Stair and platform lifts for persons with impaired mobility

In South Africa today there is a growing trend for people to build residential houses with more than one level. This provides a new challenge for people with mobility impairments. So RI decided to look into what options there are available on the SA market, for people to use at home so as to get from one floor to another in a user-friendly and safe manner.

RI spoke to both Clarence Thompson, from Super Lift Services the chairperson of the Independent Lifts Association of South Africa (ILASA) and Dr Theo Kleinhans, a Consultant Lift Engineer and national Executive Secretary of ILIASA (Independent Lift Inspectors Association of SA) to find out what products are available, what features to look for and what the legal requirements are. Due to the nature of this equipment, safety and user-friendliness are the most important factors to be aware of when choosing a product, obviously bearing in mind the cost implications.

ILASA is a controlling body that is developing safety regulations in conjunction with SANS (SA National Standards), DoL (Department of Labour), LEASA (Lift Engineers association of SA), and ECSA (Engineering Council of SA). The Department of Labour requires inter alia that all independent lift companies, which manufacture, install and service lifts, must be registered and accredited with DoL. A new Draft Amendment Bill has been worked on where, in order to be accredited, all companies must have the safety standards of their equipment and technicians checked. This Draft Bill should be implemented in early 2006. Thompson recommended that when selecting a lift company it is important to check that they are registered and therefore a legal compliant company.

Another important SANS requirement that is soon to be implemented is that all Wheelchair and Platform lifts must be registered when they are installed. Once the installation is completed an RLI (Registered Lift Inspector) must inspect the new unit installed and issue a Comprehensive Report. This inspection will then need to be repeated every two years thereafter by an RLI who will issue a further Comprehensive Report, in order to ensure compliance. These inspections are all carried out at the owner's cost.

Another hidden cost that our readers should be aware of in advance is the service contract. Once installed, commissioned and inspected, the lift unit in question has to be serviced by a nominated and deputed service provider. Normally it is up to the original manufacturer to decide how regularly this should be carried out, which generally depends on the product and its usage. The service period will therefore vary from monthly to quarterly. Depending on the complexity of the installation, the service fee could vary could vary from R285 quarterly to R850 monthly. Therefore, before buying a lift, enquire what the service contract entails and what it is going to cost you! Don't think that you can stop paying just because the lift is installed and running.


A chair lift is a suitable solution for a person who has difficulty with walking but is not wheelchair bound, such as the elderly, a person with severe arthritis or after a stroke. It has a seat that is fitted on a rail, which runs up the side of a staircase. These stair-lifts need to be custom made according to the height, length and gradient of the staircase, as well as if there are gradient changes such as a landing, or if there are curves or corners. The chair should be foldable so that it can be folded out of the way for normal use of the staircase. The chair-lift is usually able to swivel between 90 and 180° in order to make it easier for the user to transfer off it safely and easily, say at the top of the staircase. It usually has a control switch or joystick mounted on the chair as well as one on the wall at the top and bottom of the staircase. The Regulations require that this be a constant-pressure switch for the safety of the user.  All of the models available in SA are powered by DC current, which is supplied by a rechargeable battery. Safety Features that should be available include:

  • Anti-trapping, anti-crushing and anti-squashing devices 
  • An emergency stop switch 
  • A facility for emergency lowering in case of a power failure, either battery back-up or manual lowering 
  • An over speed governor with safety breaking facility to prevent the chair from moving too fast and loosing control.

Platform wheel-chair lift

A platform wheel-chair lift is similar to the stair lift but it has a platform instead of a chair and either rises vertically over a short distance or up an inclined stairway. The platform should fold up out of the way when not in use. It has similar safety requirements, but with the additional requirements of a safety barrier and raised ramps on the edges of the platform to prevent the wheelchair from rolling off the platform while it is moving. A platform lift is suitable for all types of wheelchair users. The size of the platform depends on whether the person is able to use the lift independently or whether they need an attendant to ride with them on the lift.

