Choose the Best Aerial Lift for Your Job

They can all lift you up, but where you can go is another story.

There’s nothing like an aerial lift to get workers to hard-to-reach places, usually at height, without having to erect a scaffold. But what kind of lift to use? Scissor, boom or vertical mast? Articulating or telescopic? Electric or rough terrain? Not all lifts fits all tasks.

The answer depends on the load you need to support, where you need to get the worker(s), how much space you have to maneuver in and whether the job takes you indoors or outdoors.

What load capacity do you need?

The weight of workers, tools and materials adds up, so think about the dynamic load capacity (based on the capability to lift evenly balanced, centered loads) and the static capacity (side/end load) when choosing a lift. Manufacturers use these ratings, along with a grade rating, as guidelines to prevent tipover.

  • Scissor lifts generally have higher load capacities (and larger platforms) than boom lifts because the lifts go straight up, not out. Depending on whether you choose a narrow chassis or wide platform scissor lift, load capacities vary from 500 pounds to 2,500 pounds. Because scissor lifts may sway with heavier loads, manufacturers offer lifts that have strengthened scissor braces. 
  • Articulating and telescopic boom lifts have load capacities of 500 to 1000 pounds.
  • Vertical mast lifts have the smallest load capacities, from 300 to 500 pounds. The mast-guide system provides stability while minimizing deflection and sway, but the lifts are built for portability and convenience, not heavy loads.

How high or far do you need to reach?

You may need to choose between maximum height and maximum straight-out horizontal reach.

  • Articulating and telescopic boom lifts offer a height advantage: They use hydraulic arms to raise workers, tools, and materials to heights that range from 40 to 185 feet. Articulating boom lifts have the added benefit of letting the operator lift workers up and over, or over and under, obstacles. Adding a jib boom extension lets the operator move the platform up and down and side to side. 
  • Telescopic boom lifts provide a longer straight-out horizontal reach than articulating boom lifts, making them useful for servicing transmission and electrical lines and maneuvering close to the side of a tall building. 
  • Scissor lifts can reach heights of 19 to 40 feet.
  • Vertical mast lifts use electric drives to move a 360 degree telescoping, rotating mast into place at heights that range from 15 to 30 feet.

How small is the area you’re working in?

Not every lift can move around a small work space.

  • Vertical mast lifts with a narrow chassis can move around confined areas and reach into seemingly inaccessible spaces. Push-around vertical lifts are narrow enough to fit through a standard doorway. Available options include narrow platforms for working through a 24" ceiling tile grid to access area between the ceiling and the roof deck without removing the ceiling grid. Operators can use a forklift to load a vertical mast lift into a standard truck bed.
  • Scissor lifts have a larger footprint than vertical mast lifts, and most can’t drive into small spaces, though smaller electric scissor lifts can go where conventional scissor lifts can’t.
  • High-reach boom lifts generally aren’t well suited for confined areas. An articulating or telescopic boom lift requires a larger turntable and room to extend the boom. It also requires outriggers to maintain balance. An articulating boom lift can operate in smaller work zones than a telescopic boom lift because the far end of the turntable does not extend beyond the drive chassis edge. Some smaller articulating boom lifts have narrow designs that fit smaller spaces. 

Are you working indoors or outdoors?

Indoor work requires low emissions and tires that are easy on floors.

  • Vertical mast lifts and scissor lifts provide the best options for indoor work. (They also work outdoors.) Some models have non-marking tires. Electric powered vertical mast lifts can move through doorways and won’t damage floors or emit exhaust. A scissor lifts’ weight distribution, which reduces wheel loading, decreases the chances of harming floor surfaces.
  • Electric boom lifts offer a clean option for reaching taller areas within a facility.
  • Gasoline-, propane- and diesel-powered boom lifts are better choices for outdoor work because of their greater drive train power, faster speeds and fast refueling. 

The bottom line

Here are the major strengths of each type of aerial lift.
Scissor lift: If you need a large, highly stable platform that can hold more workers and heavy loads — and you only need to go straight up — this is your lift. Rough terrain scissor lifts can go outdoors and traverse slopes and uneven or unstable terrain.

Articulating boom lift: If you need to reach a spot that’s high and hard to get to, this is your lift. Articulating boom lifts can reach “up and over” as well as “over and under.” They are perfect for reaching high utility towers and for repair work on bridges, stadiums, hangars, convention centers, etc.

Telescopic boom lift: These reach high and far and can get workers next to and on top of tall structures for tasks such as painting, glazing, bridge inspections, transmission line repairs and industrial maintenance.

Vertical mast lift: These handy lifts, which come in push-around and electric, self-propelled models, get workers right up close to the work and are excellent for relatively low-height, indoor maintenance jobs in tight work areas.


PHOTO CREDITS: United Rentals

John Ross has written about industrial, automotive and consumer technologies for 17 years.