By Lindsey Anderson02 March 2020
Ebbe Christensen knows atrium lifts.
The president of Texas-based ReachMaster has been involved in the North American access market for over two decades and he also heads up the International Powered Access Federation’s North American Regional Council. As the industry readies for the implementation of the completely revamped ANSI A92 standards, Christensen explains how specialty aerial equipment, particularly atrium lifts, have changed from “basically a novelty that, in particular, the rental industry in the beginning had very little interest in, to a lucrative segment with a relative high ROI. Consequently, the focus on safety and compliance to ANSI has grown alongside the segment as a whole.”
Q: You hear a lot about how the standards are impacting the access industry. Are there any impacts atrium lifts users need to be aware of?
Not necessarily more than other MEWP categories, as many of the more comprehensive changes will cover a wide range of lift categories, like for example mandatory supervisor training that will apply to all equipment.
To a degree, I actually think that the users of the atrium lifts will feel less impact on many levels. All atrium lifts today are without any exception designed, developed and manufactured in Europe, So, literally all atrium lifts, currently available in North America, are from Europe where many of the design changes (for example ability to monitor and limit weight in the basket, generally referred to as load sensors) have been standard one way or the other for years.
At the same time, the mere concept of a lift type that entirely off-sets its reach capability by outriggers, mandates a different type of focus on both overloading and safety features, given that the tolerances for this type of lifts are so much smaller than what I would refer to as mainstream products like self-propelled booms and scissor lifts.
Q: So, on many levels, the users of the atrium lifts have already been used to observing some of these issues as a “part of the package”?
Yes, it is noteworthy to remember that these lifts are basically the “mission impossible” category of MEWPs that are used in applications where you have the combination of very limited access, strict floor pressure restrictions and still a need for severe vertical height and substantial side reach.
Some of the smallest units will fit into a regular 8-foot deep people elevator, some models with work heights up to 138 feet can still go through 3-foot single door, and the tallest units will actually challenge the tallest boom lifts, offering 170 feet of work height – and still sport the ability to go through a 4-foot double door and work on most indoor floors.
So, by nature this type of equipment has to very much rely on advanced technology at a much higher degree than equipment that primarily off-sets their reach capabilities by weight. While many operators no doubt in the beginning felt that the use of atrium lifts were much more involved and even more complicated, I think they will find themselves in a position that makes it easier to adopt the new design technology and safe-use and training procedures that comes along with the new ANSI standards.
Q: Atrium lifts were covered by the ANSI A92.5 Boom supported standard that are self-propelled that are a 3b category in the new standards. The new standard places atrium lifts as a 1b that is not drivable in the elevated position. Does that have any impact, such as training?
For a start, I am very pleased to see these lifts are finally being moved into the correct category, which will be the 1b that is not drivable in elevated position. As mentioned earlier, we are here talking about a lift type where it is absolutely mandatory that the lift is set up on outriggers, with the feet solidly planted on the ground before the lift part can be moved as much as 1/8 of an inch.
It will mean changes to training for companies who think they can be trained on a self-propelled boom lift and use an atrium lift by being familiarized at delivery. But again, since the nature of the atrium lifts have always demanded a more comprehensive level of training – simply because of their features – I don’t think the users will see a tremendous difference as far as more efforts and investment in time for those who provided appropriate training
Q: What are some of the unique attributes of an atrium lift that would make it a better choice when selecting a MEWP for a project?
The core benefits of an atrium lift are compactness, light weight and significant reach. Atrium lifts, or compact lifts as they are often called, are a natural selection for any indoor application where access is often limited to single or double doors, the work area will be on top of somewhat sensitive floor material, not to mention that the interior of a building often is subject to structural limitations.
Add to this the need to work on an energy source with no pollutants, odor or noise, the battery power source on most compact lifts offers the best solution for indoor work. There are just as many outdoor applications where these units are equally at home: courtyards, walkways, backyards, uneven and sloping footprint matrix (set-up area) and any elevated or cantilevered structure where a boom lift is too heavy.
Due to being truly “cutting edge” technology as far as what we refer to as PP ratio (presence and performance ratio) where presence is format and weight and performance is reach capabilities), compact lifts are in general also more fragile. We therefore see their use more suited for building maintenance applications than actual construction applications.
Q: What are some of the unique attributes of atrium lifts that must be considered when addressing safe-use and training?
My “mantra” is always that safe use of any MEWP starts with having the right equipment for the right job, and to do that you must understand both the nature, format and concept of the MEWP itself and the task you are going to use it for. If the risk assessment is performed properly and the choice is a compact lift, two main attributes comes to mind:
The first is positioning the unit at the work site. When you look at the design of an atrium or compact lift, the general characteristics are a long, slim body with four “swing-out” outriggers and a boom (lift) section being the highest point of the lift, and often longer that the under-carriage of the unit. What this translates into is a very top-heavy piece of equipment with a very narrow wheel - or track base. As a result, it is very important to observe changes in elevation when driving the units in place where some models become quite unstable at even a few degrees sloping. So, it is very important to have evaluated that the access route to the work site is well within the safe performance travel parameters of the lift.
