Understanding Vehicle Jacks
No properly equipped garage is complete without a safe and reliable method for raising vehicles off the ground and keeping them there whilst you work underneath. In fact, with a decent jack on hand you can pretty much transform any hard and flat surface into an impromptu workshop. For these reasons, it's recommended that you invest in a suitable jack early on, but with the wide variety of jacks and hoists on offer it can be hard to figure out exactly what's best for you. In this article we'll cover the types of jacks and lifting solutions available, as well as some of the related accessories and safety tips that can help to make working beneath your car a lot safer and more comfortable. To begin with, let's look at the basic types of jacks you'll likely encounter, and explain what each one is best designed to tackle.
What type of jack do I need?
In order to work out what sort of jack is best for you, it's important to first consider where and when you are likely to be using your jack. There are three basic types of jack that are commonly available and each one is designed to be used in particular situations, so simply select the type of jack that most excels in the area that you require.
Most cars come with one of these jacks stored in a compartment in the boot. Unlike the other types, these don't use hydraulic pressure to lift your car, but rather a simple screw mechanism which generally makes them light and compact. This does mean that they are somewhat arduous to use though, and so a scissor jack is better kept for emergency wheel changes as opposed to everyday workshop use.
These jacks use hydraulic force applied by pumping a lever to raise your vehicle, which makes them pretty low-effort to use. They are generally pretty compact and portable, and can be capable of lifting surprisingly heavy loads. The main drawbacks however are that a bottle jack isn't usually as stable as other jack types due to their smaller footprint and vertical design and that they are usually pretty tall to begin with. This means that they should only be used on level surfaces, and it can limit their suitability for side-of-the-road emergency use or for use on low vehicles. Bottle jacks are usually used on heavier equipment such as 4wds, trucks and tractors.
Sometimes called floor jacks, these are the staple of almost every workshop and have been for some time. They are reliable, manoeuvrable and stable, as well as available in a variety of different sizes, shapes and materials - making them very versatile. Like bottle jacks, trolley jacks utilise hydraulic pressure to raise their load, which is also achieved by simply pumping a lever and which makes them similarly easy to use. Trolley jacks, as their name would imply, come equipped with a set of casters or trolley wheels and as a result, they can be easily moved from job to job and correctly positioned beneath a jacking point a lot easier. These jacks are best used in workshops and the like, since there is a risk of them rolling on uneven surfaces, and they are generally a bit too large and unwieldy for emergency use on the side of the road or carrying around in your car.
What size jack do I need?
All jacks are rated for a certain maximum load, and it is absolutely imperative that you never lift anything that exceeds this weight. That said, since you aren't usually going to lift your entire vehicle with a single jack, it is safe to use a jack that can lift at least a third of your vehicle's weight - although it is always better to err on the side of caution and use as large a jack as you have available. For example, if you want to jack up your standard four-door family sedan, then a jack that can raise at least 1500kg would suffice, but obviously a 2 ton jack would be better. It is important to note also, that your jack is designed to raise your vehicle up, but not to remain in place, holding it there. Instead, you should always support the weight of your vehicle with jack stands.
What Jack stands should I use?
Like Jacks, the various types of stands available are also rated for different weights and you should always ensure that you use jack stands that are sufficiently strong. You will need a set of four stands if you intend to raise your car entirely off the ground, but don't be fooled into thinking you only need them to be rated for a quarter of your vehicle's weight each – cars aren't perfectly balanced, so each corner might actually weigh a slightly different amount. There are also a couple of different types of jack stands as well as different materials used in their construction. Steel stands will generally be the sturdiest type, and ratcheting a-frame type stands offer the best versatility, so they should be favoured above pole-type stands. At the end of the day however, as long as it is able to support your vehicle, any jack stand is better than none.
Other useful lifting accessories
- Ramps: Designed to be used on flat ground only, ramps can be a safe alternative to a jack and stands for gaining access to the underbelly of your car. Each ramp is placed squarely in front of your wheels and you simply drive your car up onto them. It's advisable that you have an assistant guide you as you drive onto the ramps, and if you have a smooth garage floor, it can be a good plan to place a bit of carpet or rubber mat under the ramps in order to prevent them from slipping.
- Motorcycle Jacks: If you own a bike and want to do a bit of work on it, then a specialised jack or motorcycle dolly is an indispensable piece of garage equipment. There are a few different types, ranging from simple stands that can be raised, to full sized lifting jacks that can be used to lift large bikes and ATVs. When using a motorcycle jack it is important that you secure the bike to the jack with tie-downs so as to avoid your pride and joy toppling over and causing damage or injury.
- Hoists: Garage hoists can be hands-down the best way to provide ample working space beneath a vehicle, and the installation of a hydraulic hoist will transform a simple garage into a proper workshop. They aren't small, and nor are they a cheap option, however if you are likely to carry out a lot of regular work on vehicles, or want to start up a fully-equipped home workshop then a vehicle hoist is a must-have. Hoists are usually demarcated by the number of “posts” they have - these are the vertical pillars that are bolted into your workshop floor. Hoists will also generally come equipped for 240v single-phase power which means that you can run on on your home power supply.
- Chocks: When you're jacking up a car, you'll need some way to prevent the vehicle from rolling away. If you're lifting the front, then the handbrake will usually be enough to prevent a roll-back, however, if you are lifting up the back, then use a set of wheel chocks to prevent unwanted movement. There's a variety of chocks available - from simple but sturdy wedges made from recycled rubber, through to folding metal and rubber chocks that are handy to carry in your vehicle in case of an emergency. For motorcycles, there are special chocks that work by gripping the front wheel, and can be used to secure your bike to a trailer, without needing a centre stand.
- Dollies: Last but not least, dollies are essentially a wheeled tray or jack stand that supports either your wheels or sill respectively. They provide you with a great method for moving your vehicle around in your garage or workshop without having to start it up and drive it, or needing to exert yourself by pushing and rolling it around. They also allow you to maneuver your vehicle into and out of tight spots in your work space so you can avoid a reenactment of that one scene from Austin Powers. There are a couple of different types available, and some have a jacking facility built in - meaning that you can simply position the device beneath each wheel, jack it up and move your car around as required.
How to Jack Your Vehicle up Safely
Now that you know what kind of lifting device is best for your situation, it's important to know how to use it safely. Fortunately, the same safety rules apply to pretty much all lifting equipment - whether hoists, jacks, ramps or dollies:
- Use the right jack for the job.
- Jack a vehicle on a hard level surface
- Check the jack's label to ensure that its maximum load capacity is enough to support the vehicle you are lifting
- Ensure the vehicle is empty of occupants
- Place the jack in the correct spot under the vehicle before raising the vehicle up (consult your owners' manual)
- Place vehicle support stands under appropriate areas of the vehicle and lower the vehicle securely onto the stands before proceeding under the vehicle
- Go under a vehicle supported solely by a jack – use vehicle support stands to support the vehicle where possible.
- Use wood, bricks or other unsafe home items to support the vehicle
Hopefully this article will have given you the knowledge to get beneath your vehicle and give it a go - safely, properly, and with the right gear for the job.