It is All About the Tools

HammerAsk any handyman, shade tree mechanic, do-it-yourself-er, or even professional and they will say that using the right power tool or hand tool for the right job makes all the difference. If you have ever tried to take lug nuts off with a pipe wrench you know what I mean and the wrong type of screw driver can give you bloody knuckles, a massive headache, or worse.

But, finding the right tool isn’t as easy as it sounds. After all there are over 30 different types of drivers used to turn screws from the simple Frearson to the familiar Phillips, the Dzus to the 12-spline flange.  Fortunately, there are also over 20 different kinds of hammers for beating a screw in if you have misplaced your favorite Pozidriv driver or stripped out the head.

Finding the right tool is hard enough.

But, what is even more maddening is when someone intentionally hides the tools you need, making your job even harder, if not impossible. In many respects that is the tactic of big elevator companies. They have often been hiding tools from you and playing keep away with them, making working on your elevator very difficult or impossible. This is done by creating tools crucial to elevator operation, diagnosis and testing, proprietary. In other words if you want to have work done on your elevator you often have to use a specific tool that only they have and they will not let you borrow it or buy it.

If more people knew that was part of the deal, they would very likely have never agreed to install an elevator requiring proprietary tools in the first place. But, big elevator companies know that keeping the initial cost of the elevator low is how they get jobs and the buyer is usually looking at the cost of the unit sold, not the cost of ongoing maintenance.

Would you buy anything else knowing this?

Imagine if that took place with a car purchase. The price is right and even lower than comparable vehicles and it looks great in the brochure, but in the fine print a lopsided maintenance agreement is included, saddling you with a monthly charge whether you need the maintenance or not. Then without prior notice the cost of the agreement goes up and then up again.  When you are finally able to extricate yourself from the deal, the car company holds on to the tools like the firm grip of death so no one else can work on your car. The result is that over time, your car is vanquished to the confines of the garage as tires go flat or brakes start to squeal unless you reinstate the atrocious agreement that you just got out of. Wisely, you would never stand for that. But that is very often what happens with elevators.

What consumers usually don’t know is often the elevator maintenance agreements are far more lucrative than the elevator sale itself. Big elevator companies understand that coming in lowest on the bid or cost estimate not only nets them a tidy profit from the elevator sale, but usually 25 years of income on maintenance. So to keep winning bids and wooing prospects, they generally keep the unit sales price down, maintenance costs up, and the proprietary tools often lock you in “or else”.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Some will say that I am exaggerating or just plain, old “making stuff up”. They insist that there is no way a company would prefer non-functional elevators to possibly losing a dime and that they would not intentionally harm the buyer of the elevator by keeping needed tools from them.

Well, guess again, because when I say intentional, I am not exaggerating! In Berks County Pennsylvania they had to learn the hard way when Otis Elevator was so determined to keep the tools out of the hands of a customer, that it took a court order from a federal judge to get the necessary tools. Finally, after legal wrangling and the judges involvement, Otis Elevator Company handed the tools over. As usual, Otis fought tooth and nail. Their intention, made clear in court documents strongly appeared to allow elevators to sit inoperable because they wanted to deliberately prevent the county from getting their hands on the tool for the elevator the county owned. Yes the county should have read the fine print, but this practice needs to be more widely known.

Ya know, my father-in-law is one of the greatest guys in the world. He is a true handyman and a tremendous help with chores around the farm, but he tends to use tools and then forgets where he puts them. He has planted more sockets and wrenches than most farmers plant corn. Its just a shame they don’t grow like corn, because we would have had a bumper crop of hand tools every year. He and I have gone round and round about his habit of leaving tools out and it has caused me heart-burn more than once.

See, I am “A job isn’t done until the tools are put away” kind of guy, and he is not. But, after all is said and done, there is forgiveness and reconciliation because although forgetful, he is not intentionally trying to harm anyone or hold anything over someone’s head. The same can’t be said for some big elevator companies and that is a big difference.

Rainbows and Unicorns

Usually these blogs end in a ray of sunshine with a list of to-do’s to help prevent costs or to assist in keeping your elevator running smooth as silk. But this time the list is very short.

