What's a stairlift: The basics

By Chris Clayton

I'm sure you know what a stairlift is. It's a machine which moves a person either up or down a set of stairs. But if you are interested in buying one for either yourself or a member of your family it is important before you do buy to know what they actually are and how they are used safely.

In this short guide to stairlifts, I'll explain to the basics of a stairlift:

  • What the main parts of a stairlift are.
  • How you move them.
  • The different types of stairlifts that can installed.
  • Where and how they are parked when not in use.

So, let's start this guide by looking at what the main part of a stairlift is.

The Carriage

This is the main part of the stairlift. The carriage is comprised of two main parts. The first part is the seat, a foot rest/plate, two armrests and a seat belt. On most stairlifts these days, these can all be folded away when the stairlift is not in use (so not to block the stairs for people to walk up and down them).

The second part is located underneath these and it is what makes the stairlift move (the motor and the battery).

On the majority of stairlifts, the seat on the carriage can be swiveled/pivoted (its position can be moved horizontally) at the both the top and bottom of the stairs. This is to allow people to safely get on and get off the stairlift. On most stairlifts, to swivel the carriage you push down on a a lever at the side of the seat.

In addition to a stairlift with a seat, there are some stairlifts which are designed to be either stood on (called perch stairlifts) or to take wheelchair.

Movement Controls

There are two ways to control the movement of a stairlift: From controls on the armrests and by remote control.

With the armrest controls, there are buttons (and sometimes a mini-joy stick) on the armrest which the person using the stairlift pushes to move the stairlift in the direction they want to go. In the past these movement buttons was on either the right or left armrest (depending on if you were left or right-handed). But most new models have a buttons on both armrests.

In addition to armrest control, you can also move the stairlift by a remote control device. Most stairlift remote controls have two buttons, one to move the stairlift up the stairs and the other to move it down the stairs. A remote control can be both used to call the stairlift when nobody is on it (handy if more than one person uses the stairlift) or to remotely move somebody seated on the stairlift.

It is important that you have two remote controls for your stairlift (one to be left downstairs and the other to be left upstairs). With some stairlift these remote controls are attached to the wall at both the bottom and the top of the staircase.

Most stairlifts come with two by default, but always make sure before you buy a stairlift that they supply you with two remote controls.

The Rail

Stairlifts move on the stairs on a rail. With most stairlifts, this rail is attached to the actual stairs, but there are some which can be attached to the wall (but this is not very common).

There are two main types of rails which a stairlift can have: a straight rail and a curved rail.

A straight rail is one straight piece of rail/track. They are normally used on stairlifts which are fixed to straight stairs (where there are no bends in the stairs).

A curved rail is mainly used on stairlifts which are install on a set of stairs where there is either a bend in it or it is curved. But they are used on straight stairs if the person wants the stairlift to be parked at the side of the stairs (not at the bottom or the top).

Because curved rails have to be individually made for each set of stairs they are fixed to, this makes them far more expensive than using a straight rail.


Most modern stairlifts are powdered by a rechargeable battery inside of the carriage of the stairlift (below the seat). The advantage of this is if you there is a power cut/outage, the stairlift can still be used. The battery is recharged by mains electricity when the stairlift is parked (at the bottom or the top).

There are some older models of stairlift which use electricity directly from the mains to move. Most of these which do, have a battery as a backup. So, if there is a power cut, they still can be used.


As you can imagine, they don't move very fast for obvious reasons. Most stairlifts only have one speed. The average speed of most stairlifts is significantly less than one mile a hour.

Where the stairlift is parked

For most stairlifts, the stairlift is parked either at the top or the bottom of the stairs. At the bottom, they are normally parked in the hallway before the actual staircase starts. At the top, they are normally parked over the last steps of the staircase, level with the landing.

If there is door at either the top or bottom of the staircase or no continuous wall, this can cause a problem for parking a stairlift safely. To avoid people tripping over the rail or banging into the actual stairlift, a stairlift can be parked when not in use on either the staircase itself or around the side of the staircase (this last option is only available for curved rail stairlifts).

If the stairlift is parked on the actual staircase, in order to actually get on or get off the stairlift safely you'll need to have a moveable rail/track which can be folded. This moveable rail/track is called a 'hinge'. Depending on the model of stairlift you buy, you can either have a hinged rail/track which is lowered and raised manually or automatically (called a 'powered hinge').

Weight restrictions

All stairlifts have a restriction on the recommended weight limit for use. For the traditional seated stairlifts, this is normally quite high (around 26 stone (360 pounds)). On perch stairlifts (the ones where you are stood up), this is a lot lower (around 16 stone (224 pounds)).

If the stairlift is for use by a heavy person, make sure that you check what the recommended weight limit is for any stairlift you are interested in buying.

Click here to read about the history of stairlifts on Wikipedia.