How to Install an Automotive Lift (2023)

No more jacks: If you're really serious about auto maintenance, put in your own lift. It's easier than ever to install one yourself—we'll show you how.

How to Install an Automotive Lift


Auto lifts make every project easier—no more jacks and jackstands, bending over, or squeezing under a car for service. So why doesn't everyone have one? What used to be expensive, impossible to fit in most garages, hard to install, and dangerous to work with is now within reach of the advanced do-it-yourselfer. Global competition has driven down the cost of a very serious, good-quality, entry-level lift to under $1500—totally affordable. Innovative manufacturers have also developed a variety of lifts to match every garage and skill level. We're going to show you how to stop crawling around under the car and start working on your feet.

There are several types of lifts to choose from. For the new POPULAR MECHANICS garage in Ferndale, Mich., we installed a 9000-pound two-post 12-inch symmetrical lift with a 220-volt hydraulic pump (we never know what vehicles are going to roll in). A two-poster is one of the most versatile kinds of lifts and the one most people choose.

The first order of business is receiving and unboxing. Lifts aren't exactly feather-light, and they are shipped in big wooden crates—so make sure the shipper sends a truck-mounted crane or forklift to do the unloading. Also, have four furniture dollies (trust me, it'll be worth it) to drop it onto and roll the crate into the garage. Then tear open the box and sit down to read the instructions. No, really, actually read them.

The individual installation steps aren't hard (well, most of them), but pay careful attention to detail. We are talking about a potentially dangerous machine, so take your time.

Stage 1: Assemble the Metal Frame

Keep individual components square and in alignment with each other. Tighten all bolts by hand and check for alignment and basic range of motion, then finish by torquing all bolts to spec.

Stage 2: Install the Functional Hardware

Balancing cables, safety locks, and hydraulic systems can all be hooked up while the lift is still on the ground. The cables serve to keep each lifting carriage at equal levels so the car doesn't rise unevenly. These are mounted with a bolt end, nut, and lock nut and should be run through the pulley system as directed. Tension the cables lightly to keep them in place.

Mechanical locking mechanisms increase safety and the life of cylinders, hoses, and fittings by transferring weight off the hydraulic system and onto pins that move a car's weight to the posts. A lever, pins, springs, and a thin cable running through the top plate connect both sides.

Auto-lift hydraulics have only one high-pressure line (no return line as on tractors). Pressure to the hydraulic cylinders lifts the car, and its weight provides the force to compress the cylinders and lower the car. Attach the hydraulic lines at the cylinder bases, then mount the pump and fluid reservoir. Connect the pump outlet to the hose and tighten all joints.

Stage 3: Raise the Lift

With the lift mostly assembled and ready to go up, mark the floor for placement. Use a plumb bob, a measuring tape, a chalk line, and a permanent marker to draw out the end positions of the columns. Remember to account for the car approaching the lift, so keep turns or corners in mind when orienting the layout.

Raising the lift is serious business. Invite at least six strong friends over to help. Overwhelming manpower and coordination are key. Work together to raise the lift into position, and be careful not to let its inertia tip it over onto the other side. Once it's upright it'll stay up all by itself. Use a mallet to tap the columns into exact position.

Rent or borrow an SDS Max rotary hammer (standard ¾-inch chuck size) to do the hole-making, along with a masonry bit. Drill through the mounting-plate holes to prevent alignment issues and stay as vertical as possible. Drill all the way through the concrete and wear safety gear, keeping the powdered concrete clear of the hole. Three-quarter-inch wedge anchors are almost universally recommended for auto lifts—concrete will fail before these pull out. Put a nut on the anchor just flush with the end and pound the bolt down to the mounting plate. If the anchor is damaged, you can drive it down into the dirt and set an undamaged one on top of it. Torque all the nuts to spec. Check the columns for plumb—they should be at 90 degrees vertical in all directions; if they aren't, level with the included shims. Unbolt the anchors, add a few shims, torque the anchors, and measure again.

Stage 4: Wrap It Up and Get To Work

Finishing includes hiring a qualified electrician to install power to the pump and a plug at the column so that 220-volt power is nearby for a welder. Have a friend help by positioning the base of the lift arm with the holes in the lifting carriage while you drop the huge pins through the holes; jiggle the arm until the pin seats. Install the retaining clips and the mounting pads. Your lift is now physically complete.

Fill the hydraulic reservoir and cycle the cylinders while the system is unladen. This clears air in the hoses, which can cause choppy, uneven lifting. Check that the safety mechanisms work properly—go over every nut and bolt and inspect for hydraulic leaks. Park the lift arms on the ground and tension the control cables as directed by the installation manual. Test the lift with your least-loved car. Bring it off the ground until the first lock engages and release hydraulic pressure. The car should settle evenly; if it doesn't, you need to adjust the control cables. Shake the car back and forth and watch the columns to make sure they're stable. If it checks out, take the vehicle up to the top and begin working on its nagging problems.

Uplifting Options

Researching and selecting the right lift is the challenging first step of the process. Balancing multiple priorities and technical restrictions while keeping an eye on the budget is tricky. What will you be doing with a lift? Do you need full access to the underside of the car or just enough to do brake jobs and tire rotations? Doing restorations or just regular maintenance? Would an extra parking spot in your garage be nice? How big are the cars you'll work on?

What about the shop? What's the width, depth, and height? What is the electrical service? How thick is the concrete slab; is it cracked, overly coarse, out of level? Think all this through, then match the lift to your shop and needs.


Two-posts use two hydraulic cylinders to power four arms to lift the car in a compact space. These lifts have a wide range of capacities, install easily, and leave all the car's mechanical systems accessible. There are several types. Base-plates run safety cables and hydraulic lines at floor level, and their shorter posts fit in lower garages. Overheads run those features in a brace tying the posts together at the top for more stability but require more clearance. Symmetrical lifts have equal-length arms and carry heavier loads, but car doors hit the posts. Asymmetrical lifts use unequal-length arms so car doors miss the posts. Floors must be well-cured, crack-free concrete, 4 inches minimum (6 is better) for anchors.


Surprise—this type of lift uses four posts, one in each corner, to support service and storage. Force comes from a single hydraulic cylinder driving a maze of high-strength steel cable guided by pulleys. These lifts are excellent for powertrain and exhaust work but difficult for suspension maintenance. Vehicles are driven onto the lift and serviced without the suspension being decompressed. A four-post lift is expensive but can be used on floors with surface-quality and thickness problems, since the load is distributed more evenly and doesn't have to be anchored down. Optional accessories include casters that allow the lift to be moved and jacks to raise the car off its suspension for complete service.


The least expensive of the group (entry models start at under $1200) and the least versatile, the scissor lift, or midrise lift, packs the machinery in its center, so there's no reliable way to work on the underside of the car. It is the easiest to install though, normally requiring only 120-volt power, 3 inches of solid concrete, and minimal overhead clearance. This lift works by using hydraulics to open a scissor mechanism, and the car rests atop two platforms that fit inside its wheelbase. If all you want is an easy time of lifting a vehicle off all four wheels or of getting it up to a comfortable working height for brake, tire, suspension, or body work, the scissor-type lift is agood choice.

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