Elevator U Report: Maintenance – It’s Just Business

Elevator U FinalRecently, I sat in on a great discussion at Elevator U regarding elevator maintenance. Elevator U is an organization that has an annual gathering of elevator personnel from colleges and universities around the country. The conference is a great opportunity to meet and greet some great folks in the elevator business and to learn a lot of valuable information through taking part in the various seminars and breakout sessions about the industry. One of the speakers this year was Dr. Clemense Ehoff, an accounting professor at Central Washington University. He is a published writer on information specific to the elevator industry, especially elevator maintenance.

During his presentation, Ehoff made a couple of important points about the vertical transportation industry that ought to be paid special attention by those that own buildings with elevators who might be looking to buy an elevator, or by those in charge of maintaining them. It was definitely a necessary commentary for colleges and universities in attendance as many of the points have practical application regardless of the type of the elevator this information might be applied to.

The first comment he made that many may not be aware of is that an elevator manufacturer is losing a huge chunk of change if they do not procure the maintenance agreement when they sell the elevator to the building owner. It is not unusual for the maintenance agreement to be more profitable for the company over the life of the elevator than the elevator itself.  From this simple comment, one can see that when negotiating the price of maintenance and initial cost, this knowledge may be valuable and well worth keeping filed in the back of your mind. It could come in handy to know where their profit and, therefore, their motives come from.

He also expounded on the language of a standard elevator contract. The “full- maintenance” and just “oil and grease” contracts are intentionally unclear.  “Full- maintenance” specifically, according to Ehoff, has murky wording and most companies restrict performance information in the language of the contract. The contracts are very legalistically written in their own “legalese,” and the big elevator companies intentionally use words like “periodic” and phrases like “as we consider necessary” to confuse and cloud instead of enlighten and explain.

In addition, lots of exclusions are listed especially when compared to duties and guarantees. Specifically what is missing is any requirement for any quality and/or standards. Ehoff maintains this is intentional and no accident at all as the elevator manufacturers have set themselves up as the experts and everyone else is at the mercy of their opinions. Ehoff said that the only measure for quality is “call backs” for additional repairs and the fewer times the elevator tech is “called back” the better quality. Unfortunately, there is no standard in the industry to measure these call backs for repairs. Is one call back per month too many? More? And what about the time spent? There are no measures for these questions in the industry or, if there are, the companies are not sharing them. The result is that the quality of the elevator, quality repair, and fair contracts are hard to assess and ultimately assessment is what Ehoff wants to see: concise data about repairs.

To build an unbiased database, apart from the manufacturing companies, Ehoff finished his presentation with a request for help. He was hoping that the participants of Elevator U could help him gather data on maintenance that he and others could use to determine the effectiveness and quality of elevator maintenance.  To be a participant in the study or to find out more about his work, here is a link to his information online.

After all, without a standard and good quality data regarding “call backs” from the elevator owner, there is really no way to know if you are being played or not when it comes to maintenance agreements. In other words, how do you know if your frequency of breakdowns and “call backs” are reasonable or not? The answer is that until there is reliable, independent data, we will never know and will be in the dark as to the quality of the elevator and the maintenance being performed and forever in the control of elevator companies.

In the mean time, while the data is being collected, do the unthinkable…read the maintenance contract and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification and changes if you are uncomfortable at all with any of the terms. Pay special attention to automatic increases and renewals. Also, we have lots of resources regarding contracts available here. Remember the elevator company wants your service contract business! They may be more than willing to make exceptions to the rule. Lastly, if you are not sure you want to renew with the current company providing service, check your contract for the renewal date, mark it on the calendar, and send a certified letter to the provider to cancel service. This will give you more flexibility in coming to a better agreement for you.

Elevator U: The Myth of Maintenance Teamwork

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Photo by Pierre-Etienne Vachon on Unsplash

Long-term planning for elevator maintenance takes cooperation from several parties and often is equated to teamwork. However, the idea that a team is always the solution to the problem often misses the bigger point. At the recent Elevator U conference we learned a lot about the various people that make elevator maintenance systems work but, surprisingly, the word team was never mentioned.

