– A BHTA Publication
There are currently over 23 million households in the UK, many in buildings more than fifty years old and most of which contain steps. This isn’t a problem when you have no difficulty climbing stairs, but if – for whatever reason – even a couple of steps becomes a major barrier or physical hazard, your own home can suddenly quite seriously inhibit you.
When this happens, you are left with four choices: do nothing, all too quickly losing the ability to live independently in your own home; you can re-organise the house in order to live and sleep downstairs; you can move to a bungalow or ground floor flat; or you can install some form of domestic lift, such as a stairlift or a through-the-floor lift. This last option is likely to be the least distressing, the most practical, and financially prudent means of ensuring you retain as much independence as possible.
Who to turn to?
When installing a domestic lift, your first move should be to get an independent assessment of your daily living needs by a BHTA stairlift member. Occupational Therapists (OTs) and other healthcare professionals can often offer independent advice not only on potential access solutions, but also on the variety of grants and funding options which may be available to help with the cost, which will be financially means tested. Independent Living Centres can also help. This discussion will help you to decide how best to solve your problems and you’ll be in a much better position to get the support and facilities you need.
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Making your choice
The value of a professional assessment by a local BHTA stairlift member cannot be over-emphasised, as there are lots of questions that need to be answered before you can proceed. If you opt for a stairlift, will you prefer to sit (the most common option), perch or stand (if you can’t bend your knees)? Do you need lift-up armrests and a swivel seat to ease access? To what extent will the width and angle of your stairs dictate the range of equipment you can install? Do you find it easier to use joysticks and toggle controls as opposed to buttons and switches?
Further points to ponder
If your physical condition could deteriorate, it may be wiser to consider installing a through-the-floor lift rather than a stairlift so that, in the future, it can accommodate a wheelchair.
You need to take into consideration the home environment, not just in relation to the physical things like doors, bulkheads and radiators, but also family members, pets and visitors.
Make sure a stairlift covers the whole length of the staircase if you’re buying second-hand; one that covers eleven stairs in one house might only cover ten in yours.
All installations should be carried out by a manufacturer trained engineer. It is advisable not to used untrained staff for installation.
Check whether the company you’re dealing with is a member of the BHTA – all BHTA members commit to a Code of Practice, overseen by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. The code sets out the levels of service you can expect from the company.
If there is a door close to the bottom of the stairs, the stairlift may have to travel across it. To avoid everyone using the door and stepping over the rail, most lifts have folding rails as an optional extra, which lift the rail up and out of the way. Changing the stairlift to the opposite side of the staircase may be another solution.
The top of your stairs
In most houses there is enough space at the top and bottom of the stairs for getting on and off the lift comfortably. In some houses you have to be careful not to bang your knees on radiators or other obstructions. Consider removing any obstructions (radiators may be re-sited or replaced with smaller models for convenience). Seek advice from your stairlift installer.
You can park the lift at the top or the bottom because you can send it back up or down the stairs once you have got off. Some curved lifts can also have intermediate park points.
If you use a wheelchair you need to be able to transfer on and off a stairlift seat and to sit in it safely. If you cannot transfer you will need to think about a stairlift with a wheelchair platform or a vertical through-the-floor, lift.
Stairlifts need to be comfortable to sit on. All the models come with a safety belt which you should always use. If you have stiff limbs or difficulty bending your knees, it may be easier to choose a lift with a footrest you stand on and a perching stairlift, which has a small, high seat or ledge to give support during travel. You may consider a downward facing seat.
Stairlifts usually have two controls – one to switch the power on and off, and one to make the lift move up or down. Most up/down controls are either operated by a joystick or pushbutton, dependent on the model.
On stairlifts the controls are usually on the armrest – either on the top or on the end; but make sure that it is not where you might accidentally switch it on when you are getting on or off the stairlift. This can be a problem if your hand slips easily or if you make involuntary movements. On standing and perching lifts, the controls are on the guard rail or on the armrest – you can reach them when the seat is folded up. You do have to keep pressing down the up/down control while the lift is moving – if you don’t it will stop.
Most lifts are supplied with wall mounted call and send switches at the top and bottom of the stairs. Some manufacturers and suppliers provide hand-held and remote call and send switches with their lifts.
All stairlifts are supplied with a seat belt. Some are retractable belts and some are lap straps. Most manufacturers also offer a harness option.
Any stairlift should meet European Standard BS EN 80-40 as well as the relevant European CE marking.
European Standard BS EN 80-40 requires a number of safety features:
• Delay mechanism: After you push the start control, the lift waits a few seconds before moving off, to make sure you are ready.
• Overspeed governor: Stops the lift going too fast (not more than 0.15m every second).
