High-profile lift accidents at Devil’s Head and Sugarloaf have highlighted the need for regular inspection and maintenance on older lifts. After all, you’re going to have an $8-an-hour employee operating a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment, loading and unloading a thousand or more guests an hour, dangling them 20, 30, 50 or more feet above the ground for at least several minutes. With all the potential for human error—especially on the part of the guests—it makes sense to be sure the lift itself won’t malfunction.
That applies particularly to older lifts. “The biggest problem in the industry is aging equipment,” says Todd Delecklider of Ski Lift Services. “The attitude has been, ‘as long as it’s running, we don’t need to do anything special about it,’” he adds.
Why do so many resorts lack a sense of urgency? Overall, the industry has built a strong safety record over the past 25 years. Understand, though, that this strong safety record has been amassed during a time when many lifts were relatively new.
Age and Ignorance
Now that lifts are older, they require more attention. But the mechanics who grew up with them and know the systems intimately are largely retired. That’s a vast and important knowledge base that needs to be replaced. Often, maintenance and repair are “based on the way we’ve always done it,” as one expert says, and that way is not always the best way. It’s not easy for newer mechanics to find the manufacturers’ information, a task compounded by the fact that many of the manufacturers are no longer in business.
And there is a knowledge gap. “You’d be surprised how many guys don’t know about nuts and bolts—literally,” says Dave Kenney, who manages the long-running Lift Maintenance Seminars (LMS) at Jiminy Peak each April.
Resort maintenance staffs are often doing the best that they can. “Parts sales are strong, so that’s a good sign, “ says Gary Mayo, maintenance manager for Doppelmayr. “But we still haven’t seen an increased interest in training.” Doppelmayr offers a series of two- and three-day sessions at its Salt Lake City and St. Gerome, Québec, facilities, and is adding two two-day session on Hall lifts in May and June. Attendance at these sessions is limited to 20 persons, but they rarely max out.
“The problem is that maintenance and training are easy line items to cut out of the budget, even though it’s a cheap investment for safety and education,” says Mayo.
The lifts themselves were not badly built—quite the contrary. “Riblet was great to work on and easy to install; we have very few problems with them. Hall, Borvig, Partek, all made some very good equipment, too,” says Delecklider. But some of these lifts are nearing the end of their lives. It’s time to replace or overhaul them, because when the lift doesn’t run, it’s hard to sell tickets for it. cont.
The biggest challenge is often to get the GM to understand the magnitude and seriousness of the task, say several observers. “If GMs haven’t worked in the field, adjusting skis, making snow, serving food—they may be isolated from the real issues,” says Delecklider.
To counter that challenge, several Canadian provinces have adopted more stringent testing requirements as part of their licensing processes. In Ontario, for example, chairlifts undergo thorough testing (and maintenance/repair) at the age of 15 and 25 years, and every 5 years after that—and more frequently if they average more than 1,500 hours of operation a season. Lifts that don’t meet the licensing standards can’t operate until they do. This has helped Ontario areas avoid serious malfunctions since about 2004, says engineer Kevin Clark of Ancam Solutions Company. That record shows the impact of rigorous inspection and maintenance.
Inspectors and others agree that one reason managers may not see the value in lift maintenance is that the most frequently repaired pieces of equipment are out of sight, up on the towers. The work is difficult to get to; the towers themselves are often difficult to access. But the towers and sheave assemblies are subject to wear and weather extremes and need regular maintenance.
Where There’s Wear
Other systems require routine inspection and attention, too, if they are to avoid catastrophic failure or worse. Key systems include:
• sheave assemblies, bearings, and alignment. “Tower alignment and sheave alignment is the first line of defense,” says Delecklider. As a lift ages, the towers can shift and tip. That affects alignment, and can lead to increased wear and tear on sheave assemblies and bearings.
• structural integrity of lift towers. Water can infiltrate the tower at the top, bottom, and any seams. Once inside, it can cause rust; if enough water enters the tower and freezes, it can splinter the tower. Metal fatigue is another issue.
• bullwheel cracks. Often occur due to metal fatigue. Bullwheel bearings often last 20 years or more, but should also be checked if the bullwheel is noisy or has a vibration.
• line equipment, such as cable catchers, sheaves, chair hangers, and the cables themselves should also be inspected.
• electronics. Pushbuttons, limit switches, batteries, sensors—the maintenance items are too lengthy to list.
• gear box/braking systems. “Most operational manuals offer good guidelines about fluid levels and the frequency of changing lubricants, and following these does a lot of good. There are some really great lubricants available these days,” Delecklider says.
Gearbox maintenance is proportional to the lift’s frequency of use and HP. The main lift out of the base area has a lot shorter replacement cycle than a more distant lift or one that is used mainly on weekends.
Some issues are lift-specific, says lift engineer and inspector Sam Geise. For example, Hall lifts require more attention to brake systems. Riblets have seen some insert grip failures, and a few tower failures. The Borvig design that failed at Sugarloaf was known to have sheave alignment issues.
The good news is, training is available for all these issues. And most organizations that host training workshops say that attendance has been increasing. Kenney says that pre-registrations for LMS this past April were running at a record pace, with attendees coming from as far away as North Carolina and Nebraska (the Omaha zoo). With 54 classes, LMS had a lot of training to impart.
Kenney says that networking—“areas should be aware of what’s going on at other areas,” he adds—is equally important. “We have had as many as 68 areas attend. That’s a good network. There are isolated issues with certain lifts, and it’s important to know you can call guys in other states to discover solutions.”
Mayo notes that Doppelmayr has rolled out a new service portal on its website, which lists all training sessions available at its two locations. “We can only do a snapshot at the regional shows,” he says, regarding electrical items, pilz fault stacks, and Doppelmayr controls. “We really want to get them into full three-day programs.” The site also posts service bulletins.
And Doppelmayr is adding two Hall-specific maintenance seminars this year. One will be at Greek Peak, May 25-26; the other is at Afton Alps, June 21-22—a fitting location, as Afton Alps has 18 Hall lifts, the most of any area.
These sessions are also a sign of the times. “All Hall lifts are 30 to 50 years old,” Mayo says. Most are being maintained by “tribal knowledge.” New mechanics may not know what’s truly needed to maintain them fully, or understand why the alignment, say, might be off. “We’re teaching people that you can take measures to restore the alignment, so that you aren’t just realigning every day,” he says.
Geise agrees on the benefits of these more in-depth training sessions. Regional shows like RMLA and LMS offer good introductions to the issues with older lifts, but the more training mechanics can get, he says, the better. State authorities and some college programs are worth tapping.
And resorts can ask for more of this type of training in the fall workshops, from the Midwest show through SANY and NWSS. “If areas ask for more education on lift maintenance, they’ll get it,” Geise says. “The show organizers are always eager to provide sessions that resorts are asking for.”