All posts by phoenixmod

About phoenixmod

Phoenix Modular Elevator manufactures high quality, commercial elevators in a factory setting. This assures our customers a better product with a shorter lead and installation time at a lower cost.

Traction Elevator Safety – A True Tale

Empirestate540**Disclaimer: Read to the end. Don’t stop halfway through, no matter how much you want to, or you will regret it.

The date was July 28, 1945. The time, 9:40 AM. The city, New York. A thick fog blanketed the five boroughs, and the buzz over the fog shrouded skyline was that of a two-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber winging its way to New Jersey from Bedford Army Airfield in nearby Massachusetts. Despite warnings of zero visibility, Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith Jr. pressed forward with the mission of transporting personnel.

Simultaneously, a 20-year-old elevator operator named Betty Lou Oliver, originally from Fort Smith, Arkansas, was on duty in the Empire State Building, on the 80th floor in the #6 elevator.  Elevator operators were common in the 40s. They were almost always young women that had graduated from a charm school, and they did more than just punch buttons. They were expected to know the building inside and out so they could guide visitors to the right floor and represent the building owner to the public.

Miss Oliver was in the elevator when suddenly, the building shook, and the sound of crushing metal and disintegrating bricks and mortar filled the foggy air.

The disoriented pilot had hit the Empire State Building at the 79th floor, tearing a gaping 18×20-foot hole in the north side. The building was immediately engulfed in flames from the fuel, and pieces of the plane became projectiles.  Shards of glass and metal filled the air up and down 5th Avenue. One of the engines landed a full block away, while the other engine and some of the landing gear were thrown into the elevator shaft, where they  plummeted to the bottom. Miss Oliver was ejected from her post in the elevator car, suffering burns, a broken pelvis, and broken vertebrae in her neck and back.

The flames were doused quickly, and rescue teams entered the building, searching for survivors. Betty Lou was found in a pile of rubble, and although in significant pain, she was still alive. She received medical attention and was placed in an elevator to be evacuated to the ground floor. But then things went from bad to worse.

The engine and landing gear that had fallen down the elevator hoistway had hit the cables suspending the car, severing them in the process. When the button for the first floor was pushed and the elevator doors closed, the elevator car plummeted 79 floors to the basement.

This still remains the only elevator car fall due to a complete cable system failure. A standard elevator contains several cables (up to eight), and each can hold the weight of a fully loaded car. Also, there are braking systems in place that stop the cables if there is a problem. Unfortunately, the problem in this case was that there were no cables still attached to the car. So only in this extremely rare occurrence, when all of the cables failed simultaneously, would a fall ever occur. That is why, despite movies and horror stories, elevators are one of the safest modes of transportation in existence.

According to, “U.S. elevators make 18 billion passenger trips per year.” All of those ups and downs result in about 27 deaths annually, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That works out to a fatality rate of 0.00000015 per trip. If you exclude people who pry open elevator doors and fall in the hoistway or who intentionally misuse the elevator, or elevator techs, then that number goes down even more.

So, what happened to Betty Lou Oliver, the woman injured in a freak accident only to face death again? Believe it or not, she survived. The thousands of feet of elevator cable cushioned her descent, letting her live another day and many more after that. She recovered in less than eight months and even went back to the Empire State Building to ride to the top once more. She then returned to Fort Smith, Arkansas, with her husband, Oscar Lee Oliver. She had three children and seven grandchildren and died November 24, 1999, at the ripe old age of 74.



Close the Door on Elevator Repairs

A clean sill.

Elevator doors open and close all the time. As a matter of fact, according to the Elevator History website, every three days, elevators worldwide carry the equivalent of the Earth’s total population. With a global population of 7.4 billion, that’s a lot of elevator trips! And that means there are lots of doors opening and closing.

Mechanically, elevator doors are very reliable, especially when you are considering the total use, but they can, and do, have failures. The good news is that not all problems with the doors means a catastrophic breakdown, and there are some very specific, easy and safe actions you can take if your elevator doors aren’t working as well as they could.

The simple maintenance tips below can help keep the elevator and its doors running smoothly without waiting for the elevator technician to show up. This is especially true if the problems include slow closing doors or doors that are staying open when they are supposed to close.

