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January 2006

Playing Second Chair

With the cost of new lifts on the rise, many areas are turning to the second-hand market with a great deal of success.

Written by Cliff Meader | 0 comment

With prices for new lifts rising, the used-lift market is becoming increasingly attractive to areas unwilling—or unable—to pay big bucks for the latest technology. A used lift can often be relocated for between one-third and one-half the cost of new equipment. But the process can be both more difficult and less predictable.

Lift manufacturers quote one price for an installation. That includes all site and engineering plans, equipment design, construction costs, transportation of components, a warranty, and technical support after the installation is complete. When a used lift is relocated, the cost of the equipment is just one part of the price tag. All other services are added à la carte to the cost of the used lift.

But with the cost of a new 5,000-foot fixed-grip lift in the $1.5 million range, and similar used lifts available for under $100,000, there’s some wiggle room for those à la carte costs. “These lifts can be in pretty good shape. A lot of them are taken out of service because they are being replaced by detachables,” says George Krueger of Ski Lifts Unlimited out of Nederland, Colo. “Or, take the case of Berthoud Pass. We removed three lifts there after the Forest Service closed the area down.”

Peter Pitcher, owner of Discovery Ski Area, Montana, has relocated five used lifts at his area. “When you buy a used lift you get some very expensive components for virtually no money,” he says. “Other components may need to be bought new. It’s not really cheap to install a used lift, but if you buy good equipment, the savings can be significant.”

As with any used equipment purchase, condition is important. “Where the lift came from is probably the most important factor as far as the cost to get it up and running,” says John Ellis of Aerial Engineering. “Some areas have excellent lift maintenance departments and are very conscientious. Other areas are marginal. The difference can be expensive for the new owner.”

Age can also be important, says Sid Roslund, NSAA’s director of technical services. Lifts are built to conform to the ANSI B77.1 standard. “The standard is updated at least every five years,” Roslund says. “Older lifts were built to conform to older versions of the standard. When you move a used lift, you are actually building a new lift as far as the standard is concerned, and the latest version applies, not the one that was in effect when the lift was originally built.” Some states require lift upgrades whenever the standard is changed, others do not. So, again, where the lift comes from can be important.

In addition to any required upgrades, parts availability can be an issue. A manufacturer’s ongoing support is part of the value of a new installation. Even so, those who have had positive experiences with relocating used lifts say that parts availability and upgrades are problems that can be overcome.

“On our latest installation we needed new rope, and we overhauled the gearbox,” says Discovery’s Pitcher. “We also replaced all of the low voltage system on the lift, wiring and switches. There’s also a lot of non-destructive testing on grips and other parts, but you end up doing that testing eventually on any lift.”

Discovery’s used lifts have come from areas with a good reputation for lift maintenance. “A lift from a well-run area, a Heavenly Valley or a Sun Valley, can be a good value,” Pitcher says. “A lift from an area that went out of business might not be such a good deal. We had some difficulty with one of our relocations, but it was the site plan that was the problem. One tower was too short to allow skiers to pass under the lift. We had to rope off the area and change a tower the next season. But it was a problem that we could work around.”

Despite the vagaries of condition and uncertainty about maintenance history, it’s possible to get a fairly accurate handle on the costs of relocating a used lift. Some areas, like Great Divide, Montana, do almost all of the work in-house. According to Kevin Taylor, the most expensive lift at his area cost around $180,000. “That lift is a little over a mile long and has 1,200 feet of vertical,” he says. “We had an engineer do the profile—we do that with all of our relocated lifts—but the rest of the work was done by our own staff.”

Lift installation contractors can provide quotes for relocating a used lift that are nearly as accurate as those from new equipment manufacturers. “We can inspect a used lift and come up with estimates on any upgrades required, necessary maintenance, site engineering and construction,” says Ellis of Aerial Engineering. “We usually are involved in somewhere between two and four relocations every year, so we have a pretty good handle on maintenance requirements, upgrades and parts availability. ”

Removal costs vary widely, Ski Lifts Unlimited’s Krueger says, depending primarily on the lift’s size and the terrain where it is located, but can average $50,000 to $80,000. “The biggest factor in removal are helicopter costs,” he says. At $4,000 per hour for a smaller helicopter and $9,000 an hour for a larger machine to handle bigger towers, the costs add up. Not to mention, it can cost $30,000 to $50,000 just to get a large helicopter to the site, Krueger says. He points out that if an excavator, crane or boom truck can be used for removal, costs can be significantly lower. And, if the lift is removed while there is still snow on the ground, that also helps with removal costs.