My advice — never, under any circumstances, buy an elevator with proprietary parts and tools. If you are part of the bidding process, realize that the low bid is not always the best choice and maybe just the “come on” to trap you in a contractual hell. To combat this always figure the bid to include 25 years (life of the elevator) maintenance cost estimate into the final projection. Make sure to read the fine print and include the automatic increases. Also, if you are looking at buying a building with an elevator; my advice — never buy one with an elevator that contains proprietary parts and tools. Because if you do, you could have big elevator holding all the cards in the form of proprietary tools.

One World Trade Elevator

Elevator Bucket List Interrupted

russ-ward-737238-unsplashMost elevator folks have a bucket list of elevators they wish to ride sometime before they meet their demise. These lists are usually comprised of unique elevators known for either the ride, the building they are in, the experience of the ride or the view.

My personal top five includes the following amazing elevators. Feel free to comment and leave your top five as well. I am sure I missed some outstanding elevators that should be on this list:

  1. The Legoland Hotel’s Disco Elevator in Carlsbad CA. Only three stops but, come on it has a disco ball!
  2. Atlanta, GA – Marriott Marquis – Looking into a futuristic atrium as you travel around 50 floors.
  3. The Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee. A glass elevator through the middle of the Pyramid and Bass Pro Shop to an observation area of Memphis.
  4. Hitching a ride up a leg of the St. Louis Arch. The herky-jerky elevator travels the 600ish feet to some minuscule windows at the very top in a cab that is more like a space capsule.
  5. The elevator to the top of the One World Trade Center. Video walls make the ride to the top as interesting as the view when you get to the top.

In my many years of travel I have knocked out two of that top five including the Marriott in Atlanta, and clunking up to the top of the Arch in St. Louis. So when the family was going on an east coast swing through New York City for vacation I really wanted to go to One World Trade for a ride. In our pre-trip meeting when we discussed the must-do’s of our trek, much to the chagrin of everyone else, I insisted on a stop at one of the coolest elevators ever created.

Everyone was OK (but not overjoyed) with the stop. And they agreed if, and only if, we lumped the elevator ride in with a visit to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Although secondary to my main purpose for the trip to Manhattan, the terms seemed acceptable. The first stop would be the museum on the grounds of what once where the twin towers of the World Trade Center and then the elevator.

russ-ward-737219-unsplashFor younger people that are now used to the skyline of New York with the single impressive tower, it is hard to express what the absence of the two, 110-story towers means. I still, as do my generational peers, get a lump in my throat when I see an old picture or movie that has the gleaming behemoths as the center piece of the Big Apple skyline.

I clearly remember being completely agog and aghast as I witnessed on TV, the second airliner flying into the towers and when they ultimately collapsed. The loss of life was staggering at the World Trade Center (over 2,700) and many have ties to the victims who innocently lost their lives that fateful day and still more to this day suffer the physical effects of the poisonous air created. So I wasn’t totally sure how I would react but, after much deliberation, I thought a visit to the museum would help assuage my angst the 9/11 tragedy had brought on and somehow that uncomfortable lump in my throat could be quelled or mollified if I saw with my own eyes the exhibits.

Much to my disappointment, nothing could be further from the truth.

I entered the main exhibit area and took a single, quick, quiet photograph from a high vantage point. That was the last photo I would take for the day as immediately after taking that lone photo, I went down an escalator immediately to an exhibit of an actual fire truck from Ground Zero. “Ladder 3” is emblazoned in gold and white on the back half of the truck, the front half is completely gone and replaced by twisted metal. Plaques then tell the story of the brave men that forged forward toward the fiery danger. Captain Patrick “Paddy” Brown and his men were last known to be on the 40th floor and climbing the tower. Now gone forever.

From there I stumbled numb from room to room, seeing the devastation that occurred and hearing the many stories of lives lost, parents that wouldn’t make it home to children, and friends separated forever by the gulf between life and death. Eyes were misty and more than one prayer crossed these cynical lips.

After hours at the museum, our group gathered together again largely in silence. Each were impacted in their own way, and just standing in contemplation near the reflecting pools.

We lingered there, but then slowly walked, almost in complete silence, back towards the subway. No one even mention the elevator ride I had been anticipating for so long. Suddenly it was not so important anymore. So another day will come when I can mark that elevator off my list. Until then, the memories of the World Trade Center will haunt me and always remind me of 9/11.