  • Clean the sill plate – The elevator door sill is the usually metallic plate that you step over every time you walk through the doors into the elevator car. What you may not have known is that this is not just a transitional piece of decoration. It is the actual track that the elevator doors slide back and forth on. A small plastic piece on the bottom of the door slides back and forth in the sill track, so a small rock or even heavy dirt build-up can cause the door to become jammed or slowed. The solution is a good cleaning. Use a soft brush or vacuum cleaner to make sure the track is debris free.
  • An obstruction is not the only thing to look for in the sill plate. Check for any sticky substances. Many times, because the sill goes unnoticed, building maintenance personnel don’t realize the groove in the sill plate is supposed to be clean. They see a brown goo in the track and think it has always been there or should be there. Especially in high traffic elevators such as hotels, we see tons of soda-pop spilled in the sill. This creates a sticky film that often gums up the works and can impede the door from opening and closing. This is a little harder to clean, but try some soapy water and a mild scouring pad.
  • In most elevators today, there are what looks like simple black plastic strips that are on the edge of the door and on the door jamb of the elevator car from the floor to the top of the door. These are more than just a single light beams like the old days. They generate an infrared light curtain that if interrupted by any object, tell the door to open. This is to prevent the door closing on people and reduce injuries. These infrared lights can be interrupted by dirt or wax build-up from the wrong type of cleaning fluid on the infrared sensors, paint or even something just hanging in the way and being blown into the light path.  Give the black strips a good cleaning and make sure it is not blocked by anything. Be careful, though! Even heavy scratches can cause a false reading.

Of course, if you are not certain about what should be in the sill track or how to clean the components, call the elevator maintenance team you are contracted with and get a better explanation or schedule an appointment, but a good cleaning can go a long way in the operation of the doors. One thing for sure, we have seen all varieties of obstructions from pen caps and bottle caps to coins and pencils. All can stop the door from proper functioning.

Remember that if you add these cleaning tasks to the monthly building maintenance schedule, it should help keep the doors sliding like they should and close the door on some of the elevator repairs.

Taylor Swift and Your Elevator Contract


Do you remember when Taylor Swift was 18? She was Fearless and still sangin’ country. How about insulated Crocs – the shoes you could eat? Blockbuster video stores? Or RadioShack? These are all ancient history; including Taylor’s twang.  They have all disappeared or were a fad that faded with time, all from around ten years ago give or take.

One of the few things that, unfortunately, has survived longer tha

n any of this is probably your current elevator service contract. They are horribly lopsided agreements specifically designed to keep you locked in and shelling out too much money for too long a period of time. Even despite bad service, as seen in the complaint from a website below, the only thing that will survive the Apocalypse will be the Crocs on your feet, Twinkies, cockroaches and your elevator maintenance agreement. Here is the all too often common complaint and threat that you can find:

“Unfortunately, our Condo has joined XXXXXXX’s list of unhappy customers.  Our homeowner’s association pays this company nearly $6,000 a year to have them on a service retainer.  $6K to basically do nothing! So when something goes wrong, I expect them to be on it.  Our elevator has been down over a week while they figure out how to order parts.  Seriously?  Have you heard of air shipping? This is so unacceptable.  Our next HOA meetings agenda we will be discussing how to terminate our contract this company.”

Believe it or not, despite the complaints the elevator company does not care about you or your homeowner’s association (HOA). Shocking to hear that admission from the elevator industry itself, but it is true. Why, you may ask? Because you are being played. The big elevator companies intentionally have contracts for maintenance that are five years in length or more. The five year time period is pitched as standard and most people willingly sign them.  The sand starts running to the bottom of the hourglass but it goes slowly and memories quickly fade. You don’t even think about the contract until the renewal date approaches, but then it is too late.

Then, without any notice, the maintenance contract, which has an intentionally exceedingly weird window for termination renews automatically.  This is because the elevator company is banking on the HOA, building owner or business in question to have changed leadership, lost the starch out of their ire or the terms of the contract signed so long ago that they have long since been lost. Most people have bigger fish to fry so the renewal time passes unnoticed until of course there is a breakdown or the customer receives notice of the bill going up (which it will), and then it is too late. Cue the evil laugh.

If you do not believe me, here is the language from a standard elevator maintenance contract:

“This contract shall commence on January 1, 2008 and shall continue for a non-cancellable period of 5 years.  It shall automatically renew for additional 5-year periods unless either party delivers written notice at least 120 days in advance of any renewal date*, of their intent to terminate this agreement.” *emphasis added.

So, if you sign a maintenance contract today and in five years miss that magical 120-day window before the end of the contract, five years after the ink has dried, you are locked in for another five years and get this, there are automatic fee increases all along the way.

Once that next five years has run, suddenly you are wondering where all the time and money went and how Taylor Swift can still look like she is 18 years old after 5, 10, or 20 years has passed (I, personally, think she is a Vampire). Looking into the crystal ball and seeing into the future of 2025, you will also be surprised that T-Swift has breathed more life into her ever expanding career by conquering the heavy metal genre and going Goth, and also that your elevator contract is still bleeding you money each month for very little service as you missed the cancellation window again.

It is enough to drive you crazy!

