Elevator Selfies

Recently I ran across several websites totally devoted to people taking their picture in elevator mirrors. Some of the photos were sexy, some funny and some highly inappropriate. One set of photos were in the documentary style of a daily photograph, marking life one frame at a time, one elevator ride at a time (see the website here). It is interesting that mirrors in the interior of elevators have become so fascinating to so many leading to just one question…

Are we all that self-absorbed?

Believe it or not there is an old elevator legend about how mirrors were first put into use in cars and and in elevator lobbies. The yarn is that the elevator in a certain high-rise building was slowing down with age and lack of attention and instead of making needed repairs, the building owner looked to the brilliant mind of a psychology student that lived in the building for a solution (Ok…I know this will be addressed later in the blog but really???? You are that cheap????).

The student suggested a less expensive alternative TO ACTUAL REPAIRS by giving people something to do other than just standing and staring at a blank wall when waiting. Theoretically, this would make the time pass faster and make it seem as if the wait was much shorter. The result was the first mirror installed in an elevator and the lobby. People have been straightening their ties, combing their hair, checking their zipper and entertaining themselves in those mirrors ever since. It is a truism that much like caged birds preening in front of a their reflection, people get distracted by their own image as well and don’t think of the slow ride to their destination. As people are want to do, that philosophy has been taken to the extreme and now distraction seems to be on steroids. It is beyond just looking at ourselves for entertainment. Now you can dance as you go up and down like in this elevator in Legoland that has a light show and disco music.

Ultimately, that story about the mirrors may or may not be true. I have looked for genuine sources and it seems that everyone claims the mirror idea was theirs first or that it was unique to them. There are versions of the tale from IBM, Penn State, Bucknell even some Bigg Elevator companies had a version of the story circulating around.

The real problem with the story however, is not the mirror or the disco ball as the case maybe. Yes, even I appreciate glaring in a mirror during an elevator ride to double check for broccoli in my teeth, but only if I’m all alone; the problem is the premise that the elevator was running slow due to age or lack of attention and the mirror was a cheap work-around and not solving the real problem. Remember, we are transporting very important cargo…people. An putting a Band Aid on a potential maintenance problem is a really, really bad idea.

So, if your elevator is running slow get a real solution from an elevator expert, not the psychology major from the forth floor! Here is a list of specific things that need to be checked out by a licensed elevator technician to improve performance if your elevator is running slow.

  • The setup could be the problem. Elevators are sophisticated pieces of machinery that rely on a proper setting. Settings could improve performance.
    In a hydraulic elevator the control valve could be going out. The control value controls the elevator speed. A bad one could slow things down. But even cold weather can create the need for improved settings.
  • In a traction elevator (ones with ropes) there might be a problem with output to the motor or the motor drive. Slow motion could also be early symptoms of motor equipment failure.
  • It might not be a mechanical problem at all. The building and elevator use could have increased or the purpose of the elevator might have changed. This could be slowing the whole thing down even though it is working just fine. A new office with more foot traffic could be the culprit. Adjusting where the elevator rests could help.

Eventually if the mechanical issues are not addressed it could cause a failure, leaving people stuck or worse. Keep in mind that depending on the type of the elevator and application it may just be slower than you would like. Although no one likes a slow elevator, a smooth, quality ride is just as important, besides you need time to take all those selfies.

Hold the Door Please!

We have all been there. The hallway is crowded and everybody has got somewhere to be. The elevator chimes and the doors of the express elevator glide swiftly open. Everyone inside the car shuffles up against the laminate covered walls and as there is some room available, everyone files in. Like sardines in a can you, and everyone else wedges together. Not since the 1950’s crazy of packing a phone booth have quarters been so tight.

The elevator dings again, as the doors begin to move, everyone inhales and holds to garner just a little more space and then you hear a quiet cry from down the hall, “Hold the elevator please!”

(Below is  video that shows an actual rescue from a similar scenario.)


We are a polite people. Some would say we are polite to a fault.

A hand reflexively shoots out of the crammed pack of passengers, so firmly squeezed together and brings the doors to a stop just inches from closing. Everyone inhales just a little more and a wisp of a girl slowly sidles in with head down and apologies flying. What could one, one-hundred pound person harm? There is no way this straw of an individual will break the back of the elevator. Its impossible.

