How stairlifts work and what features to look for
Investing in a stairlift can help you retain your independence, remain living in your home and regain full use of it, rather than restricting yourself to the ground floor. The first modern stairlifts were commercially available from around the 1930s, with significant research and development in the decades since, but did you know that England’s King Henry VIII could have been one of the first stairlift users?
Eminent historian Dr David Starkey found reference in an audit of the king’s possessions around the time of his death to a chair built to move up and down a 20-foot staircase at Whitehall Palace. King Henry was known to be portly and suffer mobility problems in later life from an old jousting wound to his leg. The stout wooden chair was probably pulled up and down the staircase by servants using some kind of rope and pulley system – the same technology used on Henry’s warships.
Some early 20th century stairlifts also used ropes, cables or chains to haul a chair up a staircase and lower it down again, but things have changes since then. A stairlift (sometimes called a chair lift) is essentially a chair which travels along a rail or track which is mounted to a staircase. Designs and components may vary between manufacturers, but this basic function remains the same.
An electric motor, usually within the base of the carriage (the chair unit) turns a circular gear (called a pinion) which has teeth around its outer edges. These teeth engage with similar teeth on a long linear gear (called a rack) located within the stairlift rail. This enables the carriage to travel up or down the rail depending on which way the circular gear (pinion) is driven by the electric motor. Almost all modern stairlifts use this reliable ‘rack and pinion’ gear technology.
Power for the electric motor was traditionally drawn from the mains electricity supply, but this had the disadvantage that if there was a power outage, the carriage and its passenger could be left ‘stranded’ partway up or down the stairs. Most stairlifts now use powerful DC batteries located near the motor in the base of the carriage.
These batteries are recharged when the carriage is ‘parked’ in a docking station at the top or bottom of the staircase and hold enough power for several journeys. The stairlift rail is still plugged into the mains electricity supply at a standard power socket, but the stairlift only draws power to ‘top up’ its batteries, making it economical to use.
Stairlift rails can be straight or curved, depending on the type of staircase they need to be fitted to. Straight rail stairlifts are much simpler and therefore cost less. Curved stairlift rails need to be designed and tailor-made to precisely match the unique dimensions and contours of the staircase they are intended for. This can involve a lengthy manufacturing process in a factory, although one supplier (Acorn Stairlifts) uses a patented modular rail system for its curved stairlifts. This means ready-made individual rail sections can be assembled and ‘fine-tuned’ on site by a skilled installer, significantly reducing the waiting time between customer order and installation.
Stairlift rails are normally fixed to the staircase itself, rather than a wall next to it. They vary in design, some manufacturers using a parallel double rail system and others a more compact single rail. Where the foot of the rail would cause an obstruction or trip hazard at the bottom of the stairs, some suppliers offer the option of a hinged rail section which can be lifted up out of the way when the stairlift is not in use.
The stairlift passenger operates it using a switch normally located in one or both of the carriage armrests. Different manufacturers offer different chair designs, but most feature a safety belt similar to that in a car. Some seats can be swivelled to make getting on and off easier and safer, then locked in position for the journey. The journey itself should be smooth and steady with no bumps or jolts, especially at the start and finish.
Most stairlift carriages have a seat, armrests and footrest which can be folded up out of the way when not in use, so that the stairlift doesn’t cause a big obstruction and other people can use the stairs. Most manufacturers supply remote controls, meaning the stairlift can be called or sent to the top or bottom of the stairs without a passenger. This is especially useful if more than one person in the home uses the stairlift.
Safety features should be incorporated, including sensors in the leading edges of the carriage which will detect any obstruction on the stairs and automatically stop the stairlift until it is removed. Some stairlifts include a digital display panel which will (in conjunction with a user manual) alert the user to any minor faults or changes in the stairlift’s status, such as running low on charge or not being ‘properly ‘docked’.
Some issues can be simply rectified by the user, while others might need the attention of a service engineer. For this reason, you should choose a supplier which offers a comprehensive aftercare service. Modern stairlifts are mechanical, electrical and electronic pieces of equipment which benefit from an annual service by a qualified technician to ensure their trouble-free operation and extend their lifespan.