ropes and hydraulic power to raise and lower cars. Recent innovations include permanent earth magnet motors, machineroom-less rail mounted gearless machines, and microprocessor controls.

In 1853, Elisha Otis introduced the safety elevator, which prevented the fall of the cab if the cable broke. The design of the OTIS safety is virtually identical to that used today. It consists of a nurled roller that is locked below the elevator platorm at the safety plank when the elevator descends at a given speed, which is monitored by a governor device. On March 23, 1857 the first Otis elevator was installed at 488 Broadway in New York City. The first elevator shaft preceded the first elevator by four years. Construction for Peter Cooper's Cooper Union building in New York began in 1853. An elevator shaft was included in the design for Cooper Union, because Cooper was utterly confident a safe passenger elevator would soon be invented; the shaft however was circular because Cooper felt it was the most efficient design. Later Otis designed a special elevator for the school. Today the Otis Elevator Company, now a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation, is the world's largest manufacturer of vertical transport systems, followed by Schindler, Thyssen-Krupp and Kone, in order.

The first electric elevator was built by Werner von Siemens in 1880. The safety and speed of electric elevators were significantly enhanced by Frank Sprague.

The development of elevators was led by the need for movement of large amounts of raw materials including coal and lumber from hillsides. The technology developed by these industries and the introduction of steel beam construction worked together to provide the need for the passenger and freight elevators we use today.

Today elevators are built under strict supervision of the Building Codes. Model Codes which are the standard in most US and Canadian jurisdictions require compliance with the American Society of Mechancial Engineers' standards for the installation, maintenance, and inspection of elevators. In addition other related standards are likely required to be complied with as specified by Local Authorities Having Jurisdiction.

Elevators are generally sold in prepackaged components which are inherently non-proprietary. All of the four major manufacturers sell proprietary microprocessor controls. Each manufacturer provides similar product designs, and the overiding issue for purchase is usually price and availablility. In the case of renovations, the use of non-proprietary controls has become a large part of that business because it allows the owner to offer the maintenance contract to multiple bidders rather than accept a single manufacturer for the life of the elevator which can be more than 30 years. In some large campus type properties, the use of non-proprietary equipment in new construction has replaced the standad prepackaged product. Non-proprietary systems generally have a higher up front cost, but may be offset by allowing the owner to control the long term costs over the life of the elevator.

In some locations, the shaft and parts of the cab are made of transparent material for specialized "Scenic elevators." This allows riders to see outside the cab as they travel on the elevator. Some locations take advantage of this transparent material by placing the elevators along the walls of their building. This allows riders to see the outdoor environment as the cab runs along the side of the buildings.

Today, all new elevators are computer-controlled and microprocessor based. This allows the elevator system to place cabs where they are most needed in the interest of smooth running, with behavior based on analysis of building use called "Traffic Studies." Traffic Studies are done by professional elevator consultants who use specialized tools to determine the optimum size, speed and number of elevators for a building based on its peak use periods. Computer control also permits greater control of access to various floors of a building after hours and on weekends. Methods of access control include card readers, keys, and access codes entered into the control panel of the elevator.

Elevators are usually installed in a building during construction. Renovations may consist of replacements for hoistway (floor landing) doors, car doors, interior cab finishes, controls, hoist machines, hydraulic pistons and hall fixtures. In many instances the upgrading of components may require addtional code compliance, these issues should be reviewed with an elevator consultant prior to the purchasing of new materials.

Elevators are inherently safe. Their safety record, that of moving millions of passengers every day, without incident, is unsurpassed by any other vehicle system. Recently, however, hydraulic elevators built prior to a code change in 1972 have been found to be subject to possible catastrophic failure. This concern is reflected in the ASME A17.1 Maintenance of Hydraulic elevators section of the 2000 editon to require verification of system integrity in underground hydraulic elevator cylinders. Because it is impossible to verify the system completly without a pressurized casing (as described below) it is necessary to actually remove the piston to inspect it. The cost of removing the piston is such that, it makes no economical sense to re-install the old cylinder, and therefore it is logically necessary to install a new one.

In addition to the safety concerns for older hydraulic elevators, there is risk of leaking hydraulic oil into the aquifer and causing potentinal enviormental contamination. This has led to the introduction of PVC liners (casings) around hydraulic cylinders which can be monitored for integrity. Recent innovations called machineroomless elevators may soon make the use of hydraulic elevators obsolete.

