By Larry Carley
If you do wheel alignment work, you need an alignment lift for raising vehicles off the ground. A lift is essential because you have to get under the vehicle to inspect the steering and suspension before you check the alignment. You can’t align worn parts, so it’s important to always make sure the tie rod ends, ball joints, springs, bushings, struts and related components are all in good condition before you make any corrections. A lift also makes it much easier to make those corrections. Adjusting tie rods, camber bolts on MacPherson struts and offset control arm bushings is much easier when you are standing up compared to when you are laying on your back.
Any ordinary lift or even a floor jack can be used for prealignment inspections, adjustments or repairs. But for quick turnaround and maximum productivity, you need a specialized lift for doing wheel alignments. Alignment lifts incorporate a number of special features. These include built-in turn plates and skid plates. Turn plates are used to check toe-out and caster when the wheels are steered to either side. Slip plates are necessary with independent rear suspensions so the suspension can settle to its normal ride height.
Turn plates should be flush with the ramps so there’s no bump to roll over. Alignment systems that use a 3D camera system and wheel-mounted targets require rolling the vehicle back and forth to compensate for wheel runout. If the turn plates are raised, it creates a bump that makes it much more difficult to do the compensation step.
The turn plates and slip plates also have locking pins that prevent them from turning when they are not being used. The pins can sometimes be difficult to remove and replace, so some aligners feature pneumatic or solenoids that lock and release the plates. On some systems, this ability can even be controlled by the aligner, which automatically unlocks the plates when they are needed, then relocks the plates after the alignment has been completed so they won’t be damaged when the vehicle drives off the lift.
Stainless steel turn plates provide the best corrosion protection. Plastic bearings also won’t gall or dent the softer steel on the ramps should a turn plate bearing fail.
Another feature that distinguishes an alignment lift from an ordinary lift is that they all have drive-on ramps rather than support arms for lifting the vehicle. Wheel alignment must be checked with the full weight of the vehicle resting on its suspension, not with the wheels hanging or dangling in mid-air. Consequently, you need a lift with drive-on ramps that are long enough and wide enough to accommodate a wide range of passenger cars and light trucks. On above ground lifts, you also need ramps that are long enough so vehicles with low ground clearance won’t scrape their noses pulling on and off the lift.
Most passenger cars and light trucks without extended cabs usually have wheelbases of less than 140 inches in length. An extended cab pickup with a long bed may measure up to 155 inches between the front and rear wheels, so longer ramps or extensions may be needed. The same goes for a full-size pickup with a crew cab and long bed, which may have a wheelbase of up to 170 inches. So when deciding on what size lift you want to buy, consider the type of vehicles you will be aligning.
In a rural area where the number of extended and crew cab pickups is relatively high, make sure the lift you choose can handle the longest trucks. In an urban area where people mostly drive passenger cars, SUVs and minivans, shorter ramps will probably cover 99% of your potential customer base.
As for the lifting capacity of an alignment lift, a 9,000-lb. lift will safely handle most passenger cars and light trucks. For larger trucks, a 10,000-, 12,000- or 14,000-lb. lift may be needed. For larger, medium-duty trucks, a 14,000- to 18,000-lb. lift may be required. Most experts say you shouldn’t even consider a lift that has a rated lifting capacity of less than 9,000 lbs.
Most alignment lifts are designed to raise vehicles only about five to six feet off the ground. They don’t need to go as high as some ordinary lifts because most of the work will be done at less than this height.
Scissor or Post?
The two basic types of alignment lifts are scissor and post lifts. Scissor lifts use a pair of X-shaped beams under each ramp to raise the vehicle, while post lifts have a post at each corner to raise the vehicle. Scissor lifts require more steel, which makes them more expensive than most post lifts, but the advantage is a smaller, narrower footprint, which saves valuable bay space. The area between the ramps on a scissors lift is also open with no crossbeams to get in the way. This allows unobstructed access under the vehicle from front to rear.
There are also some alignment lifts that use a parallelogram linkage to raise the vehicle. Rather than lifting straight up as a scissors or post lift, the linkage raises and moves the vehicle forward slightly as it raises. This type of arrangement is typically used on lifts for heavier trucks.
Lift power sources include electric motors or pneumatic cylinders. Electric motors may be used to turn a screw-drive mechanism, to pressurize hydraulic cylinders, or to winch up cables or chains to raise the lift.
Surface or Flush Mount?
Another option to consider when shopping for an alignment lift is a flush-mounted lift that is recessed into the shop floor. The main advantage with a lift mounted into the floor is that it eliminates the need for the drive-on ramp extensions, which can save four or five feet of length needed in an alignment bay. This may be an important consideration if you are renovating an older repair facility that may have relatively short bays. The extra cost to cut out the floor and repour concrete to accommodate a flush-mounted alignment lift may range from $2,500 to $3,500 or more depending on the area.
Other Features To Look For
Compatibility with your alignment equipment is a must. If you are using laser alignment equipment or even mechanical gauges, just about any alignment lift will do. But if you are using a 3D camera system, the lift should allow proper spacing with respect to the cameras so the camera can see the wheel targets clearly. Some of the older camera-based alignment systems required the vehicle to be at least so many feet from the cameras so they could see the targets. But the latest generation of camera systems has better cameras that can be positioned closer to the lift and vehicle (saving bay space).
Many alignment racks today are plumbed with air lines, making it easy to check/fill air pressure in tires (which should be the first step in every alignment to assure accuracy), to operate a rolling jack and to operate pneumatic power tools. Built-in air lines eliminate clutter, tripping hazards and the risk of pinching or cutting a hose while raising or lowering a lift.
A lift that has removable work steps on the side ramp is handy for when you have to get into the vehicle when it is raised, or to get under the hood.
Safety is also essential. The lift should meet industry quality standards, including North American manufacturing standards, and the safety standards of the Automotive Lift Institute (ALI). Lifts should have a positive locking mechanism to prevent it from falling should anything fail. Controls should be easy to use and located in a protective cover or box so they cannot be accidentally activated if someone bumps into them.