But impossible things do happen and this time the elevator doors don’t feel so swift in their closing, almost as if this robotic object senses there maybe just one too many person on board. It’s groans of complaints however go unheeded as the doors grind closed. Then with a shudder and thunk the car starts creeping downward to the lobby. 

This scenario plays itself out countless times, in countless elevators, in countless buildings everyday. But have you ever thought that sometimes enough weight is a enough weight? What happens when you overload the camel’s back? 

Well as with most things there are a few variables:

  1. First, the elevator might have an overload sensor. Handy thing to have. If it does, no worries the elevator simply won’t budge. Sometimes there is a buzzer to let you know its not going anywhere and other times a light or message on the position indicator will flash. Most elevators do not have this sensing capability though and so they do not react at all.
  2. The next possible scenario is a bit more dire for the elevator and the passengers. Even though the elevator car may be ignorant of the total weight inside, the motor is a different circumstance all together. A mild symptom of overloading is that the car will have trouble leveling to the floor. A little freaky but at least you are on the right floor. Consider bullet dodged.  
  3. Going up! If the elevator is going up, the doors may close and then the elevator as it starts to move will recognize the limits have been breached or it is simply being overworked and will shut down. This is one way people get stuck and if it is an express elevator, you may get trapped between floors and that can be similar to the elevator in the above video, a hundred feet or more and several hours from any escape. Here is another video of the worst case scenario in an express elevator.
  4. Going down! If the elevator is going down, the motor may not be strong enough to keep the speed under control. See a traction elevator operates on balance. There are counter weights that are supposed to be equal to (or at least close to) the weight of the fully loaded car. Anyone with sixth grade science under their belt can tell you with equal weight the elevator motor is not lifting the full load. It is balanced. But if the car is way too heavy, the car could travel too fast and trip one of 3 over-speed detection systems and the car will come to a grinding halt by means of the brake, rope gripper or the free-fall safety devise or any combination of the all three.
  5. If the motor is okay with too much weight, the elevator cables (otherwise called ropes) might not be. Now the ropes won’t break and drop everyone to their deaths, that is a myth and has happened only once in the US when a plane hit the Empire State Building and unbelievably cut all the ropes at once (click here for the story). The aforementioned detection system will see to it that the elevator won’t fall, but overweight cables can slip over the main sheaves. Instead of a controlled ride the slippage will cause the automatic stopping systems to kick in and stuck you will be.

Beyond that catastrophic failure is an extremely, extremely rare possibility. But, why take the chance. You really have two options, either be polite and get out of the elevator and let the other passengers join in on the crowded car or suck it in a little more and get ready for a possible rough ride and a potential long wait on the fire department or an elevator technician. I know which one I am choosing every time.

Earthquake – Elevator Safety

Recently with all the Seismic activity in California we thought it would be a good idea to review basic safety having to do with buildings and specifically elevators. Now, before you click to another website, check your email or count the number of re-tweets on your latest post, give this a quick read. Not to be melodramatic, but you or those around you could be in danger if an earthquake hits the area you are in and you are not aware of basic safety rules.

Also, we are so used to this being a California problem that the rest of the country tends to turn a deaf ear to the potential of a devastating earthquake. It seems there are two extremes; people in that are so used to the ground shaking that they tend to ignore what to do and then on the end of the spectrum are people that rarely have earthquakes so they are ill-equipped to deal with them when they strike.


For those in the later group, keep in mind that one of the biggest earthquakes known to strike North America and the largest east of the Rockies took place in a little known town in the Bootheel of Missouri called New Madrid (pronounced Mad-Rid) in 1811. It was so strong that witnesses described the land rolling like ocean waves, sand spouts shooting high in the air and the Mississippi River changed directions permanently.  The event was actually four or more separate quakes ranging from 7.8 to 8.8 in magnitude that were felt as far away as New York City, Boston, Montreal, and Washington D.C. President James Madison and his wife Dolly felt them in the White House and church bells as far away as Boston were reported to have rung in their steeples due to the shaking.

So even though California maybe at the front of our minds, earthquakes can occur almost anywhere in the US. As you can see from the 1997 Uniform Building Code Seismic Zones all most all of the nation has a chance of being struck by an earthquake.

With all that being said, here is a link of information from the United States Department of Labor. To quickly sum up what this means to elevator operation, “[I]f you must leave a building after the shaking stops, use the stairs, not the elevator, and look for falling debris. Earthquakes can cause fire alarms and fire sprinklers to go off. You will not be able to rule out whether there is a real threat of fire, and the elevators may have been compromised. Always use the stairs.”