Elevators are regulated by the Conusmer Product Safety Commission and are subject to the provisions of that regulation body. In 2004 the CPSC published a consumer alert about the safe use of escalators.

Uses of elevators

Passenger service

A passenger elevator is designed to carry people and small packages. Passenger elevators are required to conform to the American Society of Mechanical Engineer's Standard A17.1 Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators in most US and Canadian Jurisdictions (In Canada the document is the CAN/CSA B44 Safety Standard which was harmonized with the US verison in the 2000 editon.) In additon passenger elevators may be required to conform to the requirements of A17.3 for existing elevators where referenced by the Local Jurisdiction. Passenger elevators are tested usig the ASME A17.2 Standard, the frequency of which is mandated by the Local Jurisdiction, which may be a town, city, or state standard.

Passenger elevators must also conform to many ancilliary building codes including the Local or State building code, National Fire Protection Association standards for Electrical, Fire Sprinklers and Fire Alarms, Plumbing codes, and HVAC codes. In addition passenger elevators are required to conform to the American's with Disablilities Act and other State and Federal civil rights legislation regarding accessiblity.

Passenger elevators capacity is related to the available foor space. Generally passenger elevators are available in typical capacities from 1,500 to 5,000 lb (680 to 2,300 kg) in 500 lb (230 kg) increments. Generally passenger elevators in buildings 4 stories or less are hydraulic, however concerns with hydraulic elevators in recent years have limited their installations. In buildings up to 10 stories electric elevators are likely to have speeds up to 300 ft/min (1.5 m/s), and above 10 stories speeds begin at 500 ft/min (2.5 m/s) up to about 1200 ft/min (6 m/s).

Passenger elevators may be specialized for the service they perform, including: Hospital emergency (Code blue), front and rear entrances, double decker (2 cars on top of one another), and other uses. Cars may be ornate in their interior appearance, may have audio visual adverstising, and may be provided with specialized recorded voice instructions. The concern for entrapping passengers requires all elevators to have communication connection to an outside 24 hour emergency service, automatic recall capablility in a fire emergency, and special access for fire department use in a fire. Elevators are not an acceptable means of escape during a fire and should not be used by the Public. Signs are required in most all US Jurisdictions to "USE STAIRS IN CASE OF FIRE."

Residential elevators, are required to conform to ASME A17.1 and may be small enough for one person while some are large enough for more than a dozen.

Wheelchair, or Platform lifts, a specialized type of elevator designed to move a wheelchair 6 ft (2 m) or less, often can accommodate just one person in a wheelchair at a time with a maximum load of 750 lb (340 kg). Platform and Wheelchair lifts are required to comply with ASME A18.1 in most US Jurisdictions.

Freight elevators

A freight elevator is a elevator designed to carry goods, rather than passengers. (Passengers often accompany the freight, however.) Freight elevators are exempt from some of the ASME A17.1 code requirements, as defined by the words "not for public use." Freight Elevators or Service elevators, may be exempt from some of the requirements for fire service, however new installations would like be required to comply. Freight elevators are required to post a written notice in the car that the use by passengers is prohibited.

Freight elevators are typically larger and capable of carrying heavier loads than a passenger elevator, generally from 5,000 to 10,000 lb (2,300 to 4,500 kg). Freight Elevators may have manually operated doors, and often have rugged interior finishes to prevent damage while loading and unloading. Although hydraulic freight elevators exist, electric elevators are more energy efficient for the work of freight lifting.

A small freight elevator is often called a dumb waiter (see next section), often used for moving of small items such as dishes in a 2-story kitchen or books in a multi-story rack assembly. Passengers are never permitted on dumbwaiters. Dumbwaiters and other material lifts are required to conform to the related sections of the ASME A17.1 code in most U.S. and Canadian Juridictions.

A specialized type of freight elevator is a Automobile Lifts, used to move automobiles around a parking garage or other facility. These are material lifts by definition and are exempt from the ASME A17.1 requirements, but may have to comply with the requirements of ALIALCTV if provided for in the local jurisdiction.

Stage and Orchestra lifts are specialized lifts for use in the performing arts, and are exempt from the ASME A17.1 requirements. Local Jursidictions may govern there use, installation and testing, however they are often left out of local code enforcement provisions due to their infrequent installation.