This is may be because when you hear the word “team,” you think of a group of individuals all dressed in the same uniform striving for victory, all pulling in the same direction. Even though everyone’s in-game goals may be different, victory for the team is always the objective, so they cast self-wants aside for the win.

Baseball is a great example of this. The goal of the pitcher is to strike people out, force a simple ground ball or “can of corn” pop-fly, but sometimes they have to intentionally walk an apposing player to ensure a win. The batter always wants to drive the ball for a hit, but every once in a while a sacrifice is required above the attempt at a dramatic homer. A selfish player or someone that has goals apart from on field victory is never a welcome addition to the team, even if they are great players. The goal should always be the win; not the individual’s desires.

Although we would like to think that elevator maintenance is a team sport, with everyone pulling in the same direction and willing to sacrifice for the good of the team, oftentimes it is not. The result is that managing elevator maintenance needs to come with the realization that everyone might just be dressed in different uniforms and they may not be playing on your team at all. This is not because people in the elevator business should be considered corrupt or lazy and out of hand; it is because the various components needed to have good elevator service usually have differing goals. The people it takes to keep an elevator running are sometimes working in opposition to each other so instead of a team, it should be looked at as a partnership.

This is why it’s important to ask: Who are my partners and what are their motives?

The elevator company – They are who you have the actual maintenance contract with and their goal is to make money by providing good service and products. If keeping you happy makes them money, all is good. When you cost them money…well, that’s another story. To confirm this fact, look over your current contract and see who the language favors. You will find that it is a very lopsided document. There is nothing wrong with them wanting to ring the cash register as often as possible. They have a lot of responsibilities which cost them dearly: they employ people with their revenue, provide upgrades and improvement, and even engage in R&D to make elevators safer and better functioning. Making money is not evil, but it’s important to realize that it is their goal.

The repair personnel – Sometimes they are on your team and other times they are not. Often times the technician’s goal is to simply make it though the day with their sanity intact. They have lots of stops to get to and there’s pressure from the company to maintain lots of different elevators plus special projects. They also must be efficient, punctual, and represent the company in person to you, all while making money for the company. They must live in the impossible world of making each customer their number one priority or at least feel that way. They can be reliable and loyal, but their bread is buttered somewhere else. Keep in mind they straddle this fence all the time and a good relationship is a plus. But be warned! You can’t fire them, but you can make sure they are where they are supposed to be and repairing what they are supposed to. Also, all techs are not created equal and you may have drawn the short straw.

Next in the line up is the building maintenance or facilities department – Their goal is, first and foremost, to solve problems, keep their job and avoid pain. A person responsible for maintaining the whole building may know very little about an elevator, but has the nearly impossible task of keeping it running (with the help of the certified elevator tech) and assisting with or making long-term decisions on the elevators in general. Recently, I had an opportunity to meet several of these great folks at the Elevator U conference. The conference is for college and university staff, administrators, facility managers and elevator technicians to learn about and discuss challenges and gain information to problem solve. I was surprised by the number of first time attendees there were and many had no background in the elevator business at all. You may find that a facility manager has technical training in another trade all together or may specialize in business or management and may completely hate the elevator responsibilities as it may not be their bailiwick.

Sometimes they have little or no time to deal with the issues raised regarding elevators and so they acquiesce to the wishes of experts (elevator techs) for expediency purposes. Modernization can roll off the lips of the facility department personnel, because they may not be as concerned with the bottom line.  Also, remember this department or individual is the first line of defense when it comes to complaints from both users and superiors and that’s something else they have to deal with on a day to day basis.

