Stairway Chairs Rails and Carriages

Choosing a stairlift can get a little confusing with all the available makes and models. From the humble beginnings with Henry VIII and his throne lift through to the 1920s when the Pennsylvania entrepreneur Crispen created a device to help a friend get up and down the stairs called the Inclin-ator, these great mobility aides have certainly come a long way. Modern stairlift chairs have a huge number and variety of features to take into account modern homes and advances in technology. For example, youmight have adjustable seat heights, smooth and soft starts and stops, call stations (so that you can summon it even if it is on a different floor to you) as well as many other features that most people wouldn't think of like an overspeed governor which is an important safety device to control the speed of the stairlift while it is descending so that you don't have a sudden descent.

Of course the stairlift is not the only thing that you should take note of when purchasing your mobility device, and in fact even saying stairlift is sometimes something of a misnomer since what most people call the stairlift is in fact only the carriage of your stairlift. The actual stairlift is made up of various parts and there are several component parts of the stairlift that you need to consider when purchasing your device. Let's take a look at a few of these

When installing a stair lift chair in your home for domestic use, if suitable, straight rails are used, unless you have a need for curved rails to take into account multiple staircases or a turn in your stairs. Straight rails are often made from aluminium or steel that has been extruded. These are usually fairly heavy - which is a good thing because you want them sturdy and depending on how long the rails are can weigh over 35Kg. Now, I know most people picture stairlifts to be hung on a railing that sits at the same height as their bannister, but advances in modern technology mean this isn't necesary anymore and your rails can be attached to the actual stairs themselves with metal brakets or cleats. Of course sometimes you have a landing on your stairs with for example a doorway into a bathroom or some such. The rails might obstruct the door itself so sometimes the rail is hinged so that it can move out of the way of the door when it is opened. Usually straight stairlift chair rails can be bought from stock with only minor adjustments being needed.
When rails have to be curved where for example you have a landing or multiple flights of stairs, then they have to be custom built. This adds complexity of course because you want to make the rails follow the contour of the stairs which means you really need to have the curves made with as small a radius as possible. Curved rail are custom made in a factory and shipped and
then put together on site by your stairlift installer.
Some stairlift rails are made sturdily enough that they can accomodate a wheelchair as the carriage.

The Carriage
This is actually the part of your stairlift that most people will notice - the carriage is essentially the part that you sit on, though it is more than just a chair. There are various types and designs of stairlifts and which one you have will determine how the carriage is drawn up and down the stairs. In most domestic installations you will either have the carriage driven along the incline by a rack and pinion system or perhaps pulled by a cable or chain.

As pointed out earlier, some stairlifts allow you to actually attach your wheelchair to the railing. However many stair lifts have integrated carriages in the form af a seat. In narrower stairwells, the seat can flip up. Of course you have a footrest as well. On some models, you can opt to have a stand on platform as well if you prefer. Now, the actual height of the chair can be adjusted and various heights are available to take into account shorter and taller people. So, your stairlift is now kitted out with a comfy chair - not entirely unlike the old King on his stair lift throne :)

Your seat will often be at 90 degrees to the direction of travel, though it will most likely also swivel so that you can get on and off more easily. Safety is of course, a major priority here because you are already dealing with people who are not necessarily that mobile and often stairlifts are used by older members af the population so it's a good idea to make sure that if your chair does swivel that you have a safety cut off so that you can't actually ascend or decend if the chair is not at right angels to stairs since this is in fact the safest way to sit because it minimizes the possibility of you falling off the chair.

That's probably enough for this time - I'm rambling on a bit, but as you can see, stairlifts are more than just the chair and there are lots of factors to consider when you buy one.

Stairway chair lifts - a brief history

Stairway chair lifts have a rather interesting history. When you get right down to it, we take these kinds of devices for granted these days, especially with the way costs of electronic items has dropped. Stairlift chairs were once much more expensive. When they were first produced commercially, it was in the 1930s. A company called the Inclinator Company of America (who still exist in fact and still sell wheelchair lifts, dumb waiters and stair package lifts among other things) produced some of the earliest stairway chair lifts for people who had suffered polio. Polio is an awful disease that is a very acute viral infection. One of the side effects of polio is often deformity of the legs or even paralysis, so it is easy to see why people who got it would have a need for some help going up and down stairs.