Dumb waiter

A small box elevator designed for the carriage of lightweight freight is called a dumb waiter (or dumbwaiter. Dumbwaiters are required to comply with ASME A17.1 in most US and Canadian Jurisdictions.

Dumbwaiters are generally driven by a small electric motor with a counterweight and are limited to about 750 lb (340 kg). They may also be hand operated using a roped pulley. Dumbwaiters are used extensively in the restaurant business (hence the name) and may also be used as book lifts in libraries, or to transport mail or similar items in an office tower.

Material handling belts

A different kind of elevator is used to transport material. It generally consists of an inclined plane on which a conveyor belt runs. The conveyor often includes partitions to prevent the material from sliding backwards. These elevators are often used in industrial and agricultural applications.

When such mechanisms (or spiral screws or pneumatic transport) are used to elevate grain for storage in large vertical silos, the entire structure is called a grain elevator,

Types of elevator hoist mechanisms

In general, there are three means of moving an elevator:

Traction elevators

  • Geared and gearless traction elevators

Geared Traction machines are driven by AC or DC electric motors. Geared machines use worm gears to mechanically control movement of elevator cars by "rolling" steel hoist ropes over a drive sheave which is attached to a gearbox driven by a high speed motor. These machines are generally the best option for basement or overhead traction use for speeds up to 350 ft/min.

Gearless Traction machines are high speed electric motors powered by AC or DC current. In this case the drive sheave is directly attached to the end of motor.

In each case, cables are attached to a hitch plate on top of the cab or may be "underslung" below a cab, and then looped over the drive sheave to a counterweight attached to the opposite end of the cables which reduces the amount of power needed to move the cab. The counterweight is located in the hoistway and rides a separate rail system; as the car goes up, the counterweight goes down, and vice versa. This action is powered by the traction machine which is directed by the controller, typically a relay logic or computerized device that directs starting, acceleration, deceleration and stopping of the elevator cab. The weight of the counterweight is typically equal to the weight of the elevator cab plus forty to fifty percent of the capacity of the elevator. The grooves in the drive sheave are specially designed to prevent the cables from slipping. "Traction" is provided to the ropes by the grip of the grooves in the sheave. As the ropes age and the traction grooves wear, some traction is lost and the ropes must be replaced and the sheave repaired or replaced.

Some elevators have a system called compensation. This is a separate set of cables or a chain attached to the bottom of the counterweight and the bottom of the elevator cab. This makes it easier to control the elevator because the weight will flucuate less over the entire system. If the elevator cab is at the top of the hoistway, there is a short length of hoist cable above the car and a long length of compensating cable below the car and vice versa for the counterweight. If the compensation is cables there is an additional sheave in the pit below the elevator, to guide the cables. If the compensation is a chain, the chain is guided by a bar mounted between the counterweight rails.

Hydraulic type

  • Conventional Hydraulic elevators are quite common for low and medium rise buildings (2-5 stories). They use a hydraulically powered plunger to push the elevator upwards. On some, the hydraulic piston (plunger) consists of telescoping concentric tubes, allowing a shallow tube to contain the mechanism below the lowest floor. On others, the piston requires a deeper hole below the bottom landing, usually with a PVC casing for protection.
  • Roped hydraulic.
  • Twin post hydraulic
  • Holeless hydraulic elevators do not require holes to be dug for the hydraulic cylinder. In one design manufactured by Otis, the cab is lifted by a pair of hydraulic jacks, one on each side of the elevator.


A special type of elevator is the paternoster, a constantly moving chain of boxes. A similar concept moves only a small platform, which the rider mounts while using a handhold and was once seen in multi-story industrial plants.

Controlling elevators

General controls

A typical modern passenger elevator will have:

  • Call buttons to choose a floor. Some of these may be key switches (to control access). In some elevators, certain floors are inaccessable unless one swipes a security card or enters a passcode (or both).
  • Door open and door close buttons to instruct the elevator to close immediately or remain open longer. In some elevators, holding the door open for too long will trigger an audible alarm.
  • A stop switch to halt the elevator (often used to hold an elevator open while freight is loaded). Keeping an elevator stopped for too long may trigger an alarm. Often, this will be a key switch .
  • An alarm button or switch, which passengers can use to signal that they have been trapped in the elevator.