Open vertical-rising platform lift & home lifts

The present legislation allows an open vertical platform lift to rise to a maximum height of two meters, but normally does not exceed 1,2m. It is used where a ramp is not possible between two close levels. Any lift travelling higher than two meters, needs to comply much more stringently with SANS safety features. When passing through a slab, it must be fully enclosed or must comply with specific safety regulations.

Other safety features include: 

  • It should be enclosed below the platform to prevent a person from walking underneath the cage when it is moving downwards. 
  • It should have a safety barrier and raised ramps on the edges of the platform to prevent a wheelchair from rolling off the platform while it is moving. 
  • There should also be an electromechanical locking system to prevent the door from being opened when the platform is not that that level. 
  • The balustrades should be closed so that a child or pet cannot climb through them and fall into the lift.

Vimec Open platform lift

(The lower half of this lift is in an enclosed shaft.)

Closed vertical platform lift

These are similar to the commercial elevators that we all use in shopping centres and high rise commercial buildings. They consist of a cage or car travelling inside an enclosed shaft. This can be a self supporting unit that can be fitted either inside or outside the house, or it could be a wall mounted unit with a built in shaft.

Originally these lifts required a large motor room, which was a problem in residential houses where space was limited. However with the more efficient technological designs of the modern lift motors and power units, many models no longer need motor rooms. The smaller lifts can even be plugged into a standard 220V socket. A UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) is a useful backup tool in case of a power failure, however at a cost premium. Motor room-less lifts are being installed more and more in residential houses where 4 and even 5 landings are required. Designed for 5 persons or 350kg, the cars are spacious enough to take a wheelchair and attendant very comfortably.

The majority of the domestic or Home lifts use a constant pressure control button. This requires the passenger to press the button for the duration of the ride, which is a safety feature required by SANS. The larger lifts however comply fully with SANS and are therefore fully automated.

There is a large variation in the price of these lifts and this is influenced by factors such as the size of the cage, the load capacity, the size of the motor, the speed of travel, the level of automation and the materials and finishes. The cheapest price that RI found for a two-stop enclosed vertical platform lift is R58 000, which rises to around R180 000 and upwards, depending on the extras and finishes required.

There are a surprisingly large number of companies in South Africa who manufacture both lifts for the physically impaired as also the standard lifts installed elsewhere in the world. Likewise, there are as many innovative designs with space saving features, cost cutting features, safety features and elegant designs and aesthetic finishes.

Fuji Homelift in closed vertical shaft.

Vimec closed platform lift in vertical shaft.

Illustration showing how the Pollock through floor lift (supplied by Vertigo) moves from ground level up to a first floor room, and can then be returned leaving full use of the upstairs floor area.

Mobile stair climbers

Another option for getting up and down stairs is the mobile stair climbers. However these require assistance from a helper. These stair-climbers are usually used only as a temporary solution. The chair is capable of horizontal and vertical movements that enable it to climb up or down stairs safely, without effort from the helper. The wheels are made of high friction rubber that enables them to grip the stair. The Super Stair Climber, available through Super Lifts, is a power chair with wheels which are designed to climb stairs. However it means that the wheelchair user needs to transfer onto this chair, and then still needs assistance with guiding the chair up and down the steps.

The Vimec stair climber on chain tracks is suitable for transporting manual type wheelchairs (not electric wheelchairs). This has a rubber track on which the wheelchair is positioned with support from the assistant. The track then climbs the stair, carrying the wheelchair with it. It can cope with a maximum gradient of 35º for a 100m travel under loaded conditions to a maximum of 130kg. The stair-climber can be dismantled into two parts which fits into a standard sized boot of a car. This model is available through Hands-On-Lifts.

The Evac-Chair is an emergency chair that enables one able-bodied person to push a disabled person down a flight of stairs. It can also be pushed on a fl at floor. It is a portable device that does not require installation or modification of stairways. It is available through Limar International.

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