Finally, the building owner or facility manager – This partner has the goal of keeping the elevator running as smoothly as possible with as few shut downs for as little money as they can spend. They may actually break out in a rash if “modernization” or “major shut down” is even uttered. They feel like the elevator is a money pit and essentially believe that, since installed, the elevator keeps costing money in service contracts, shutdowns, and repairs. They know that the elevator is necessary, but ultimately they have the job of running a business or organization in the black and out of the red which leaves them with little patience for stoppages.

This disparate group of misfitting parts makes up the partners (or team) that have the duty to provide a safe, efficient elevator for the public. Holding them together may just be an impossible task.  But understanding their professional goals is a good place to start and always keep in mind that consistently reminding each other of the ultimate goal of providing safe vertical transportation at a reasonable cost. This may lead to more appreciation of each other and, who knows, maybe a little sacrifice every now and again for the benefit of the team.

More than Magic – Elevator Technician Check List

trick-859307_1920The elevator technician checks in at the office on the routine maintenance stop and then disappears for quite some time. You may see the tech coming and going but, more often than not, he seems almost Mercurial in his appearing and disappearing.  This leads many to wonder if another dimension exists beyond the walls of the hoistway or what tricks he may have up his sleeve and, if this is not the case, what exactly is going on between appearances or short walks to the service van.

Turns out, most of the time spent is not actually turning wrenches, but checking the elevator from head to toe or the top of the hoistway to the pit. All elevator technicians or their companies should be able to provide you with a comprehensive list of the things they look at and do every time they show up for routine maintenance. If you have not been provided with a comprehensive list, then ask for a copy; they should be more than willing to show you what they have been checking and where they keep the maintenance record book.

Keep in mind some of the records, including maintenance records, can now be electronic according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers – Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators, but clear instructions for access are required. Although the maintenance book will not cover all of the items examined, it is a good indicator of what is done regarding specific tasks, observations, or adjustments conducted during the visit.

The records are important because they are often the first place that problems show up and can establish a pattern of a problem on the horizon. The records can give the tech a necessary resource when trouble shooting or tracking down problems with the elevator.

So, here we go with a good, general list of a hydraulic elevator’s needed maintenance:

  • The door-close force. If they close too hard, it can cause injury.
  • Stopping accuracy to the floor level. This helps prevent trips and falls when entering and exiting the car.
  • Car stop switches, signal, buttons, and optional switches–do they all work properly?
  • Top-of-car operation, including the work light and work station–do all the switches up top work?
  • Car door and/or gate equipment–is there any wear and tear that needs addressing?
  • Car top, including guide shoes or roller guides, for unusual wear.
  • Lubrication of the guide rail.
  • Leveling devices and hardware. Again, safety first.
  • Hoistway doors tracks, gears and locks–are they all operating smoothly, with no obvious wear?
  • Clean and inspect the car top of debris. This can be an indicator of unwanted activity, mechanical or otherwise. Has the hatch been accessed?
  • Pit lighting and stop switch, the GFI outlet should be checked. Signs of corrosion and the buffer springs should be examined.
  • Sump pump tested and cleaned, where needed.
  • Oil recovery–how much oil has been lost and were leaks found?
  • The hydraulic jacks and the packing–are there any leaks or unusual vibrations to be concerned with?
  • The bottom of the elevator car. Roller guides or shoes for smooth operation and examine the traveling cable for cuts or too much tension.
  • Cleaning and inspecting the pit–are there water or hydraulic oil issues? Metal or nylon shavings? Debris that shows unauthorized access or mechanical problems?
  • Oil level–make sure you are within operating parameters.
  • Oil leaks around the tank and or piping.
  • Connections for the motor. All wiring needs to be examined.
  • Battery lowering.
  • Clean and inspect the machine room. Are there any signs of leaks, improper use, a clear path to the tank, and work area. Remove any extraneous items that do not relate to elevator operation.

But this is just part of the elevator. The technician also needs to pay special attention to the elevator car. The car should be examined for damage to the walls, floor, and ceiling. If there is damage, it should be reported, especially if the damage can cause a hazard; for instance, torn carpeting can create a trip danger.

