A Comprehensive Guide On How Elevators Work: From Mechanics To Maintenance

How do elevators work?

Elevators are a common part of everyday life – according to the National Elevator Industry, elevators in the US make 18 billion trips per year. Despite this fact, many people don’t understand how elevators work. 

In this guide, we’ll explain the basics of elevator mechanics and maintenance so that you can better understand one of the most important pieces of engineering in modern life.

We’ll delve into topics like:

And with that, let’s elevate your understanding of elevators!

Basic Mechanics

So, how do elevators work? Elevators are powered by electric motors that control the lift’s pulleys and cables. The two main parts of an elevator system are the car (the part you ride in) and the counterweight, which is a heavy weight attached to cables that balance out the car’s weight. 


The motor powers these elements via gears connected to a belt drive system. This allows for the smooth operation of the elevator as it moves up and down. 

The speed of elevators can be adjusted depending on whether they will be used for residential or commercial purposes; typically commercial elevators move faster than residential ones due to their higher capacity. 

Additionally, elevators have brakes that are activated whenever the elevator is stopped or when it needs to slow down to prevent accidents. The brakes are powered by electric motors and typically use friction pads to control the system from moving. 

Elevators are typically operated by pressing buttons inside the car, using a keypad on the outside of the building, or by swiping an access card that moves the car to the designated floor. This is done through a series of sensors and computerized control systems that monitor the car’s position, speed, and weight inside the car.

Types of Elevators

There are several types of elevators, including hydraulic elevators, pneumatic elevators, and traction elevator systems.

Hydraulic Elevators 

Hydraulic elevators use a hydraulic pump to lift and lower the car. The pump is powered by an electric motor, which moves oil in and out of the cylinder that supports the elevator. This type of elevator is typically used for low-rise buildings since they are not as fast or powerful as other types of elevators.

Pneumatic Elevators

Pneumatic elevators use compressed air to lift and lower the car. The pressure of the air is controlled by an electric motor, which pumps it into a sealed cylinder that supports the elevator. This type of elevator is often used in residential buildings due to its quiet operation and lack of need for mechanical parts.

Traction Elevator Systems

Traction elevator systems use a motor to move the car up and down via steel cables. This type of system is typically used in taller buildings since it can handle heavier weights than other types of elevators. 

The traction elevator has two main components: the hoist machine, which controls the motor, and the governor, which monitors and adjusts the speed of the elevator based on how much weight is inside.

If you’d like to learn more about the specific optics of different types of elevators, take a look at this in-depth guide.

Hazards Associated with Elevator Operation

Elevators are generally safe, but they can be hazardous to certain people, especially if you aren’t careful.

  1. Entrapment: If the elevator doors do not open or close properly, people can become trapped inside. This is why it’s important to monitor and maintain elevators regularly to prevent this from happening.
  2. Overloading: If too many people are inside an elevator car at once, it can cause the motor to overload and malfunction. To avoid this, there should be signs posted inside the elevator that indicate the maximum number of passengers allowed at one time.
  3. Malfunctioning Brakes: Elevator brakes are essential for safety; if they don’t work properly then a mechanical failure could occur. This is why it’s important to have regular inspections and maintenance of the elevator brakes to make sure they are functioning correctly.
  4. Electrical Hazards: Elevators rely on electricity to operate, and if the wiring is faulty or damaged it can cause a fire. This is why elevators should be inspected regularly for any signs of wear and tear.
  5. Structural Issues: Elevator shafts are often constructed from concrete and steel, so any issues with the structural integrity of these materials can be dangerous. It’s important to have regular inspections to check for any signs of corrosion or wear.
  6. Natural Disasters: Elevators are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. If the power goes out, the elevator will not be able to operate until it is restored. This is why it’s important to have a backup plan in case of these types of emergencies.
  7. Human Error: Elevators are only as safe as the people operating them. People can get injured by sticking limbs out of doors, using a broken elevator, or riding an elevator that is not intended for their use. Education and awareness are essential when it comes to using elevators safely, and it is up to the owners of buildings with elevators to make sure the proper signage is posted and elevators are inaccessible to those who should not be using them.

Luckily, most of these hazards can be avoided through maintenance and upkeep through signage and access control.

Maintenance & Inspections

Elevator maintenance is an important part of keeping a safe and efficient system. Regular maintenance should be done on the

  • Cables
  • Pulleys
  • Brakes
  • Control Systems
  • Motors 

to ensure that the system is functioning properly. 

elevator maintenance
elevator maintenance

Elevator maintenance typically involves the following steps:

  1. Inspecting the car, counterweight, and door for any signs of wear or damage 
  2. Testing the brakes to make sure they are functioning properly
  3. Checking all of the electrical components for proper operation
  4. Greasing and lubricating any moving parts
  5. Replacing any worn-out or damaged parts
  6. Testing all safety features, sensors, and control systems

Elevator maintenance should be done regularly to ensure that the system is safe for use, typically every six months. Any significant repairs should be done by a qualified elevator technician to ensure that the system is functioning properly.

Additionally, elevators should be inspected regularly by a qualified elevator technician to identify any problems and make repairs if necessary. 

Elevator inspections typically occur once a year and go through much of what you do with maintenance, but with a trained eye looking over every detail. While things may be operating smoothly, a qualified technician can see what could potentially be a problem in the future, saving you valuable time and money.

Upkeep & Safety


All elevators should have clear signage that explains instructions on how to operate the elevator and what to do in an emergency. This includes signs for:

  • Maximum Capacity
  • Emergency Stop Button
  • Phone Number for Maintenance
  • Instructions for Reporting Malfunctions

You should also make sure to have signs for emergencies, such as when an elevator is broken, as well as barricades to keep customers or tenants from using the elevator during maintenance or breakdowns.

Access Control Systems

To provide safety and security, access control systems, such as those offered by Proptia or Cellgate, should be installed in all elevators in your building. These systems will limit who can use the elevator by requiring keycards or other forms of authentication. 

This is especially important for commercial buildings that may have multiple tenants and visitors entering at different times, or for hotels that want to promote safety by only allowing tenants to access upper floors.

Want to learn more or don’t know where to start? Here’s a comprehensive guide to the best commercial access control systems on the market.

Following Regulations

Elevators are subject to a variety of regulations and safety standards. In the United States, elevators are regulated by the ASME A17.1 Elevator Safety Code, which sets forth requirements for the installation, operation, inspection, and maintenance of elevators in commercial buildings. 

Additionally, many states have individual laws governing elevator safety. Be sure to check with your local government for more information on specific regulations that may apply to you.

Open The Door To Responsible Elevator Ownership!

Elevators are an invaluable part of modern life, so it’s important to understand how they work and how to keep them in good working order, especially for a business owner.

With this guide, you now know the basic mechanics of elevators and types of elevators, as well as the maintenance and safety considerations that should be taken into account as an operator of one to avoid potentially hazardous situations. 

Now knowledgeable about the exciting world of elevators, you can ensure the elevators in your building are running safely and efficiently for years to come, and you can talk to your local elevator inspector with the knowledge to make sure everything is in working order.


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Author: Nick is a tech-savvy freelancer with a passion for coding and a knack for writing. As a programmer by trade, he knows the ins and outs of the digital world, with a particular interest in PropTech and Security Tech. When he’s not tinkering with the latest software, you can catch him scaling mountains or unleashing his creative side on a canvas.