Also, especially in Seismic Zones 3 and 4, automatic shut offs of the elevator can occur depending on the strength of the shaking, when the elevator was installed and the local building codes. So venturing over to the elevator and repeatedly pushing the down button on the hall call won’t get you out of the building any faster and may actually waste valuable time when you could be exiting the building.

If you are a building owner or manager, after the shaking stops, call your elevator mechanic. It will be their job to check out the elevator and make sure that it is up and running properly and then reset it properly.

Remember as with any operation of an elevator, safety first!

Elevators – States Make It Clear Its Your Fault

Because installing traditional elevators take so long and there are a limited amount of elevator contractors, with only so many hours in a day, elevators in many jurisdictions are falling out of compliance regarding inspections. That is the impression that some are trying to infer as officials in a recent story say that inspections of elevators have often taken place and they are waiting on the required repairs before they give their stamp of approval or re-inspection.


There is some truth to the assertion. An unfortunate reality is the mechanic’s time is over taxed on doing new installs because they take months and months to complete. This drain on hours results in them often being the scapegoat and shouldering much of the blame for out of compliance elevators in some people’s minds. This inevitably  leads to the blame game of who is ultimately responsible. Constant pointing of the finger seems to come second nature in the elevator industry as they bicker,  “It is the state’s fault”, “No its the elevator company’s fault”. Its enough to make your head spin.

Now let me be clear, this is not a defense of the big elevator companies. The companies are choosing to do new installations, not necessarily for the profitability of the installation itself, but for the juicy long-term maintenance contract. That is the most lucrative segment of the industry. So they are prioritizing their efforts towards long-term sustained profits not the one time install. Of course elevator companies and their technicians are responsible for their own time management and although there are only so many hours in the day they could use those hours more effectively to free up time for maintenance and repairs. One way to save time would be to use a modular elevator (the startup takes a week not months). This would free up more time for maintenance and keeping up with the punch list produced by state inspectors.

But is it really the elevator contractor or the state inspector that is responsible for the elevator? Especially if the elevator is broken?

That was the question posed in a recent news story done by the NBC affiliate in the San Diego area. The set up to the story was text book. Start with the premise (the state has too many elevators lacking inspections leading to unsafe elevators), then find a person that is dependent on the elevator to get to their apartment, show how their life is turned upside down due to lack of a fully functioning elevator and then have a representative from the state video taped in a gotcha moment. Very formulaic indeed.

We are even given a grainy video that looked like a hostage confession reel from an unfeeling bureaucrat. It was even shot at an odd camera angle to accentuate her in all the wrong ways while responding to the charges, but the “gotcha” kind of fell flat because Erika Monterroza from the Department of Industrial Relations makes clear at the 2:52 mark of the story that the blame ultimately resides in one place...with the building owner.

Yes it would be nice to blame the state or the elevator company, but ultimately the responsibility is always the building owner’s. It is after all their elevator. And although the news story is from 2018, the overall point is still valid. If you own a building with an elevator, the responsibility for the safety, maintenance and licensing falls to the the one that owns the building. 

So what can you do if you are a manager or building owner? Here are some things to consider: 

  1. Start shopping immediately. It can be real hard to find a responsive elevator contractor. 
  2. Immediately cancel your contract. Usually buried in the fine print it gives you a window to cancel and if you don’t you have an automatic renewal often times at a higher rate.
  3. With all the calendar apps available, use one to note your certificate expiration date and give yourself at least 60 days to make all the phone calls.
  4. Be the squeaky wheel. If it is your responsibility, take it seriously and be a pest if you must. The elevator company and even the state may find you annoying but better that than to be out of compliance.
  5. Climb the ladder. Do this by talking to the boss or finding a different company to work with. With the state go over everyone’s head if needed. Contact legislators, representatives or the governor’s office if needed.
  6. See #2. Immediately cancel your elevator contract (even if the renewal is five years away).

It is a shame to have to go to such lengths to get your elevator properly inspected and licensed, but because everyone in the industry is so busy, and elevator contractors are interested in new installations that take forever, it is a reality you will have to deal with. The bottom-line is as a business owner you need to keep tabs and keep your elevator in compliance.