All of the position indicator lights need to be in good working order and any burned out bulbs should be replaced. Also, the door restrictor should be checked for proper working condition. The buttons need to be checked for functionality making sure they do not stick or have light bulbs out.

Outside of the elevator, the hall stations should be checked for light bulbs and the door opening and closing should be smooth with consistent clearances. The fire service box should also be checked for functionality.

Once the inspection is completed, a written report with recommendations, if any, should be noted. All the comings and goings suddenly make sense and are not attributed to some astral plain or other dimension and certainly not in a false floor used by magicians. There is a reason for the time it takes for elevator maintenance, if it’s done right.

Speed Does Not Mean Fast

1_thumbRecently, it was announced that the CTF Finance Center in Guangzhou, China broke records as the fastest elevator in the world to date. Believe it or not, it travels at an astounding 46.9 miles per hour straight up! Wow! An elevator in Shanghai, China (Shanghai Tower) finishes in second place with a speed of 42.8 mph and the fastest North American elevator clocks in at a paltry 22.7 mph in comparison. It is located at the Freedom Tower at 1 World Trade Center in New York. It is a bit slower but the show you get going up and down is worth it.

As it turns out, the elevator in your building is not breaking any world records, but, unless you are in the Willis Tower in Chicago or the Empire State Building in New York, you probably don’t need a three million dollar monstrosity that can hit highway speeds. Keep in mind that the world record holding building has a total of 95 elevators and only two are the super fast ones and they only go from the first floor to the 95th where the world’s highest hotel resides. As a matter of fact, the CTF Finance Center has 52 medium and low speed elevators, as well as the two speed-demons.

So, if you can build an elevator that goes that fast, why aren’t all elevators designed the same way? Let’s start with the turtle like speed of most elevators you will find; believe it or not, most elevators are designed to travel at a blazing 100 to 200 feet per minute or between 1.14 and 2.27 miles per hour for buildings 10 stories or less.  This means that if you’re traveling between two floors that are 10 feet apart at 2.27 mph, the trip would take 3 seconds, right? Well, not exactly.

You are missing an important part of the equation. When you push the button in any elevator, it doesn’t immediately blast off at 2.27 mph. If it did, most people would be knocked to the ground; the elevator has to ramp up to top speed. Acceleration and Jerk (rate of change of acceleration) are human comfort considerations that must be taken into account when looking at elevator speed. The practical limits (for math geeks) are 4 ft/sec^2 acceleration and 8 ft/sec^3 for jerk. If you are a math nerd, or you’re wanting to test out your math skills, this is a good place to start. Keep in mind, these formulas represent the the very top limits of elevator movement and are aggressive but acceptable. Anything beyond these levels and the car becomes a roller-coaster or the Tower of Terror. To ensure a real smooth ride, technicians use around 70% of these levels.

Just for general purposes for a comfortable ride, the ramp up will take around 3 seconds. You also have to consider a similar ramp down for another 3 seconds. In other words, if traveling ten feet, the maximum speed may never be achieved due to the ramp up and ramp down before you arrive at the next floor.

Whether the elevator can go 2 miles an hour or the speed of light, there must be an acceleration that is comfortable for the people riding in it. That means that in most applications, with elevators starting and stopping at several floors, up and down, the elevator car rarely tops out at the possible speed it can travel. This, then, explains why there are 52 elevators in the CTF Financial Center that are low or medium speed.

So to answer the question “Why aren’t all elevators made to go nearly 50 miles per hour?” It’s because in most applications, other than extremely high high-rises, the cost is absolutely out of proportion to the benefit and, in most examples of elevators, the top speed would never be realized anyway.

Elevator Company Comments Out of Order

Out of OrderA recent news story focused on a major elevator company and poor service regarding a building with senior tenants. It revealed an unflattering look at the vertical transportation industry. In this case, despite having a current maintenance contract in place, the elevators in a 10-story apartment complex were frequently down. Unfortunately, the response from the elevator company made the elevator industry look like it was either hiding from responsibility or looking for a quick sale. Neither are good images.