Some elevators may have one or more of the following:

  • An elevator telephone, which can be used (in addition to the alarm) by a trapped passenger to call for help.
  • A fireman's key switch, which places the elevator in a special operating mode designed to aid firefighters
  • A medical emergency key switch, which places the elevator in a special operating mode designed to aid medical personnel

Other controls, which are generally inaccessible to the public (either because they are key switches , or because they are kept behind a locked panel, include:

  • Switches to control the lights and ventilation fans in the elevator
  • An inspector's switch, which places the elevator in inspection mode
  • An independent service switch, which selects whether the elevator's operation will be coordinated with other elevators in an elevator bank.
  • Up and down buttons, to move the car up and down without selecting a specific floor. Some older elevators can only be operated this way.

Controls in early elevators

  • Some older freight elevators are controlled by switches operated by pulling on adjacent ropes. Safety interlocks ensure that the inner and outer doors are closed before the elevator is allowed to move.
  • Early elevators had no automatic landing positioning. Elevators were operated by elevator operators using a motor controller. The controller was contained within a cylindrical container about the size and shape of a cake container and this was operated via a projecting handle. This allowed some control over the energy supplied to the motor (located at the top of the elevator shaft) and so enabled the elevator to be accurately positioned — if the operator was sufficiently skilled. More typically the operator would have to "jog" the control to get the elevator reasonably close to the landing point and then direct the outgoing and incoming passengers to "watch the step". Such elevators did not contain inner doors, as the landing had to be visible for proper positioning of the cab. After stopping at the landing the operator would reach over and pull an attached lever to open the landing doors. Manually operated elevators were generally refitted or the cabs replaced by automatic equipment by the 1950's.
  • Large buildings with multiple elevators of this type would also have an elevator dispatcher stationed in the lobby to direct passengers and to signal the operator to leave with the use of a mechanical "cricket" noisemaker.
  • Some elevators still in operation have pushbutton manual controls; an example is in a thumbnail on this page. .

Floor numbering

Floor numbering

In general, elevator call buttons are numbered one-by-one to indicate the floors or landings that they cause the car to move to. However, there are some conventions to be aware of. The most important are:

  • The differences in floor numbering between different cultures, such as the numbering system used by the USA and in China as compared with the conventions set by the British.
  • Floor numbers considered unlucky may be skipped; the example, the floor above 12 may be numbered 14.
  • The top level may be PH for Penthouse or, where applicable, R for Roof or O for Observation Deck.
  • The ground floor may be G for Ground, M for Main, L for Lobby, or simply 1 (if it is also the first floor) or 0 (if not). As an aid to the visually impaired, there is often an embossed * beside the button.
  • Below the ground floor is commonly B for Basement or P for Parking, sometimes L or LL for Lower Level.
  • Below the basement may be SB for Sub-Basement. Numbered levels below ground, such as B1 or P1, are also common; the numbers may run either way, but B2 is usually below B1. Negative numbers (-1 for the first floor below ground, then -2, etc.) are also used, especially when the ground floor is numbered 0.
  • Some buildings are just idiosyncratic; at one hotel in Toronto, the first six floors are labeled A, M, MM, C, H, and 1 (for Arcade, Main, Main Mezzanine, Convention, Health Club, and 1st floor).
  • Floor designations sometimes vary between different banks of elevators in a building (due to its layout), or even between buttons and indicators in the same elevator (due to careless installation).
  • Some elevators, especially in buildings with complex floor plans, have both front and rear doors that can open at the same floor; a second button with R appended to the floor abbreviation (e.g. GR or 2R) then requests a stop there with the rear door opening.

The convention that higher floors have their buttons placed higher may help resolve ambiguities, but many elevators have enough buttons that they are grouped in rows of two or even three.

In order to comply with laws regarding handicapped access, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a secondary button panel may be installed which is located at a height that can be reached by a person in a wheelchair. In this case the buttons may be arranged in a horizontal fashion.

On the elevator's position indicator, you may see the letters EZ. This is used to represent an Express Zone which is a long section of travel where the elevator makes no stops. Typically these are found in elevators that serve the upper reaches of tall buildings, thus bypassing several of the lower floors on the way.

