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What is a Freight Elevator?

By Brooke Edwards
Updated May 17, 2024
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A freight elevator is used to do just what its name implies: to elevate, or lift, freight, or goods. It is built to carry goods rather than people, though some do both to allow operators and those loading goods along for the ride.

Given its distinct purpose, a freight elevator is typically larger and can carry more weight than a passenger elevator. A freight elevator is often custom designed for the warehouse, shopping center or other large-scale facility it will serve. The designs are based on needed dimensions, the amount of weight it will carry and how goods will be loaded and unloaded, whether it be by hand, car or industrial truck. A heavy-duty freight elevator can hold a truck and can handle as much as 100,000 pounds (45, 359 kilograms), using a dual rope system for support.

A freight elevator often has a manual door, and sometimes multiple doors, to load from the front and rear or sides. The inside may be unfinished, so that it can take a beating from goods being pushed in and out daily.

As with passenger elevators, freight lifts can be hydraulic or traction. Traction elevators use steel ropes pulled along a deeply grooved pulley. Hydraulic elevators use a piston to push the elevator up from below. Both types require counter-weighting, which is typically accomplished by the placement of another elevator car on the other end of the ropes. Hydraulic lifts are cheaper, but often slower and cannot be built as high as traction elevators. Hydraulics can also leak oil into the earth, raising concerns for environmentalists.

Some of the earliest recorded uses of elevators were to move freight, with Egyptian and Roman civilizations using simple pulley systems to lift building materials. In the early 1800s, these designs took off, powering the lifts with newly discovered steam and hydraulic pistons. The new lifts became particularly popular to move goods onstage for plays and other performing arts events, with early installations at the Vienna Opera House.

The smallest freight elevators are often called dumbwaiters. They are typically used in two-story buildings to move household goods such as laundry or dishes up and down. Though older versions were operated by pulling on a rope, modern dumbwaiters include a small electric motor.

A freight elevator often has different code and fire requirements than passenger lifts, though these codes should still be clearly posted along with a certificate allowing the elevator’s operations.

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Discussion Comments

By anon993602 — On Nov 27, 2015

What classification of elevator is the overhead crane? Does it belong to a freight elevator or construction elevator? It is commonly used in warehousing and manufacturing. Please help.

By MissMuffet — On May 01, 2011

I once had a horrible experience in an old freight elevator. It was my first day in a summer retail job and I was sent to the stock room for several items. After wrestling with two manual doors I thought the worst was over. I was wrong!

Nobody told me that the exit can switch to the other side, so I flung open the doors to find a solid brick wall! It was the scariest moment of my life up until that point, and it took me about twenty minutes to figure out how to find the store.

By yumdelish — On Apr 28, 2011

@angelBraids - That sounds more like a priority elevator, perhaps it goes directly to the operating theater or something. I think freight elevator specifications, like a door you close yourself,would be better for moving people on a gurney!

By angelBraids — On Apr 26, 2011

I've seen hospital elevators which are not available for the general public to use. I thought they were maybe just for staff, but could they also be a type of freight elevator?

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