Some people argue that elevators began as simple rope or chain hoists (see Traction elevators below). An elevator is essentially a platform that is either pulled or pushed up by a mechanical means. A modern-day elevator consists of a cab (also called a "cage", "carriage" or "car") mounted on a platform within an enclosed space called a shaft or sometimes a "hoistway". In the past, elevator drive mechanisms were powered by steam and water hydraulic pistons or by hand. In a "traction" elevator, cars are pulled up by means of rolling steel ropes over a deeply grooved pulley, commonly called a sheave in the industry. The weight of the car is balanced by a counterweight. Sometimes two elevators are built so that their cars always move synchronously in opposite directions, and are each other's counterweight.

The friction between the ropes and the pulley furnishes the traction which gives this type of elevator its name.

Hydraulic elevators use the principles of hydraulics (in the sense of hydraulic power) to pressurize an above ground or in-ground piston to raise and lower the car (see Hydraulic elevators below). Roped hydraulics use a combination of both ropes and hydraulic power to raise and lower cars. Recent innovations include permanent magnet motors, machine room-less rail mounted gearless machines, and microprocessor controls.

The technology used in new installations depends on a variety of factors. Hydraulic elevators are cheaper, but installing cylinders greater than a certain length becomes impractical for very-high lift hoistways. For buildings of much over seven floors, traction elevators must be employed instead. Hydraulic elevators are usually slower than traction elevators.

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