Krueger says that trucking costs vary depending on how much the lift is taken apart. “Sometimes it can be cheaper to ship the lift whole because the man hours required to dismantle a motor room and take the wheel off can add up.”

And who should remove the lift? “We prefer to do it ourselves,” says Krueger. “If a lift is removed without taking into consideration that it will be reinstalled somewhere else, it can be butchered up pretty badly.” Krueger also adds that by removing it himself, he can inventory the equipment and see what, if anything, will be needed.

The Bottom Line
The bottom line on used lifts is that for many smaller areas, relocating a used lift makes sound economic sense. Charles Skinner, owner of Granite Peak in Wausau, Wisconsin, and Lutsen ski area in Minnesota, has installed one new high-speed detachable lift and relocated four lifts at Granite Peak in the past five years. “Really, for us, there’s not a lot of difference between a new fixed-grip lift and a fixed-grip lift that has been re-engineered and relocated—except the cost,” he said. “And the cost is a big factor. As far as our customers are concerned, the difference between new fixed-grip and a relocated lift isn’t worth the increase in ticket prices we’d have to have if we installed a new lift.”

Each of the relocations at Skinner’s areas—the four at Granite Peak and four more at Lutsen—has been different, and costs have varied. But overall the experience has been positive. “There have been a lot of fixed-grip lifts available because other areas have replaced them with high-speed equipment,” he says. “So, generally the lifts that we have bought have been in good condition. Lifts last a long time. We’ve chosen to upgrade any components that we felt needed it, usually the low-voltage systems and communications, but other components as well. We’ve ended up with extremely reliable lifts. At very reduced costs.”

Krueger adds that if an area just needs to get a lift up and running, then maintenance and replacing parts can be done afterwards. “However, I find that it makes sense to make the replacements, such as new grips, wheel bearings and wheel rubbers, at the time the lift is installed because it’s more costly to replace them later.”

Skinner does not always buy used; he installed a new high-speed quad at Granite Peak in 2003. “In that particular place the high-speed lift really made a positive change in the skiing experience, and it made sense,” he said. “We reduced the lift ride time from 11 minutes to three. For us, and for our customers, that was worth the expense.”

In many situations Skinner feels that the new lift options are just too costly for small ski areas. “If they [lift manufacturers] offered just a couple of stock lifts without all of the bells and whistles, they could probably bring their costs down substantially. And then new fixed-grip lifts might be a more attractive option.

“Until the market changes, the question isn’t so much, do used lifts make sense for smaller ski areas? Right now, the reality is that smaller areas can’t afford to do anything else.”

Guest Editor's Take
Good straight forward information in this article, nice job Mr. Meader.

Everyone quoted in the article has years of experience in lift relocations. And I agree—lift relocations can be an economical way to expand terrain or increase capacity.

We just completed the relocation of a Hall/Doppelmayr T-Bar here at Schweitzer. This project presented a quick, cost-effective method to open an additional 400 acres of great terrain. Were there unseen costs? Yes, some, but it was expected and a contingency plan was in place. Experienced staff and quality engineering played a positive role, thank you to the team.

With respect for the major manufacturers, it is important to note that relocation projects do come with an increased level of risk compared to a new turnkey lift. For the latest technology, the lowest level of risk, the lowest level of maintenance and the best guarantee, most resorts pay the price and buy new. With high-speed and high-capacity lift installations, this would be my choice.

Then there is an example like Mission Ridge, Washington: the first relocation of a detachable I have heard of. I’m excited for Mark Milliette, his team and their ownership—congratulations! With limited capital, they put together a way to build a high-speed quad, a new reservoir, perform run upgrades and add substantial snowmaking. It will be interesting to hear what Mark says a couple of years from now about his new lift. —Ron Nova