The elevator algorithm

The simple algorithm by which a single elevator can decide where to stop is:

  • Continue travelling in the same direction while there are remaining requests in that same direction.
  • If there are no further requests in that direction, then stop and become idle, or change direction if there are requests in the opposite direction.

The elevator algorithm has found an application in computer operating systems as an algorithm for scheduling hard disk requests.

Modern elevators use more complex heuristic algorithms to decide which request to service next.

Computer Dispatched

Efficiencies of multiple elevators installed in an office building may increase if a central dispatcher is used to group passengers going to the same floor to the same elevator. In buildings with these computer-dispatched elevator system, passengers key in their destination floor in a central dispatch panel located at the building lobby. The dispatch panel will then tell the passenger which elevator he should use. Inside the elevator there is no call button to push(or the buttons are there but they cannot be pushed, they only indicate stopping floors). Manufacturer of such system claims that average travelling time can be reduced by up to 30%. Sometimes, however, one person enters the destination for a large group of people going to the same floor. The dispatching algorithm is usually unable to completely cater for the variation, and late comers may find the elevator they're assigned to is already full.

Special operating modes

In areas with large populations of observant Jews, one may find a "Sabbath Elevator". In this mode, an elevator will stop automatically at every floor, allowing people to step on and off without having to press any buttons. Regenerative braking is also disabled if it is normally used, shunting energy collected from downward travel, and thus the gravitational potential energy of passengers, into a resistor network. This prevents violation of the Sabbath prohibition against doing useful work.

Unique Elevator Systems

New city hall, Hannover, Germany

The elevator in the new city hall in Hannover, Germany is a technical rarity, and unique in Europe, as the elevator starts straight up, but then changes its angle by 15 degrees to follow the contour of the dome of the new city hall in Hannover. The cabin therefore tilts 15 degrees during the ride. The elevator travels a height of 43 meters. The new city hall was built in 1913. The elevator was destroyed in 1943 and rebuilt in 1954.

The Gateway Arch

Main Article: Gateway Arch
The Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, Missouri has a unique elevator system which carries passengers from the visitors center underneath the Arch to the observation deck at the top of structure.

Called a tram or tramway, people enter this unique tramway much as one would enter an ordinary elevator, through double doors. Passing through the doors the passengers in small groups enter a horizontal cylindrical compartment containing seats on each side and a flat floor. A number of these compartments are linked to form a train. These compartments each individually retain an appropriate level orientation by tiliting while the entire train follows curved tracks up one leg of the arch.

There are two tramways within the Arch, one at the north end, and the other at the south end. The entry doors have windows, so people traveling within the Arch are able to see the interior structure of the Arch during the ride to and from the observation deck.

Fourth Street Elevator

Main Article: Fourth Street Elevator
The Fourth Street Elevator is located in Dubuque, Iowa. Also known as the Fenelon Place Elevator, it is the shortest and steepest railroad in the world. This elevator carries passengers from the bottom of one of the major bluffs in Dubuque to the top and back. The elevator is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The elevator is 296 feet (90 m) long, with a vertical elevation of 189 feet (58 m). The elevator is funicular in design. There are two cars that always start out opposite each other, and pass each other at the mid-point of the elevator. The two cars in the cable-driven railway are powered by an engine in the station house at the top of the hill. The engine only needs to overcome inertia and compensate for the varying weight of the passengers in the cars. Because the design is funicular, the cars counterbalance each other, and it's the weight of the two cars that does much of the work in moving them back and forth. The weight of the car going down the bluff helps pull the other car at the bottom up to the top.

Local businessman J.K. Graves built an elevator in 1882 to carry him from his home at the top of the bluff to his office at the bottom. This saved a considerable amount of time - during the 19th century it took at least half an hour to get from one end of the bluff to the other. Eventually Graves gave his neighbors rides on the elevator. In 1884 the first elevator was destroyed by fire. Graves rebuilt the elevator, opened it to the public and charged admission. The second elevator lasted until 1893, when it was destroyed by fire. Graves was unable to rebuild the elevator, so a number of his neighbors banded together and formed the Fenlon Place Elevator Company. They built the present elevator, which is still in service today.

Even though the elevator is no longer daily necessity for neighbors since the rise of the automobile, it is still a popular tourist attraction and a unique part of the city. Downtown Dubuque can be seen from the observation deck, as well as the Mississippi River, and the states of Illinois and Wisconsin.

See also


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