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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the July 2010 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Elevators may not seem particularly high tech, but they are evolving into futuristic wonders. New elevator technologies use less energy, can qualify for LEED points, and move people more efficiently. In this column, I’ll take a look at some of the latest developments.
One new type of elevator is the “Machine Room-Less” (or MR-L) design using a small, powerful motor with a traction wheel mounted inside the elevator shaft. This configuration eliminates the need for a separate machine room.
The motor is mounted on one side of the shaft to one of the rails that guides the elevator (the rails in this system are heavier and stronger than traditional rails, which enables them to handle the extra stress and weight of the elevator and motor). A cable loops over the traction wheel (just like in a traditional traction elevator), with one end of the cable attaching to the elevator and the other to the counterweight.
One MR-L system by Otis called Gen2 takes the technology even farther by replacing the traditional cables with 3mm thick flat, polyurethane coated steel belts. The belts are stronger than cables, last three times as long, and require no lubrication, making them cleaner for the environment.
MR-L technology is smoother and levels better than hydraulic, uses less energy, and is a great solution for facilities managers who want to retrofit their older hydraulic elevators. Because hydraulic elevators do not have a machine room above the shaft, MR-L systems can go in easily.
Retrofitting from a hydraulic elevator to a MR-L can qualify a facility for LEED credit points by eliminating hydraulic oil (which can leak and contaminate soil). The MR-L design is also going into new facilities and is embraced by architects who do not need to allocate space for a machine room. Used mainly in smaller buildings with few floors, MR-L systems are already popular in other countries and have started to become popular in the U.S. after receiving national code recognition recently.
The magnetic suspension elevator is another new innovation, eliminating the cables and motors of traditional elevators altogether. Toshiba has developed an elevator system that uses hybrid permanent magnets and electromagnets that suspend and move the elevator without touching the guide rails.
Similar in concept to the magnetic levitation train, this system is fast and smooth. This one is still in the testing phase, though, so it may be a while before it starts showing up in facilities here.
Even traditional elevator designs are being pushed to extremes unimaginable in past years. Elevators in the world’s tallest building, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, are recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest in the world. Moving at almost 40 miles per hour, they employ technology that keeps passengers’ ears from popping. The cars were specially designed with a streamlined shape to reduce air turbulence in the shaft, reducing drag and air whistling.
If you thought having an elevator in your home was a pipe dream because of the cost and construction involved, pneumatic vacuum elevators are the answer. Using a clear plastic tube for a shaft with a cylindrical elevator inside, a vacuum pump applies air pressure to power the elevator (similar to the way bank drive-through lanes use a tube to move your money). There are no gears, cables, or pulleys; air pressure does all the work. And these elevators have a distinct fail-safe mechanism; if the power goes out, they gently glide down to the lowest floor, cushioned by air pressure in the shaft.
Even the control systems of elevators have been reinvented in recent years. New control systems manage people more efficiently and use less energy. The newest elevator management systems do not just respond to the push of an “up” or “down” button, they dynamically manage traffic. Riders punch in their destination floor on a lobby keypad, and the system displays the number of the elevator that will get them to their floor fastest.
These systems are intelligent, clustering people who have similar destinations and resulting in faster rides, less waiting, and lower energy usage. One system made by Schindler even allows employees to swipe their ID cards, taking them to their offices without requiring them to enter a floor number. These systems are being used in Europe and Asia and will be showing up here in the U.S. in the next few years.
As technology continues to permeate every aspect of today’s facilities, even the humble elevator is getting a pretty significant (and impressive) boost.
Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.