How Do Stairlifts Work?

For those with limited mobility, something as simple as using the stairs can quickly become difficult or even impossible. Stairlifts offer many benefits, providing a safe, comfortable solution that allows users to retain their independence and easily access all areas of their homes. 

But how exactly does this ingenious technology work? We explore stairlift components, the mechanics and explain how they operate to smoothly move users between floors.

What Is a Stairlift?

A stairlift, also known as a stair lift or chair lift, is a mechanical device that carries people up and down stairs with ease. It consists of a chair that travels along a track fitted to the staircase. They are ideal for those with difficulty climbing steps due to age, illness, injury, or disability. Though stairlift models differ, stairlifts generally consist of these key elements:

Rail System

The rail is the most crucial component, running along the length of the staircase to guide the chair up and down the stairs. Rails can either be straight (for staircases that go directly from one floor to another without any turns or landings) or curved (custom-built rails for staircases with bends or intermediate landings).

Stairlift Seat 

The chair is designed for seated comfort and to keep the user safely seated when moving. Most have a swivel seat for safe access at the top or bottom of the stairs. Armrests, padded seats, retractable seat belts, and footplates provide comfort and security.


The stairlift motor is the heart of the machine, powering the chair’s movement along the rail. It works by driving a gearbox connected to the rail, which, in turn, moves the chair.


Stairlifts are equipped with user-friendly controls – typically a joystick or buttons on the armrest, which control ascent, descent, and stopping. Remote controls allow users to call the lift from different floors.


How Do Stair Lifts Move Up and Down Stairs?

You may choose to install a straight stairlift or a curved stairlift depending on your staircase. The drive system of a stairlift enables the chair to move up and down the staircase. There are two main types: the rack and pinion drive system and the cable drive system. 

1. Rack and Pinion Drive System

This is the most common drive system used by modern manufacturers – often favoured for its precision control and durability. The rack is a toothed rail that runs alongside or underneath the staircase. The pinion is a small gear wheel that meshes with the teeth on the rack. The pinion is connected via an axle to the drive mechanism of the stairlift.  

When power is applied, and the drive mechanism turns the pinion, the teeth on the pinion rotate and mesh with the teeth on the rack. This causes the pinion to travel along the linear rack, thus moving the attached chair up or down the stairs.  

2. Cable Drive System

The cable drive system is largely outdated and no longer fitted on modern stairlifts. This system works similarly to a lift, just on a smaller scale.

  • It consists of a strong, durable cable attached to the stairlift chair. There’s also a drum around which the cable is wound.
  • The drum is connected to the motor. When the stairlift is activated, the motor turns the drum, which either winds or unwinds the cable.
  • As the cable is wound onto the drum, the chair moves up the stairs; as the cable is unwound, the chair goes down.


What Features Ensure Stairlift Safety?

Stairlifts are engineered with safety as a top priority. Most quality stairlifts will include safety features such as:

  • Seatbelts: Just like car seatbelts, a stairlift seat belt with buckles should be used on every trip to prevent falls.
  • Safety sensors: Infrared obstruction sensors along the track and on the chair immediately stop the stairlift if anything blocks its path.
  • Overload sensor: This alerts users if they exceed the stairlift’s capacity, as excessive weight could cause damage.
  • Swivel lock: This secures the seat in position at landings to prevent accidental twisting or spills.
  • Battery backup: In case of a power outage, built-in batteries allow continued stairlift operation without a power supply. 
  • Emergency stop button: A readily accessible button instantly stops the stairlift in case of any issue.

Reputable stairlift suppliers, like A6 Mobility Shop, also rigorously test their products to ensure they meet safety standards.


How Do You Operate a Stairlift?

Using a stairlift is straightforward and typically involves these steps:

  1. Ensure the stairlift is ready at the base or top of the stairs with the seat, armrests, and footrest unfolded.
  2. Sit on the chair and secure the seatbelt for safety.
  3. Press and hold the joystick or button in the desired direction (up or down). Many stair lifts work with remote controls and armrest controls.  
  4. The stairlift will smoothly move along the stairlift track until you release the control.
  5. At the landing, unfasten the seat belt, and if necessary, swivel the seat to safely exit the stairlift.
  6. Fold up the seat and footrest to clear the stairs for others.

Remember to always follow the specific instructions for your stairlift model and adhere to safety guidelines.


A6 Mobility Shop: Free Stair Lift Consultation

Stairlifts are not just about mobility; they’re about reclaiming your independence and enjoying your home without limitations. A6 Mobility Shop is committed to providing stairlift solutions in Stockport that fit your life and your budget. 

We offer an expert installation process, breakdown assistance, and regular servicing. Our engineers are manufacturer-trained to ensure your stairlift or chair lift continues running safely for years to come. For more information or to arrange a home visit and free stair lift consultation, call us on 0161 429 6000 or visit our easily accessible Stockport showroom.

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