So, let me do us all a favor by telling you how you can avoid missing the date and wringing your hands with worry over the cancellation. First and foremost, quit complaining on blogs and faceless websites and take some proactive action that matters! Right now, take out your elevator contract, find the official address and send them a cancellation notice by certified mail. Then, you will have at least tapped on the window for cancellation. This helps in a couple of great ways: It will enhance your negotiation position and allow you to shop for other companies. Something you can discuss at your next HOA.

As far as Taylor is concerned, you are on your own.  I only wish I could have a solution so easy when it comes to avoiding her over the next ten years.

Please Check Your Specs

PlansWhen it comes to new elevator installations or big modernization projects, it is crucial to check your specs. I am talking about the specifications of the project where the elevator is concerned (Section 14) and the very basis for the bids you will get for the job to be completed. One of the no-nos we see most is the old copy-and-paste routine where old plans or ideas get dragged and dropped into place without the slightest run through or consideration (we’ve actually seen specs with the wrong project name because they were copied-and-pasted right from another project). The more complex the overall project, the more likely someone just plopped old specs down from previous jobs. Resist this temptation as it could keep you from finding the right fit at the right cost.

How can this time saving, “control c”, “control v” hurt you down the road? Here is one example:

We made a sale at Phoenix Modular Elevator in the New Elevator Sales Division of the company. After the celebration and all the corks were popped, reality started to sink in on the part of the customer. Despite us being the lowest price overall and a great fit for the elevator (including the car, hoistway wiring and installation), they asked if we could squeeze a bit more out of the price and the elevator car was the first place they started looking for savings.

In the specifications for the elevator that we put in a bid for, that they signed off on, bought, and was being produced was a steel-core elevator cab. The problem with a steel cab is that they are way more expensive (to the tune of three times as much), but do not offer any benefits that a wood core cab wouldn’t offer. As a matter of fact, steel cabs are louder, rattle more over time, are more prone to have mechanical failures, and no where else can you sound as much like you are in a tin can. But, steel cabs are easier to handle, because they come in panels, when you are building an elevator car in a vertical shaft (a truly dumb way to build an elevator). We build ours outside of the hoistway and insert the cab in the manufacturing process. So, we can do either steel or wood core cabs. It makes no difference to us other than cost. Sadly, it was just too late for this customer’s project and that potential cost savings was lost because someone copied and pasted the specs.

When we called to confirm details, we were told to “Quote to the spec.”

If they had taken a closer look at the specifications early on, then this could have been avoided. They could have indicated no preference for the type of cab and we would have included the less expensive, much quieter, wood core model. So, with that said, here are specific things that you should make sure are correct in your specs:

  1. Type of cab: steel or wood. Either are fine but steel can drive costs.
  2. Mode of conveyance: Fancy way of saying how it goes up. Too many folks are sold more expensive options.
  3. Capacity: How much can it carry. Measured in weight such as 3000 lb. to 5000 lb. or more. Local and national code can dictate the capacity, but often, especially with multi-elevator projects, there’s a bit of wiggle room as long as one unit meets code required capacity.
  4. Footprint: I can’t tell you how often we have read the specs. and then the size changes later on down the road. If you’re not restricted by a pre-existing hoistway, chances are any code complaint unit will be more than fine, regardless of the dimensions listed on the spec.
  5. Special needs: ADA compliant (all of our units are), gurney compliant, or freight.
  6. Door type: Side slide or center parting; two speed vs. single speed.
  7. Type of finish: We take the time to price out the specified finish, so be sure that you absolutely need or want the stainless steel ceiling or metal panels sometimes called out in the spec.
  8. Stainless steel or other finishes for the doors and jambs.
  9. Additional features – Only include ones you really want (battery lowering, NEMA4 fixtures, security features, etc.). We’ve spoken to a number of people who asked why our price was so high, and when we went through the spec, they realized they didn’t need the card-reader security feature or vandal resistant hall calls.
  10. Is modular a suitable replacement?

We can provide any of the above and more. If you have a special request in mind, we can and have done it before. However, asking for things like center parting doors instead of side slide, just because it’s “in the spec”, can cost you. Keep in mind that, by-and-large passengers don’t care about or notice most of these things, so you don’t have to care either. Most people just want to push a button and for the elevator to go up (or down, as the case might be).

If you are not sure about any of the above, it’s ok to ask for standard, baseline packages and then add on to the elevator once you have compared everyone based on the same specs. Additionally, we will look over the plans and make sure that everything will meet code and function.