• Obstruction sensor: Automatically stops the lift if it touches any obstruction on the stairs.
• Lockable On/Off switch: This is particularly useful if children are around.
• Flame retardant fabric: All the stairlifts with upholstered seats have flame retardant fabric and plastics for body covers.
• Through-the-floor lifts should meet British Standard BS5900, which covers the installation and the use of powered home lifts.
Domestic lifts such as a stairlift or a through-the-floor lift, come in a variety of forms; your final choice ultimately depends on your own particular needs and situation. There is a mis conception that many people think that stairlifts are fixed to the wall. All stairlifts are fixed to the stairs, NOT the wall.
Fixed stairlifts are powered mechanisms mounted on stair-fixed tracks, which follow the line of the stairwell (so can be either “straight” or “curved”). A majority of these are used by people who can walk, but find stairs a problem; the user is normally seated during transfer, although some models allow you to perch or stand, which might be preferable if you have difficulty bending your knees.
There are also fixed stairlifts with a wheelchair platform, but although the platform usually folds up against the wall, they do take up a lot of room and many domestic stairwells may not be broad enough.
Alternatively if you have sufficient space Homelifts are ideal if you are able to stand in a vertical or through-the-floor lifts (ideal for wheelchair users), but these do involve major structural alterations and cost more than stairlifts.
Short rise lifts are ideal for coping with small changes in floor level – at a front step or in a split-level hallway – where there is insufficient space to put a ramp. Some structural work may be required to ensure that the main mechanism is sunk below ground level.
Choosing the right stairlift will make a great deal of difference to your comfort and confidence in using it. There are various aspects to consider and products designed to suit different needs.
Stairlifts can be fitted to most properties. If you have a curved, spiral or unusually shaped staircase it may be possible to install a more specialist product.
All manufacturers make lifts for straight stairs so there are many models to choose from.
Stairways which turn at the top for a few steps
You might feel able to get off the lift and walk up the last few steps, but you need to decide if you are likely to be able to go on doing this. If you need to travel the entire way to the top of the stair-case you may need to consider a curved stairlift from the start. Always seek advice from your BHTA stairlift installer if you are unsure of the right model for your application.
Curved stairlifts are made bespoke to the staircase and in some cases can even be fitted to spiral stairs.
The size of your stairs
You always have to think about how much room you need for your knees or feet to accommodate you on a stairlift in a seated position. It is worth talking to a specialist BHTA member as there are variations between models and they can guide you through the assessment.
Folding the stairlift
If other people use the stairs and you have a narrow hall and landing, you will probably need to fold the lift up when you are not using it. The armrests and footrests fold on all models with seats. The seats fold too on most models, although on some only the front section of the seat flips up.
Getting on and off
How easy it will be to get on and off a stairlift is affected by the height of the seat and the amount of space in your hall and landing, so seek advice from your BHTA stairlift member, who will recommend the best solution for you and your stairs. As a guide, your minimum seat height should be the distance from the crease at the back of your knee to the floor. Some models have adjustable seat heights and some will have a one size fits all.
All stairlift chairs with a seat have two armrests. All armrests lift up to fold back. These can be raised separately to assist you when transferring or standing up. This is particularly helpful if you are transferring across from a wheelchair. Your BHTA specialist will give you helpful advice and user tips when carrying out an assessment.
Swivel seats help, because you can swing round to face away from the stairs and towards the landing. The swivel is operated by levers which are usually on the side and just below the seat cushion. The size and shape of these varies. Some manufacturers offer a powered swivel option.
The lift can be installed quickly if you are buying directly, using your own money. But it can take several months if you are waiting for a grant. Installation itself is usually done in a day. You might not be able to use the stairs while the work is being done. Installation will need a power socket so that the stairlift can remain plugged in or wired directly to the spur socket and must remain switched on at all times.
What is involved?
(Home lifts and vertical through-the-floor models will need building work and needs to be considered as part of the planning before installation). If you buy a (stair)lift direct, the manufacturer or distributor will deliver and install it. This will include all electrical work and the removal of any obstructions on the stairway, such as a Handrail. Ask the installer what alterations will be needed, and who will be responsible for them, including any making good.
The running rail for most stairlifts is fitted directly on to the stair treads, so holes have to be made through the carpets. Decorations are affected where the controls are fitted to the walls.
Getting it right
The installer will show you how to operate the stairlift and make sure that you can manage it and that you are comfortable on it. He should make any necessary adjustments. Make sure that your feet fit on to the footrest and that it is a comfortable distance from the seat.
You should be given written instructions, and a telephone number to use if you have any queries or problems. It’s a good idea to stick the number on the lift.