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Deciding When its Time for an Elevator Modernization

By Michael Morgenstern

The implication of “elevator modernization” is often associated with an aesthetic upgrade to the interior finishes of the elevator cabin. Although important, the aesthetic updating of the cabin is only a modicum of the modernization process. Improved safety, increased reliability, energy savings, and better overall performance are the main factors for proceeding with an elevator modernization. Most significantly, upgrades of the mechanical and control components form the substance of the modernization project and are the focus here.

Deciding the right time to complete an elevator modernization is not always apparent. Upgrading your elevator requires a great deal of lead time, strategic planning, and substantial capital investment. The lifespan of an elevator system is typically between 25-30 years, but there are many factors that play a part in determining when the time to modernize is appropriate.  

In principle, a ‘full service” comprehensive maintenance contract should allow for ongoing retention of an elevator system. Proper preventive maintenance and repair should protect an elevator from deterioration. However, unforeseen factors, such as obsolescence, code compliance issues, total equipment failure, and lack of preventive maintenance are all contributing factors for elevator modernization. On a case-by-case basis, there are many variables to consider, as this infers the replacement of most control and mechanical systems. In essence, everything in the machine room and hoistway must be evaluated.

Elevator contractors commonly sight equipment obsolescence as a reason for modernization. This may not always be the case, as another major issue with many older elevator systems is that they are more labour intensive to maintain for the service contractor, which leads to less profitability. It is advisable to seek out the advice of an independent professional consultant to confirm or refute the availability of replacement components on an existing system. Modernizations should only be performed for valid reasons.

Providing an independent and unbiased evaluation of the existing elevator equipment is typically the initial task with which a consultant would assist.  The next step, and one of the greatest obstacles faced by an owner or property manager concerning a modernization project, is having a consultant create the initial plan outlining what can stay, and what needs to be replaced.  With certain types of equipment, especially gearless hoist machines, major components are often retained and refurbished rather than replaced. Proper advice is crucial at this stage and will play a pivotal role in the total cost and end goals achieved with the project.

The lowering of maintenance service premiums following the completion of the modernization rarely achieves long-term financial savings. Monthly charges can in fact increase after an elevator modernization despite the reduction in labour to the service contractor. The consumption of energy is where savings can materialize. Studies have illustrated as much as 30 % in the reduction of energy after modernization. These energy savings are realized by newer technology drive systems that utilize less operating energy and at the same time emit less heat, thus reducing machine room cooling costs.

With hundreds of types of elevator systems available and every building having a different amount of traffic, only with a physical inspection of the elevator system, often combined with a traffic study analysis, all completed by a qualified and experienced individual, can a modernization plan be developed. As complete elevator modernizations cost from $125,000 to $200,000(+) (per elevator depending on the type of system), a comprehensive plan is crucial to prepare for this capital expenditure.

The competitive real estate industry has an important effect on elevator modernization, as owners of older buildings endeavour to compete with newer complexes. In these circumstances, the reason for modernization has an additional key factor. Although the existing system may be operational, advances in technology allow for improved dispatching which can provide as much as a 25% decrease in wait times without increasing elevator speed. Better performance and efficiency result in shorter wait times, quieter rides, and reduced repair times, leading to more satisfied passengers.

Provided the right decisions are made in the planning and design stages, a completely modernized elevator should provide the same level of service and ride quality as any brand-new elevator.

Michael Morgenstern is a partner at National Elevator Consulting Limited