The second thing is positioning the outriggers correctly. Some units have so-called fixed A-frame outriggers that do not swing out, but just fold down, while others are adjustable outriggers with “knee joints” that can swing out and allow set-up on slopes etc. In particular on the last version it is vital to make sure the outrigger are locked, and while some models offers an electronic control of this procedure, there are still many units on the market that do not have that safety feature and it is up to the operator to makes sure the outrigger is locked.
The next task is to lower the outriggers, which will raise the lift off the ground to a safe, level position. Again, most lifts today offer automatic levelling, but there are still manual units out there.
The final important thing about the outriggers is to of course ensure that the surface is safe and can sustain the impact of the outrigger. For interior use, it is important to know the condition of the floor structure (any hollow areas below, cantilever floors as often seen in shopping malls and airports) and for exterior use, if on soft ground it is vital to use proper sized outrigger pads to ensure complete stability.
These procedures differ in many ways from the so-called “mainstream” products and absolutely require more training. On the up end, the good thing is that all units on the market today operate with what I call a firewall concept between the ground functions and the lift functions. It is simply impossible to operate any lift function without having the outriggers fully deployed, stabilized and pressurized – and vice versa for the undercarriage where you cannot move neither the outriggers nor the drive the unit unless the lift is completely stowed.
Q: Are there any unique attributes, like lifting loads, that atrium lifts are allowed to do that other lifts are not?
The answer to this is no. Atrium lifts have always been more sensitive to basket load limits than other lift categories. The standard used to be maximum 440 pounds in the basket, but the new norm is now closer to 550 pounds. Some units operate with weight restricted reach limits, for example a jib system where it in folded-in position (closest to the main boom) will offer full capacity, but when deployed to offer additional reach, weight capacity is reduced to half or less.
In addition to electronically monitoring the load in the basket – and provide stop functions if the basket is overloaded – some units also offers a secondary strain gauge systems that cannot be re-set by the operator. These systems are in place to monitor the bend curve on the boom section, and if a unit is overloaded to a degree where it impacts the flex curve of the boom, it will shut the unit down, and it will require a factory trained technician to re-set the system. I’d say that in many ways, the atrium lifts have more applied features to limit overloading than most other lifts.
Q: Atrium lifts seem to be more complicated to operate that other MEWP options. Is that an accurate perception? Is added training required for operators of this equipment?
I never use the word “more complicated” as they are really not, they are just more comprehensive. Thanks to the unique ability to work in places where no other lifts can go, they have more functions, they offer different ways to reach an apex target, and are more strict in functionality: If outriggers not properly down, no lift function – if lift not fully retracted, no ground functions etc.
In short, there are simply stated less space for errors. “Almost” is never good enough for an atrium lift, if the boom is not 100 percent retracted and the switch or system detecting that the unit is fully lowered is activated, you will have no ground functions. Because of the nature of the lift, it has to be this way, as you need to make sure that an outrigger, for example, is not by mistake raised while the lift is in the air which could have catastrophic consequences.
I think this more “strict” operator behavior paradigm needed to operate compact lifts efficiently and safely is often confused with the perception of being more complicated.
But either way, yes, it does impose a bigger need and focus on proper training. In our company, our experience reflects a very clear and common pattern: If operators are properly trained, they don’t see the category as more complicated, in fact we more often here descriptions like “smart,” “safer” and much more efficient (if set up properly an atrium lift has a quite impressive 360-degree reach capacity translating into reaching more work applications with just a single set up and no need to move the lift). On the other side of the spectrum we can quickly detect if the operator is not properly trained and is almost intimidated with all the options that an atrium/compact lift can offer over other categories. This is when we start to hear the “more complicated” argument, and obviously, there is a very good reason for it.
Q: Where can atrium lift operators go to receive updated training?
At ReachMaster we offer both initial training at delivery as well as follow up training at the customer’s facility as needed. I believe that is the same for most of us in this category and given the differences between the brands, I think it is more common to seek specific training through the suppliers of the atrium lifts than looking for generic training opportunities.
By ‘generic opportunities’ I refer to third party entities like IPAF training centers which are not necessarily attached to one specific brand. The reason is obvious: Opposite most other categories, the atrium/compact lift population is still indeed very much a “minority” in the overall MEWP society, making up less than 5 percent of the market – if that. It is therefore more challenging for generic training centers to offer specific atrium/compact lift training than boom and scissor lift training, simply from a critical mass perspective.