Buying a Stairlift to Heaven

By Guest Blogger Marc Mendelsohn
Universal Design Specialist 

As we age and become less mobile, if we sustain a disability, or develop an illness, the access into and around our homes may become a concern that we have not previously considered.

A stairlift won’t take you all the way to heaven, but it can make your home accessible again. The price is far more accessible than a move to a new home – and adapting the houses we already have is far more sustainable than building new ones. Marc and Nicolette agree: building homes to anticipate the full human growth and aging cycle is a much more sustainable approach to housing.

Stairs that were not an issue in the past can become a substantial obstacle, and even dangerous. Multiple-level homes can make “aging in place” — living at home rather than moving to a specialized facility — a real challenge.

If you are an adult child of aging parents, the possibility of injury to a parent who is truing to navigate stairs may become an immediate concern.

Finding a home without any stairs is not easy, and moving to another home might not be possible. As a result, one has to consider what other options are available to create a safe and accessible home that will work for aging seniors, or for those living with a disability or illness.

A stairlift may be a good solution in dealing with a series of stairs, either those encountered when entering or leaving the home, or those inside the home connecting different levels.

Lifts for All Seasons
and All Reasons

These handy pieces of equipment take into account outdoor and indoor applications as well as straight or curved stairs. There are also special models for larger and heavier users.

One of the most important considerations in evaluating a stairlift as a possible option revolves around the user’s ability to transfer from a sitting or standing position onto the stair lift chair.

If a manual transfer is not possible, a stair lift is usually not a good solution.

Outdoor stairlift

Outdoor Applications

The choices for outdoor lifts are more limited than those for indoors, both because not every stairlift manufacturer offers an outdoor version, and because exposure to the weather makes manufacturing more complicated.

Outdoor units will work only on a straight run of stairs, and typically, those stairs cannot exceed 20 feet in length. These lifts will travel at approximately 20 feet per minute, and a 30-45 degree incline is the steepest they can handle.

All outdoor stair lifts include weather-tight components, and they typically use an anodized aluminum track to help protect the power equipment from the elements year-round. Most models available also include a waterproof cover to protect the lift while not in use.

Most models offer a choice
of seat covers and fabric.

Available Options

The track of a stairlift is mounted to your stairs. The chair itself will fold up so that it is out of the way when not in use. This allows for more clearance on the stairs — an important consideration when multiple people use the stairs. This type of unit can usually carry a passenger weighing up to 350 pounds.

Most of the seats that are available on stairlifts swivel 90 degrees toward the landing at each end of the track; this allows for safe entry and exit. The units include safety sensors that will stop the lift immediately if it comes into contact with anything on the stairs. They can all be installed on either side of a staircase and run off 115 VAC electricity.

Indoor Straight Applications

There are considerably more options available with interior stair lifts. They are normally designed to sit close to the wall or the stair railing. This is important because interior stairs are often narrower than exterior stairs.

A folding lift is a
good solution for
a narrow staircase.
Remote control
directs the stairlift.
Lift stops
automatically if
the way is blocked.
Your seat
can include a seatbelt.
Some models offer
a hinged track that
can be moved out
of the way.

One model that I am familiar with extrudes only 11” from the wall when the seat is in the folded position. This makes it a good choice for narrow staircases. As with the outdoor models, indoor lifts can be installed on either side of the stairs by attaching them to the stairs.

Like outdoor lifts, indoor models also swivel for safe transfer at both ends. They include easy operating controls for up and down movement, and they can be summoned from either direction with a supplied call switch or remote.

Most of these units offer a very smooth ride, traveling approximately 16-22 feet per minute. The straight-run units normally include 16-18 feet of track and can often be upgraded to as much as 75 feet, as long as travel remains in a straight line. Many indoor stairlifts operate off a 24 VDC battery that is kept charged by a 115 VAC power supply connected to the rail.

In the event of a power outage, most lifts will complete between 20-40 full runs on the battery assuming that the battery is at full capacity.

All stair lifts can be manually lowered to the bottom of the rail in an emergency, and they include safety sensors that will stop the lift immediately if it comes into contact with anything on the stairs.

An Option for Aching Knees

One option available for straight-run applications is a perch stairlift. This lift is designed for users who have restricted movement in knee or hip joints and who find sitting painful.

The rider of this lift — shown below with the red seat — will remain in an almost full-standing position while using the lift. The moving platform includes a shortened seat and retractable seat belt for added support and stability.

Some companies also offer a heavy-duty stairlift for larger users. These models offer the heaviest carrying capacity which is normally 500 pounds, although I am aware of one model that has a 600 pound capacity.

Heavy-duty lifts, such as the one shown below to the right with a tan covering, all include a larger contoured seat that measures from 23 to 25” wide with a high back. The footrest is reinforced for added stability, and the armrests are heavy duty for more secure transfers.

These heavy duty lifts will serve a limited-length run of stairs; they operate over a maximum 20-foot length of track and move at 10 feet per minute. They will climb a 30-45 degree maximum incline.

The SL 500 carries
heavier riders

The straight-run stair lifts are normally very affordable. Because installation can usually completed in 2 to 4 hours, labor costs are manageable and contribute to keeping the costs of these units down.

The enhanced equipment for heavy duty models make these stair lifts a little more costly than the standard units, but most people still find them quite affordable.

Interior Curved Applications

Not every manufacturer of stair lifts offers a curved stairlift option. The makeup of these units is more complex. Careful calculations are necessary to make sure that the rail will remains at the same elevation relative to the stair from top to bottom of the rise.

Many companies have adopted a state-of-the-art digital target system of measurement to assure accuracy of dimensions.

A perch-style lift like this one is a good option for those who have knee problems or other issues that make sitting difficult.

Models such as the Minivator, shown below with the brown seat, can travel around corners, across intermediate landings, and up spiral staircases. They must be tailor-made for each individual staircase.

I once installed a curved stairlift that included a 180-degree turn at both ends!

Most curved-stair models allow you to choose to add a powered footplate and swivel seat — options that allow the rider to enjoy an easier exit at the top or bottom of the stairs.

These models also offer a powered, automatic hinge solution on the track — an example is shown above in the photos of various options — to prevent the track from blocking a doorway at the base of the stairs.

The Minivator 2000 will work on a curved staircase.

The complexity of their operation, the options available, and an added installation time of 1-2 days, results in the costs of these curved stair units running 3-to-5 times higher than a simple straight stairlift unit.

What to Choose?
Start with Expert Help!

In all instances, a universal design specialist who is familiar with the options that are available – and which are useful to your particular needs — can help determine the best choice for your particular situation.

While it is also possible to obtain an opinion from the companies selling this type of equipment their opinion may not always be neutral, given the motivation to sell their specific equipment.


About Marc Mendelsohn

Marc Mendelsohn is an Architectural Design Professional, Certified Kitchen Designer (CKD), a Certified Bathroom Designer (CBD) and a Licensed General Contractor with Advanced Certifications in “Green” Building.

He has specialized in Universal Design and barrier free construction since 1992, and is considered one of leading experts in the country.

Marc has been featured on “The House Doctor” and has been published in magazines and newspapers. He lectures to college students and teaches Universal Design principles to professional associations.

His expertise in barrier-free design and construction brings credence to his work as an expert witness, assisting attorneys and litigants in building their cases and in providing expert testimony. Marc combines green/sustainable/healthy building practices with universal design in all his work as he believes that one without the other is an incomplete solution.


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