Passing the Test – Elevator Hydraulic Oil

Usually when you hear about an elevator passing the test, you’re thinking about passing the annual inspection. Once you pass the annual, you get a certificate to slip into the picture frame in the elevator car noting you can operate the unit until the next time you are required to go through the routine testing again.  But that is just one test, and it largely surrounds the safety of the riding public. There is actually another test to pass that has more to do with the operation and longevity of the elevator itself, but it is rarely conducted. The test is of the hydraulic fluid, or oil, you find in the tank, jacks, and pipes.

Hydraulic fluid is literally the lifeblood of the hydraulic elevator. Without the oil, you have a fancy box sitting at the bottom of a tall, useless shaft. It is the fluid that makes the elevator go and, just like a blood test at the doctor’s office, your elevator oil may need a test, too.

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So here’s what you need to know:

First, hydraulic elevators are going to be used a lot in the future and will continue to be an extremely common solution because they are perfect for low and most mid-rise applications. The machine roomless (MRL) traction was supposed to put an end to hydraulic elevator’s reign of dominance for less than 50′ of travel, but they are hitting all sorts of roadblocks, including price and laws restricting placement. The entire state of California hasn’t taken a shine to the MRL and has a law prohibiting use due to limited access to the motor apart from the car top. Cost-wise, in our experience, upfront cost of the MRL traction is nearly 40% higher than a comparable hydraulic, and maintenance for a traction unit is 30% more expensive.

Second, the oil is extremely important to the entire operation of the hydraulic elevator. The oil lifts the car and passengers, reduces friction, transfers heat away from moving parts to keep the machinery cool and lubricates those parts as well. Also, most mechanical breakdowns of the pump, valves and submerged components can ultimately be traced back to bad fluid.

The hydraulic elevator is alive and well and will continue to be a mainstay of the industry for decades into the future, regardless of who is trying to push traction down the throats of unwitting customers. Of course, the push is for the benefit of the elevator company, not the building owner.

But all those benefits of low maintenance and high upfront costs can be mitigated quickly if the oil is not up to snuff.

So how does the elevator mechanic know if the oil needs testing?

  1. Believe it or not, the smell is a big indicator. Foul-smelling hydraulic fluid means it has been compromised.
  2. Problems leveling is another sign. If constant adjustment is not getting the elevator to level quickly, the oil may be filled with sludge or have viscosity issues, including breakdown.
  3. Hard stops, stalls, and not holding its position, especially under load, is another signal the oil needs tested.
  4. Leaky gaskets and fittings are yet another indicator.

If these problems are continual, laboratory testing of the oil may be utilized where viscosity and acidity is determined and the amount of oxidation, degraded additives, foreign particles and water can be measured. Once you know what the problem with the oil may be, a proper course of action should be taken, from filtering to water removal; replacing all of the oil and flushing the system may not be required.

Is this testing really needed? The unfortunate answer is yes. Bad oil can cause poor operation that can lead to catastrophic failure of the pump, valves, and even jacks. And problematic oil is more widespread than you would think. For instance, while researching hydraulic oil, I ran across a paper written by Stamatios Kalligeros for the Hellenic Naval Academy, Fuels and Lubricants Technology. He was trying to demonstrate the possibility of oil analysis helping in maintenance of elevators and, to prove his point, he analysed several elevators and their hydraulic fluid. It was an interesting article, but in the conclusion, the problem with oil and oil maintenance was clearly demonstrated. He indicated the following:

The results can be summarized as follows. All hydraulic fluids examined were not complying with the specification of the engine manufacturer. More specifically, for two of the elevators, the hydraulic fluid which was used has viscosity that does not conform to the classifications’ viscosity grade range. Additionally, one elevator was working with different grade of hydraulic fluid from the one proposed by the engine manufacturer. The elemental analysis of sulfur levels in the hydraulic fluid shows the maintenance intervals in the operation of the elevators. The analysis of zinc, phosphorous, chlorine and calcium, verifies that the oil which was used in one elevator is different from the oil used to the other two. Additionally, it reveals a significant wear to all the elevators as a result of the working environment conditions. 

It was a small sample, but is it just me, or does this mean that your elevator may need oil testing to make sure it is clean, has the proper viscosity, and is the right type required being put in? Check your maintenance contract and see if scientific testing of the fluid is covered. If not, ask how much it will cost. There are several companies that will do onsite testing for you.

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