New Sympathy When the Elevator Breaks

Bunker HillI was recently on vacation with the family. We did the Griswold family version of an eastern United States holiday tour. We hit all of the sites from Washington D.C. to Maine and, for a short time, I was able to put the elevator industry in the rear-view mirror and think about whale-watching and cannoli’s. But then came Boston.

The family and I loaded up on bottled water and all eight of us hit the Boston Freedom Trail. We started out at Boston Common, breezed past the Robert Gould Shaw monument and looked around the Park Street Church.  The cemeteries were interesting as was the King’s Chapel and the site of the Boston Massacre. Few dropped out of the tour and trudged back to the Commons.

But then came the USS Constitution, a few more turned around and the final blow to all but three of us loomed tall on the horizon. Bunker Hill. Myself, my son and his wife continued up through the winding streets until we were greeted by Colonel William Prescott, wielding a sword and a grimace in front of a towering obelisk.

I am not complaining. The tour was fantastic. We saw all the sites you could ever want to, but they neglect to tell you at the very end of all that walking is a monument at the crest of Bunker Hill. The impressive tower overlooks the city, the harbor and the surrounding area and sits there as a reminder of the Revolutionary War. But to me it was also a personal challenge to climb to the top. It was like Everest to Hillary and Norgay. I had to give it a go.

I started off strong, literally jogging up the first 75 steps (I know this because they are numbered), making way for others coming down the narrow spiral staircase and left my son and daughter-in-law in the dust. But, by step 150, they caught up and passed me as I slowed to a snail’s pace. But I persevered and dragged my weary rear-end the remainder of the 294 steps to the very apex of the monument. If I only had a flag to plant!

View from the TopIn my mind, when I finally reached the zenith, with my oxygen- depleted brain dizzied by the experience, my only thought was, “Where is the elevator?” After all the Washington Monument in DC has one; why not Bunker Hill?

When one was not available, I took it a step further and began thinking, “This is what it must feel like if your elevator is broken in your apartment building. Trudging up step-after-step, exhausted especially after a full day of work. And heaven forbid you have to carry groceries or deliveries. Or even worse, what if you have a disability of some sort?” For this reason the elevator repair business and elevator technicians are crucial; they need to be timely and ready to fix any problem. Thank goodness most are.

However, if your business or apartment complex is not having good luck with elevator repairs, remember my story about Bunker Hill and the people that need to take your elevators up and down. They are relying on you! To give good service, it is perfectly fine to complain to the repair company, call supervisors and shop for another service. If you are like most businesses, your elevator is in good repair and when it does fail, it is fixed right away, thanks to the guys that are keeping you moving up and down. They deserve a handshake and a thank you.

I had a choice as to whether I climbed 294 steps for a spectacular view of Boston. A person that lives in the fifth floor of an apartment complex doesn’t and they are counting on you.

You Should Care – Non-Proprietary Please

The elevator door is the hardest working part of the elevator.The words “Proprietary” and “Non-proprietary” elevator components and parts and the costs associated with them can be a a bit cloudy depending on who you are talking to. Of course, big companies that provide non-proprietary parts are for them, and people that aren’t, see all the flaws. So what are the real differences between the two?

The best place to start with any question like this is with a definition of terms. In this instance, the definition of non-proprietary is the following, taken from an elevator spec sheet calling for a non-proprietary solution:

“All materials provided shall be serviceable by any Journeyman Elevator Mechanic, and, replacement parts for all equipment furnished shall be available on the open market. Access to diagnostic/troubleshooting routines shall require no secret codes. Provide any/all manuals, schematics, wiring diagrams and service manuals that are available to the manufacturer’s installers and service personnel. Any decaying circuits or devices requiring “factory re-charging” shall be considered a violation of this SPECIFICATION section; such equipment shall be removed and replaced with conforming equipment at no extra cost to the Owner. Technical help shall be furnished to the Owner, or Owner’s Agent as needed, for the life of the equipment. Controls must be of a type that does not require replacement of any other component (door operator, signal fixtures, etc..) in the event a controller replacement is necessary.”

All that verbiage translates into any qualified elevator mechanic should be able to work on the elevator with no problems, get the parts they need, and not have to jump through a million hoops to get things done, and if they do, the company that makes the elevator will have to pay out the nose for not telling the truth about the product.

