Elevator Modernization: Knowing When it's Time For an Upgrade

Article by Michael Morgenstern, National Elevator Consulting Ltd

The implication of “elevator modernization” is often associated with an aesthetic upgrade to the interior finishes of the elevator cab. Although important, the aesthetic updating of the cab is only a modicum of the modernization process. Upgrades of the mechanical and control components form the substance of the same project, and are the focus of this discussion.

In principle, a “full service” maintenance contract should allow an owner to retain an elevator system continuously. Proper preventive maintenance and repair should protect an elevator from deterioration. However, factors such as obsolescence and code compliance do lead to major modernization projects. Although each scenario is independent of another and there are many variables to consider, major modernization infers the replacement of most control and mechanical systems, virtually everything in the machine room and hoistway. 

One of the greatest obstacles faced by an owner or property manager concerning a modernization project is creating the initial plan outlining what can stay, and what needs be replaced. With certain types of equipment, especially gearless hoist machines, major components are often retained and refurbished rather than replaced. Proper advice is crucial at this stage and will certainly play a role in the total cost of the project, as well as the goals that will be achieved in the end.
At the time when an elevator system begins to breakdown at an increasing rate, questions should be initially directed at the maintaining contractor, not the equipment. In many cases, a major readjustment of the equipment by a qualified service technician will improve operation to a point that several additional years of reliable service can be achieved. Readjustment of equipment is typically included in a “full service” contract and should be completed at no additional cost to the owner.

Elevator contractors commonly sight elevator obsolescence as a reason for modernization. This may not always be the case as the main problem with older systems is that they are more labour intensive to maintain for the service contractor, which leads to less profitability. It is advisable to seek out a second or third opinion, or the advice of an independent professional consultant so any claims as to the availability of replacement parts can be either confirmed or refuted. This may aid an owner in saving hundreds of thousands of dollars on an unnecessary upgrade. 

Long-term financial savings are rarely achieve in the lowering of maintenance service premiums after the completion of the modernization. In fact, monthly charges often increase after an elevator modernization despite the reduction in labour to the service contractor. The consumption of energy is where savings can materialize. Studies have illustrated a reduction in energy costs by as much as 40 % and more after modernization. These energy savings are realized by newer technology drive systems that utilize less operating energy and at the same time emit less heat, thus reducing machine room cooling costs.

There are literally hundreds of types of systems and every building has a different amount of traffic, so only with a physical inspection of the elevator system by qualified individuals with years of experience can a modernization plan be developed. As complete elevator modernizations cost from $75,000 to $150,000 (per elevator depending on the type of system), a long-term plan is absolutely crucial to prepare for this capital expenditure.
In today's market the competitive industry of real estate has a significant effect on modernization as owners of older buildings strive to compete with newer complexes. In these circumstances, the reason for modernization is mostly performance. Although an existing system may be fully operational, advances in technology allow for improved dispatching which can provide as much as a 25 % decrease in waiting times without increasing elevator speed. For this type of an improvement, the modernization project may be limited to an “overlay” system that addresses the dispatching area of elevator control. Again, the pros and cons of this type of partial upgrade should be considered and evaluated against a complete modernization.

Depending on the extent of a modernization project, with proper planning the elevators should provide the same level of service and ride quality as any brand new elevator

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