Replacing a Co-op / Condo Elevator

June 27, 2010 — A reader writes: "I'm on the board of an eight-story, 64-unit cooperative in The Bronx that has been experiencing problems with the elevator. It moves haltingly and stops abruptly at the called floor, often a few inches short of the hallway floor. In addition, the doors tend to stick and don't always open all the way. The elevator is approximately 50 years old and breaks down frequently, so we know it's time for an upgrade. But it would be a huge inconvenience for residents on the higher floors — some of whom are elderly — if our only elevator were out of service for an extended period of time. What repairs will the upgrade entail, and is there a way to keep from completely shutting down the elevator?"

An elevator as old as the one in this building has probably reached the end of its useful life, so it looks as if a full-scale upgrade will be necessary. Unfortunately, that means taking the elevator out of service for at least four to six weeks, so a board in cases like this needs to schedule the work to best accommodate residents who rely on it the most.

To understand what a full upgrade entails, it's helpful to know the basic elements of the elevator system. First off, the halting movements and sudden stops are probably caused by an old controller. The controller, the brain of the elevator system, is an electronic component that directs the elevator motor. It detects where the elevator cab is located in the shaft and determines to which floor it should be sent. Controllers typically last about 25 years and are often the major component replaced during an elevator upgrade.


The newer microprocessor-based controllers have what are called variable frequency drives (VFD). A VFD enables smooth, fine-tuned cab movements, starting slowly, and then maintaining a steady speed until the cab comes to a gradual stop.

Because older controllers lack VFDs, they can result in erratic rides. Over time, these rough movements place extra wear and tear on the elevator, leading to breakdowns and frequent servicing. In addition, they're prone to gathering fine particles generated from the direct current (DC) motors typically used in aging elevators, resulting in higher maintenance costs.

Boards should survey residents

well ahead of time.

An outmoded controller may also be the cause of the cab stopping unevenly at the hallway floor. Lacking the precision of a VFD system, an aging elevator's movements are affected by the amount of weight in the cab. With many people inside, the cab tends to stop several inches below the hallway floor. With fewer people, it can stop up to several inches above. A VFD controller, on the other hand, reads the strip, called a level controller, to determine exactly where the cab should stop.

Sticky Doors, Sickly Elevator

The problem you're having with sticking doors is common with old elevators. Doors become creaky with age, failing to open and close properly. In such cases, replacing the door hardware is often necessary, including the door operator (a motor that slides the door open and shut), levers, tracks and hangers. Some prewar buildings that have swinging hallway doors need not convert to sliding doors, but the doors should be checked for loose hinges and sagging.

The heavy-duty components that generally need replacement or refurbishment include:

  • the elevator motor itself, which powers the cab up and down;
  • the sheave and cables, which serve as a kind of pulley;
  • the elevator shaft;
  • guide rails;
  • the machine brake, which activates when the cab stops at the requested floor;
  • counterweights; and possibly
  • the governor, an emergency brake activated when the cab travels too fast.

Some buildings also have a sump pump in the elevator pit in case of flooding. Most upgrades include refurbishing the elevator machine room, located in either the basement or a roof bulkhead.

Getting the Project Underway

Undertaking a full-scale modernization of the elevator system will probably necessitate renovating the interior of the elevator cab at the same time. To get access at much of the "guts" of the system, such as the shaft, guide rails, door operator, wiring and the like, requires removing and/or demolishing the walls, floors, and ceiling of the cab.

Some boards use this opportunity to make cosmetic changes, installing new wall panels, door coverings, carpeting, handrails, wainscoting and other finishing touches.

Next page: Eevators and the disabled >>

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