As for background , when the story broke, the senior citizen tenants of the building were quickly labeled as victims by the media, while the elevator company was cast as the villain. No surprise. It portrayed people stuck in their apartments because the elevator maintenance was not prompt or completed improperly. When pushed by the media, the explanation for the apparent lack of service from the big elevator company shines a disturbing light on the industry. Below is the lone quote from the elevator service company:

“We are pleased to confirm the elevator is currently operational. In addition to providing scheduled and unscheduled repairs, we have recommended several modernization options to help make the elevators reliable. Our primary objective . . . is the safety of the people who depend on our products every day and we strive to partner with building managers and owners to deliver safe reliable service.”

The bold is for effect, as it is the primary point. In their statement, the elevator company opened with good news. The elevators are working! Congratulations, you did your job. And the close of the statement was good, too, as safety is always a great talking point. But the bold print in between says two things that would have been better left alone or dealt with outside of the media. Implied in the statement is that it’s not the elevator company’s fault and, if the customer would have just spent more money, things like this wouldn’t happen.

Beyond blaming the customer, the unintentional consequence of the statement is one we deal with often from people that call us confused over when a total overhaul is needed. For cost reasons, the owners want to squeeze a few more years out of the old unit but, when there is no trust, they do not know whether they are being sold a bill of goods or if there is a true need. Elevator professionals need to know that building owners and managers are in a tough spot, and they often feel like elevator companies are using breakdowns as an opportunity to up-sell new equipment. After all, from the owner’s perspective, they have in many cases been paying thousands of dollars each month for a maintenance plan and when they finally really need it, the elevator company blames the customer. It can seem as if all the elevator company wants to do is to sell, sell sell. This leaves the owner wondering whether the elevator company is being truthful.

There is good reason for the suspicion. Oftentimes, when elevator gets old, the knee-jerk reaction from an elevator company is to go down the modernization road. Each problem with the unit that surfaces after the recommendation becomes another “see-I told you so” moment. To be completely fair, in this case, the building probably was more than due for a modernization. It is a high-traffic apartment complex over 10-stories and only two elevators. Also, the elevators are original to the building that was erected in the late 70’s. However, the history of the particular location is long and replete with complaints, accusations and finger pointing. This problem was a long-building one.

I will make no claim of fully understanding all of the problems involved; however, from the news accounts, there was significant difficulty in finding a solution, and it became a time consuming mess for building management. The problems led to tenants worrying they would get stuck, or, if they left the building, face a long climb up the stairs when they returned.  Ultimately, the breakdown was more than just a problem with the elevator; there was a breakdown of trust. The word of an elevator company, it seemed, was mud in the eyes of the users and management. This could certainly have been exacerbated by the elevator company’s recommendation of the modernization and the owner balking at the expense.

How could this situation have been avoided, and how can these issues be avoided in the future? It takes two to build trust, and that is what was lacking. It also takes clear communication and explicit actions on the part of both parties. In this case, we do not know what “We have recommended several modernization options to help make the elevators reliable” means.  Also, it would be interesting to see if a written, long-term elevator plan was in place that met the needs of both the owner and the elevator company. It would also be illuminating to see what the current contract said about responsibilities and obligations.

From our experience, far too often, elevator professionals up-sell the good points of an elevator maintenance agreements and dismiss the downside. In addition, despite denials, there are those in our industry that feel an uneducated customer is a good customer. The myriad of calls and emails we receive are testament to that. But the fix to the problem goes beyond the elevator company. The real solution is honest communication from both directions. So on the owner’s part, it takes real effort to understand the elevator in general and all of the contract terms.

To sum up, the best solution is no more blame and no more up-selling; instead, long-term perspective and planning is needed regarding the largest moving object in your building. Phoenix Modular Elevator can help you research, and we are always available for conversations about elevators. An elevator consultant could also be a valuable resource when modernization is a consideration.