An Elevator Pitch

Yes, people work at elevator companies. We do cool stuff!

This isn’t me. It’s one of the modernization mechanics I manage standing next to an original Otis 70T machine at 255 California, San Francisco.

I remember when I first moved to San Francisco and told somebody I work at Otis Elevator Company. “An elevator company? I didn’t realize anybody actually works at those.” It was a humbling response, but at least I avoided having to fake a laugh at the “I heard the industry has its ups and downs” joke.

People work at elevator companies! And I’ve been fortunate to be a part of the oldest one for a little over 6 years. If you still don’t believe me, check out some of the content below for an idea of what I do as a Superintendent and Program Manager…at an elevator company. I did my best to not geek out too much.

I direct modernization projects in San Francisco, Marin County, and Oakland. These aren’t cookie-cutter installations for new buildings. Our teams retrofit existing systems with new components ranging from drive machines, door operators, door locks (see below GIF), and safety brakes. Every project is a massive undertaking, and every building is completely different, offering new challenges and unforeseen circumstances that we have to work around on the fly. This seems like a crazy and haphazard approach, but it’s almost impossible to know exactly how all the new components will get installed until after you get to remove the old equipment.

Have you ever been to the dentist at 450 Sutter near Union Square in San Francisco? I purchased the machines and designed how we attached them to the existing 1929 structural steel (don’t worry- I got some help from licensed structural engineers. And if you don’t know what a machine is, you’ll soon find out). Have you ever walked down Columbus Street and wondered what that weird green building is as you start to get close to FiDi? It’s 916 Kearny, and we’re partnering with a small company to build an API that will allow users to call the elevator using Amazon Alexa.

Here’s a snippet of a Gantt chart I built for a project in downtown San Francisco. It shows about 6 weeks of a 20 week duration, and my job is to carefully plan each portion so that we can hit our projected estimate, the majority of which consists of labor costs.

Below are a few more details about what goes into renovating these complex and awesome systems. I’ll start with a couple technical examples.

The machine usually sits at the top of the elevator shaft, otherwise known as the hoistway, in its own room. There are a bunch of different ways it can be configured, but the standard is a 1:1 roping in which you have the car (the part you ride in) hanging on one side, and a counterweight on the other. We replace these machines on about half the projects we take on.

Fun fact #1: You won’t plummet to your death in the nearly impossible situation of a rope breaking. There are usually at least 5 ropes per machine, and each rope can hold around 10,000 lbs. of weight on its own. There’s also a safety brake under every elevator that will engage if the elevator starts moving too fast. The device that triggers this brake is what Elijah Otis invented 167 years ago, not the elevator itself!

So what role do I play here? Before I was a superintendent, I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing these machines for future projects, either from our factory or from 3rd party vendors like Torin Drive or Imperial Electric. It was my job to make sure I bought the correct ones for the project, then to get them from the manufacturer to the project site in one piece.

Photo source: Otis Elevator Co., Technical Installation Publication

Now, I direct how they get installed. It’s a little harder than just bolting the entire component down where the old one once sat. I design ways to adapt these machines and their bedplates (see item 5 in the photo to the left) to the structural steel in existing buildings. The more effectively I do this, the easier it is for the crews I manage to install the machine quickly and efficiently. It’s important for me to get this right, and the stakes are high. Each day of additional labor due to poor installation feasibility costs Otis a couple thousand dollars in wasted time.

The machine on the left is an old Otis 70T that was installed at 255 California when the building was constructed in 1958. We’re refurbishing them as part of our modernization scope. The ones on the right are new Imperial 525 gearless machines that we just installed at 450 Sutter a couple years ago and for which I designed the mounting structures painted in black.

Fun fact #2: If an elevator malfunctions, there’s a 90% chance it’s because the door system failed.

One of the coolest components in any elevator system has to do with the doors. It’s a mechanism appropriately called a door lock that makes sure the doors don’t open when the elevator is moving. There’s a door lock circuit that runs through the entire hoistway for every elevator you ride in. If the circuit is broken, the car won’t move.

This is what an Otis door lock looks like. There is one at every floor for each elevator. When the elevator arrives at a floor, it moves the lock mechanism such that the doors decouple and the door lock circuit breaks. As long as the circuit is broken, the elevator won’t move.

Safety implications aside, why are door locks so interesting? The elevator itself travels a couple hundred feet of distance in some buildings. The door lock mechanical clearances have to be precise to within a 1/8" tolerance in order for the entire elevator system to function properly. When the elevator arrives at a floor, it has to sync up perfectly with the door lock at that landing to make sure the doors open and close properly. Hopefully this helps shed some light on just how difficult it is to keep these intricate systems running smoothly (be patient with us please!).

Installation of a new 6940 door lock system at 343 Sansome in San Francisco. Otis has used the same robust door lock design (with minor tweaks) for decades. Photo cred goes to the mechanic pictured above.

And why is it so important for me to understand components like door locks in so much detail? Again, every building is different, and we mix and match what parts of the elevator we’re going to upgrade as part of each modernization. But the locks are almost always a part of the scope. Since most of our cost is driven by labor and this component can be one of the trickiest to install correctly, it’s essential that I know how they work and how to incorporate them into an efficient installation schedule for my teams.

And now for a few not-so-nerdy examples of why working at Otis is awesome…

Crane picks are stressful, especially when you’re coordinating one for a residential building . After the tough planning work is done though, they’re insanely fun to watch. Here’s one I set up in mid-2020 at 2200 Pacific in San Francisco.

The technical details are fascinating from an engineering perspective, but the logistical aspects of elevator renovations are sometimes the most exciting. It’s an incredible combination of constraints that need to be taken into account to make sure a project is successful. Timing is everything.

If you scroll back up to look at the machine photos above, you get the sense that a lot of this equipment we’re installing is not exactly light. A huge part of my job is figuring out how to get 4000 lb. components to building rooftops. Hint: you can’t just take the elevator. I usually opt to hire a crane, and my friends at Sheedy are always up for a challenge.

Obviously, the views from machine rooms are pretty spectacular in a city like San Francisco. Starting the day off with a sunrise vista from a machine room or rooftop usually makes the 5:30am wake up call a little more tolerable.

Somewhere in Pacific Heights, San Francisco.

Fun fact #3: Most people thought that COVID would slow business down for us. Quite the opposite is true. If we’re modernizing an elevator, it’s down for the count, and it won’t be back in service for up to 5 months for our most complex projects. What better time to do a modernization than when an office building downtown is totally empty?

Here are a few of the mechanics who I manage on a daily basis**. A few have been in the trade for 30+ years, and they are all some of the smartest people I know.

So now you know. If you made it down this far, thanks for reading, and hopefully you think of me when we all go back to our offices and you get to ride an elevator for the first time in a while.

**Obligatory statement related to these photos and COVID: I took all the photos in this post with the exception of the GIF and the technical machine diagram. For the portraits, I set up a tripod and turned on the timer :). We’re all focused on working safely.

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