It's a squeeze for lift repair with tech advances

The machine-room-less technology used in many lifts makes what is already a challenging job even tougher

While most MRL lifts can only be installed in buildings of up to 15 to 20 storeys, the improvement in technology means more of them are being installed here. PHOTO: ST FILE

Most people shun dark, dirty and dangerous places. But not Mr Tan Mui Wah.

The 55-year-old technician has been through the ups and downs of 30 years of lift maintenance, with a lot of time spent within the "very hot and stuffy" confines of lift shafts.

This arises from machine-room-less (MRL) technology - which reduces the lift motor size significantly such that it nestles at the side of a lift shaft - that is used in many of the 60,000 lifts in Singapore and around the world.

Removing the machine room, usually a separate enclosed space directly above the lift shaft, revolutionised the industry as it offers developers more flexibility in design.

Such lifts were installed in suitable Housing Board flats from 2006.

The Ministry of National Development explained in 2013 that with MRL lifts, "blocks previously constrained by height limits were able to qualify for the Lift Upgrading Programme".

But lift technicians say working on MRL lifts is not easy.

"In a machine room, you can see everything (the different lift parts). You can stand and move around easily. For MRL lifts, you are in a restricted, confined space. You have to be very careful," said Mr Tan. "A machine room is definitely more convenient and safer."

Car-top inspections in the shaft are an inescapable part of the job for both kinds of lifts, but MRL lifts do not give workers the option of using a machine room.

Authorised lift examiner Chan Chee Kong, an industry veteran with more than 20 years' experience, is unabashed about the risks MRL lifts pose to technicians - especially when safety standards are not met.

He explained that standards stipulate that the maintenance platform on top of the lift cabin, from which technicians carry out works in an MRL lift, should be locked during checks with a "blocking device".

But workers usually stick to less fail-proof measures, such as propping up the counterweights with a tool and slackening the ropes as they move the lift at a slower "inspection speed", said Mr Chan, who has carried out probes into lift accidents here.

However, he added that these methods are also "not unsafe".

Others in the industry agreed that MRL lifts elevate the difficulty of what is an already challenging job.

Fujitec Singapore's president Sugumaran N. Pillai, whose company has installed more than 20,000 lifts here, said that MRL lifts require "a bit more skill and knowledge". He added: "It is an innovation that has limitations."

Some experts suggest that MRL lifts may have affected maintenance standards.

"In the lift shaft, there is no ambient light at all and there are moving parts everywhere," said Mr Chan. "If you were the one carrying out this job in a small, high-risk environment, would you be doing a thorough check of everything? Or would you try to complete your tasks as soon as you can and get out?

"My opinion, based on site experience, is that there is a risk of people spending less time on maintenance for MRL due to the less comfortable working environment."

A managing director of a lift company here, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it makes a "dark, dirty and dangerous" job "even more so".

To some, however, MRL lifts are proven technology as they have been on the market since 1996.

Lift and escalator engineer Kok Peng Koon, who is also an authorised lift examiner, said MRL lifts are "quite reliable and established".

"It is not dangerous nor difficult to maintain," he added.

Mr Greg Nagle, managing director of Otis Singapore, said that machine rooms can be warm too, and that some MRL configurations can be more comfortable.

"Conditions in a hoistway (lift shaft) can be cooler. You are 'pulling in' air-conditioning from the building," he said, adding that there are no additional safety concerns compared to servicing lifts with machine rooms.

He noted that technology has allowed the fitting of lift components into a smaller space in the lift shaft, "as opposed to taking up retail space", adding: "It's better for our customers."

While most MRL lifts can only be installed in buildings of up to 15 to 20 storeys, the improvement in technology means more of them are being installed here.

Said Mr Tan: "Gradually, there are more MRL lifts. We are getting used to them and know how to handle them. If we face challenges in MRL lifts, we will find solutions."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2018, with the headline It's a squeeze for lift repair with tech advances. Subscribe