In fact the Inclinator Company of America really adapted a design by a man name Crispen. He was a self-taught engineer who developed an inclining chair which he termed the Inclin-ator. As for many inventions, Crispen created his device to help a friend travel between the floors of their house.

However, there is some evidence that the very first stairway chair lift was invented at the command of King Henry VIII. He was a fairly large man - reputed to be about 30 stone - I mean that's large by anyone's standards. Anyway, Henry was injured in a joust and had a chair developed to help him get up and down stairs at Whitehall Palace in London. Of course Henry's stairlift throne didn't rely on batteries and modern electronic as ours do, instead, he had servants haul him up and down on a block and tackle system which was also used on his warship the Mary Rose. Royal records describe Henry's invention as a “chair …. that goeth up and down” and would have travelled the 20ft staircase at Whitehall Palace. Henry was apparently plagued by the injury to his calf that he sustained jousting for the rest of his life and had to have it continually lanced. In addition to his rather remarkable lift, he also owned 3 wheelchairs. Thank goodness we have come a long way since then and with modern stairlifts, the comfort and convenience has been considerably improved to the point that anyone can get one installed in their house, not just a king with access to a lot of servants. These days, instead of block and tackle system, most stairlift carriages are driven by a rack and pinion system or pulled by a cable or chain.

Straight stair lifts or Curved stair lifts

Stairlift chairs fall into two main categories – straight and curved. The difference is fairly self explanatory. Straight stairlift chairs can only go up a straight flight of stairs with no bend or curve in it, wherease curved stairlift chairs can navigate around bends in your staircase. How can you tell if you have a straight or curved stairway? Well it might seem obvious, but occasionally it can be a little confusing. You will most likely need a curved stairlift if your staircase has any sort of bend in it, for example if you have a small half landing half way up the stairs and then the direction of the stairs changes slightly, you will need a curved stairlift, or if your stairway is a spiral staircase or has a 90 degree flat turn or 90 degree short radius turn in it half way up or near the top. Stairways come in so many different shapes and sizes, but you needn't worry, because good chairlifts will be designed and created especially for your own home. Measurements will be taken and the rails will be constructed to the unique topography of your stairs. Curved stairlift chairs should always be bespoke to ensure that they fit properly and do not snag or get stuck at the curve or take up too much space.

In some cases, you can in fact install two straight stairlift chairs instead of one curved one – this is usually possible if your stairs take a full 180 degree bend or a 90 degree bend half way up. However, it is actually safer to have a curved stairlift in these cases anyway because then you won't have to transfer from one lift to the other mid way through. One of the reasons people often get two straight stairlift chairs in the case of having a 180 degree bend in their stairway is that they think all stairlifts need to be attached to a wall and usually in a stairway with a 180 degree bend, you will have a wall halfway up and then if you follow the wall around the bend, you will have a bannister. However, many stairlift chairs do not need to be attached to the wall and are instead installed at ground level into the stairs, making them very stable and suitable for installation either on the wall side or the bannister side of the stairway.

Stairways that have a 90 degree short radius turn usually have a few stairs that navigate the turn whereas a 90 degree flat turn will actually have a flat landing between two flights of stairs. Even if the landing on a 90 degree flat turn is very small, it is still considered a flat turn. If you elect to have two straight stairlifts installed instead of a curved stairlift on a 90 degree short radius type staircase, you will most probably have some alteration done to the stairs on the bend to make a safe transfer platform between your two stairlift chairs. Normally this alteration amounts to building up slight one stair and removing a small amount of the step immediately above it to give a greater area to one of the stairs on the bend so that it then resembles more of a flat turn. Keep in mind also that if you go for 2 straight lifts instead of 1 curved, you will have to have 2 actual chairs.