Because proprietary parts tie you to one provider, there is significant push back, but companies still produce elevators with those systems. They do so to increase the total profit of the elevator in the long haul. This is because they have found that after unfair, multi-year service contracts that are virtually impossible to get out of, many wise building owners and managers do everything they can to change maintenance contract providers due to poor service or high cost. The original contractual rates are often extremely high; you can’t get out of the contract without an act of congress and there are annual automatic increases to boot! So to keep people from fleeing in droves and to lock you in forever and throw away the key, “Bigg Elevator” produces elevators that only they can create parts for or provide service for. Whether you like it or not, you have to come crawling to them for what you need.

But it doesn’t stop there. To sell more elevators with proprietary parts, often times they price the new elevator as low as possible because they know they will be making it up over the decades of service profit they will be realizing. Cheap upfront prices can cost you in the long-haul.

It is hard to believe that this scheme by Big Elevator works, but it does because of a couple factors. First, the architect (the person that often chooses the elevator) has got bigger fish to fry and often goes with what they know. This can lead to taking the path of least resistance. That’s right. In the construction trade it is called drag-and-drop-itis. Often rushed architects are so used to using the same elevator that they control-c, control-v, the elevator into the specs and drawings. Habits are hard to break when under tough deadlines.

The second reason is that the builder will not be paying for long-term contracts, so what do they care? They are looking to sell or move the building to a different owner or company shortly after the build is done. They want to keep the project under budget so they go cheap in the short-term on the elevator and stick the future owner with the bill. Everyone knows that the elevator contract is rarely the hold-up on any property deal so they will often opt for short-term cheaper cost, knowing the next guy will be paying for service contracts and proprietary parts. Their main priority is to get the job done fast and as inexpensively as possible. The familiar, cheaper short-term option is the choice.

With all that said, be very wary when buying a building that has an elevator. Always check and double check because, whether you like it or not, you may have a boat anchor around your neck in the form of proprietary parts and systems.

For the above reasons we recommend the purchase of non-proprietary equipment as it provides a more economical choice as a long term investment. As with parts that are proprietary, non-proprietary must conform with government standards and safety regulations so there is no fear of choosing lower quality or unsafe parts. It is unfortunately true that all the extra money that non-proprietary costs you, ultimately, gives no extra value.

So, to sum up, the differences between proprietary and non-proprietary elevator systems is only the cost (up front versus long term), being able to hire a wider variety of elevator technicians, and no difference in quality or safety. By buying a non-proprietary elevator system, owners get the freedom to choose the maintenance company they want and shop the price they wish to pay. Proprietary parts put you at the mercy of Bigg Elevator. If you choose to purchase non-proprietary equipment, it should be specified in your purchase agreement that the product being installed contains no proprietary hardware. We will always do that. Find another option if the company you are thinking about will not.

The Dangerous Business – Elevators

Women console each other after learning about the deaths. Photo credit:

News of two fatalities of construction workers in an elevator shaft in St. Louis highlights the dangers of working in and around elevators. Two workers, not elevator mechanics, were cutting pipes in a hoistway while being suspended by a construction basket. The basket fell and the two men perished, falling to their deaths. The old building, at 1501 Washington Avenue in St. Louis was being renovated to be used as a hotel.

Often in this blog, we can come down pretty hard on the elevator industry. We are part of the elevator business and see its many shortcomings and flaws. But all failings aside, the elevator business is a rough one to be in and dangerous for everyone but especially rookies and novices. The general impression of danger is confirmed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor.  They point out that elevator mechanics are put at risk of falls, falls from ladders, burns, and severe muscle strains associated with working in restricted spaces with heavy tools and materials. Because of the dangers not everyone is allowed or qualified to be in an elevator shaft and significant training must take place so people in the industry will respect the danger and know exactly what to do and how to do it.

People outside the elevator business should take heed and understand the training and knowledge keeps these professionals safer, even though it is very dangerous work. Remember that elevator installers and repairers are listed as the sixth most dangerous profession in the construction field, and elevator installers and repairers suffered the highest numbers of deaths in work on or near elevators, far above laborers, supervisors, iron-workers, and other professions.

So, let’s give the guys that keep you moving vertically a break. Remember that working in and around elevators is for professionals. Do not enter any hoistway or machine room unless you are trained to do so. Elevator technicians are highly skilled specialists and are owed respect for their training and hard work in less than ideal conditions.