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All About Stair Lifts

A stair lift is a motorized chair that travels along a rail mounted to the treads of stairs. A stair lift is one of easiest and least expensive ways to make your home more accessible and safer. Simple stair lifts, sometimes called stair chairs, service 2 floors. It is possible to install stair lifts that travel over more complex staircases and even travel to more than 2 floors, using a curved stairlift.

Once you install a stair lift, you eliminate the barrier of stairs and you greatly reduce your risk of falling. The rider should be able to get on and off the chair independently, or with assistance in the form of a walker or cane only. Typically, a stair lift is not a good solution for someone in a wheelchair.

A stair lift has a motor, with a battery powered system that is charged automatically either through the rail itself or in charging stations mounted on the rail at the top and bottom landings. The benefit to the battery system is that the lift can be operated a few times even during a power outage.

A stair lift is also called a stairlift, a stair chair, a chair lift, a stairway lift, or by trade names such as “Stair Glide.” Stair lift designs are very similar by all manufacturers in their basic construction – there’s a seat on a motorized carriage and travel rail on the stairs. We include on this web site, some good tips to know to select the best stair lift for your needs and your staircase construction.

Types of Stair Lifts

There are really only two types of stair lifts: straight and curved.

Straight stair lifts
Savaria K2 Straight Stair Lift
Curved stair lifts
Handicare Freecurve Curved Stair Lift

A straight stair lift is installed for a single, straight flight of stairs that has no turns or landings. A curved stair lift is installed for stairs that feature a turn or curve, an intermediate landing, any change in direction or angle of incline, or when out-of-the-way parking at the top or bottom is desired. The distinction between straight and curved stair lifts is all about the travel rail design. Many of the other components of straight and curved stairlifts are basically the same.

Straight stair lifts are stock items requiring little to no customization for the home. In many cases, the travel rail is cut to fit the length of your stairs and that’s all that is needed to fit your staircase. Cutting the travel rail might be done prior to installation, or it might be done while on site during the installation process. Curved stair lifts are most often “made to measure.” This means that the rail is built by the manufacturer to follow the exact curve and size of your stairs. This ensures the best fit to the stairs. Curved stair lifts therefore take more time to manufacture.

You can also find straight and curved stair lifts that may be suitable for outdoor use. Not every stair lift can be used outside and all outdoor stair lifts require a bit more maintenance and protection from the elements such as rain or saltwater air. Read more about outdoor stairlifts here.

Close up of measurement markings on curved stair case steps
Person using measurement markings to measure the staircase for a curved stair lift installation

Curved stair lifts are most often “made to measure.” The rail is built by the manufacturer to follow the exact curve and size of your stairs.

How a Stair Lift Works

A typical stair lift uses a rack and pinion system. The motor turns a gear (pinion) that interlocks with the toothed rack, moving the carriage up or down the rail. Safety mechanisms such as the overspeed governor ensure that the carriage does not move down the rail too fast. The motor is powered by a battery that is charged on standard household power.

Want to learn more? Watch our stairlift 101 video to learn about stairlift features, types, installation and operation.