I wish we had a dime every time we priced according to the specs, made a call to verify and are told emphatically to follow the specs, but when the job is awarded, the specs are then changed. Suddenly, we are quoting and re-quoting, the price goes either up or down depending on what is missing or wrong. Many elevator companies have caught on to the fact that specs are just copied and they don’t follow them at all. They just quote their standard and in the fine print on the quote it indicates that the price will change once the contract is awarded. This defeats the purpose of requesting bids at all where one company follows the specs and another doesn’t.

Please, Use the Fireman’s Key (Not an Ax)

Hall CallThere is as old joke about fireman’s keys in the elevator business. Basically, if someone is stuck in the elevator and 911 is called, the way firemen get people out of the elevator is with the “fireman’s key”…their ax.

For any joke to be funny there has to be some truth behind the humor. So, chances are, more than once emergency personnel have used an ax or other implement of destruction to pry someone free from a stuck elevator. It is a (sad) reality and probably happens more than it should. After all, the purpose for the call to 911 is to get someone out of a stuck elevator and not to necessarily worry about the state of the elevator doors afterward.

Part of the problem is that in some areas, fire departments do not have the resources to have tons of training on elevator passenger extraction and, honestly, not much opportunity to receive this training, even if the resources were available. In the area we are located in, some communities may have only one or two elevators in the whole town. That means that the possibility of rescues are extremely limited and, more often than not, the passenger is freed due to the actions of the elevator service technician long before 911 is dialed.

This also means that training is difficult to come by and is even more difficult to obtain when the elevator service company refuses to help with that training; this is an actual circumstance of a local fire department. We got a call from the fire chief asking if we could provide some rudimentary training on how to open elevator doors, extraction, and a break down of what all the keys are for.  Turns out, there is actually a fireman’s key that isn’t shaped like an ax.

The more cynical firemen believe that the rejection of training by the big elevator company may be a bit conspiratorial: bashing a door in with an ax creates the need for a new hatch, new adjustment, and new mechanisms. I take a slightly less cynical view, however: we have become aware that lots of fire departments have been turned down when they request this help, due to liability concerns.

We do try our best to accommodate the various emergency personnel, but I thought I would go over a couple things that may help in the mean time. For you building owners that don’t want your elevator door pried open with the jaws of life, especially in rural areas, I would recommend that you contact your fire department and see if they have had training. If not, let your elevator company know and ask them to schedule training on your equipment with the local department; you might have more sway towards convincing them seeing as you’re their paying customer. It could save headaches down the road.

Fireman’s basic tips that will help you deal with most problems:

  • Find the building or facility manager: You will need them to help you know what elevator is stuck if there is more than one, what floor it is near, where the machine room is and if the elevator technician has been called or in contact. Tell them the elevators will be out of service temporarily.
  • Assess the situation:  If it is not life-threatening and you have no formal training wait for the elevator company.  Give them a call to find out their ETA also they may have some real simple solutions over the phone.
  • Assure the passengers. Tell them they will not run out of air, get comfortable, stay away for the door and no smoking. Also, it is good to tell them that they are safe as elevators are designed not to fall.  Ask them to stay calm, not pry at the doors and not to look for the secret hatch in the ceiling. There is one but it only opens from the top of the car. Give them information as you get it. Most importantly tell the passengers to STAY IN THE CAB! Until told otherwise.
  • Ok the elevator company is not available right away. What then? A couple things to try. Have one crew member with communications ability to go to the machine room. Have them make sure the elevator is “On” in the machine room. Sounds crazy but sometimes if a whole building loses power or a phase of three phase power the elevator’s electricity could be tripped. If the elevator is off, turn it on. It can take a couple of minutes for the system to reset. You can also try turning the main power switch off and then restarting.
  • elevator-flame-hall-stationIf that doesn’t work, make sure the power is on. Then get the firefighter’s key from the building manager (stamped with FEOK1), one will be on site or the building manager may have one in a safe place.  Keep in mind some real old elevators do not have “Fire Service” at all so you just have to wait for the mechanic. Go to the lowest floor and look for the hall call (the elevator buttons). There should be a place to insert the key that when turned to the “on” position will automatically send the elevator cab to the lowest floor.

If this does not work then you will have to try more extensive rescue efforts that include: Turning off power to the elevator, locating the position of the stuck car, using an elevator door key to open the hatchway door (not your ax) above the stuck elevator car, lowering a ladder to the top of the elevator car if needed, opening the cab rescue hatch, lowering a ladder into the elevator car key3and then assisting the people when they exit. If you have to go this route BE SAFE! Have the crew in the machine room stay there so no one turns the power on during the rescue.

Most importantly stay safe (If you feel I’m repeating myself your right. Stay safe.) and if you have not had any specific training get some before you have to attempt the rescue.  Elevators are very safe and very reliable. But can be deadly if not handled with care especially when they are not working properly.  Here is great link with some very helpful information and here is another that has some helpful diagrams.