Going Up? Maintaining Elevator Safety

If you’re a board member, a manager or just a unit owner of a typical New York City-area co-op or condo, chances are you use an elevator every day, except if you live in a “garden apartment” complex in one of the outer boroughs or the suburbs. We’ve all seen those elevator inspection reports, but chances are that we don’t think about the inner workings of elevators very much. And it seems like the only times that elevators make the news is when something goes wrong, like the time a Chinese-food deliveryman was stuck for three days inside an elevator in a Bronx high-rise.

But if you look at the elevator, it’s a technological marvel, something we couldn’t do without. Like the automobile, it’s a fairly recent development. There have been elevator-like hoist devices throughout history, but in 1853, American inventor Elisha Otis invented a freight elevator equipped with a safety device to prevent the elevator from falling in case a cable broke. This increased the use of elevators. And when, around 1920, New York City finally allowed the use of self-service elevators in apartment buildings, as opposed to those operated by elevator operators, the number of apartment houses built with elevators grew dramatically.

How They Work

Today, there are basically two types of elevators in use—hydraulic and “rope-driven.” If you’re thinking in terms of a rope similar to the one you used to climb in gym class, however, you’re way behind the times—today’s rope driven elevators contain six to eight lengths of wire or steel cable. These cables are attached to the top of the elevator cab and wound around a drive sheave in special grooves. The other ends of the cables are attached to a collection of metal weights equal to the weight of the car and a little less than half of its rated load. The counterweight slides up and down the shaftway on its own guide rails.

Chains or cables loop through the bottom of the counterweight to the underside of the car to help maintain balance by offsetting the weight of the suspension ropes. Guide rails that run the length of the shaft keep the car and counterweight from swaying or twisting during travel. Rollers are attached to the car and the counterweight to provide a smooth ride along the guide rails. An electric motor then turns the sheave. These motors are able to control speed, and allow for the elevator's smooth acceleration and deceleration. Signal switches also stop the cab at each floor level.

In a hydraulic elevator, the car is lifted by a hydraulic-fluid driven piston mounted inside a cylinder. The cylinder—containing oil or a similar substance—is connected to a pumping system. The pump forces fluid into the tank leading to the cylinder; when enough fluid is collected, the piston is pushed upward, lifting the elevator car on its journey. When the car is signaled that it is approaching the correct floor, the control system will trigger the electric motor to gradually shut off the pump. To get the elevator to descend, the control system will send a signal to the valve operated electronically by a switch. When the valve is opened, the fluid flows out into a central reservoir, and the weight of the car and its cargo pushes down on the piston, driving more fluid out and causing the cab to move down.


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  • I really appreciated the information. I had not thought about all the work that is put into keeping the elevators in check. Thanks for writing the article for all of us to read.
  • Does anyone know where I can get step-by-step instructions on how to do a Category One Test (Load Test), on a Hydraulic elevator & escalators?