Next time you’re working at height, calculate how long it takes to load, unload, set up and move ladders or how much time crews spend setting up scaffolding. Now imagine in just minutes you can drive a boom lift off the trailer to the work site, push a few buttons and get working over a wide reach of horizontal and vertical distances. When you have jobs that require crews to work higher than they can reach at ground level, whether it’s 10 or 150 ft, you owe it to yourself to investigate boom lifts. With their large work platforms and a wide variety of accessories, boom lifts are used in a vast number of applications.
“Non-commercial contractors tend to favor towable machines and focus a lot on tree trimming, painting, pressure washing and light-duty applications,” says Shawn Boone, general manager at Haulotte. For commercial contractors, there is an almost endless variety of applications at height. Boone lists a few of the most popular:
- HVAC installations and repair
- Electrical and power line work
- Vertical concrete
- False work
- Siding and trim installation
- Window installation
- Steel building erection
- Timber frames
- Overhead door installations
- Road and bridge construction
- Insulation, sign work
- Large scale painting jobs.
“Overall, market demand for all sizes and styles of boom lifts is high right now, and we expect it to remain up for the foreseeable future thanks to project backlog, as well as new work just getting started because of the recent infrastructure investments,” says Nate Hoover, director of product management and marketing at JLG. “There is plenty of work to do right now, and there are no signs of it slowing down.”
There Are Three Basic Types of Boom Lifts
The three basic configurations for boom lifts are articulated, telescoping and vertical mast, says Hoover.
- Articulated boom lifts offer an extensive range of movement and sideways reach due to their multiple, hinged sections.
- Telescopic booms, also referred to as stick boom lifts, extend their booms out in a straight line with no articulation.
- Vertical mast lifts (PICTURED ABOVE) are compact, lightweight machines where the boom extensions travel straight up and down. Many are battery powered.
Note that jib extensions on all three types of boom lifts can give the platform additional working range and some up-and-over functionality but also reduce the maximum allowable weight in the basket.
Pros and Cons of Each Style of Boom Lift
Each type has unique attributes that make them better suited for different types of work. “Articulating boom lifts are ideal for jobs that require you to get up and over objects and position the machine closer to the work while maneuvering the platform in a confined or hard-to-access space,” says Corey Connolly, senior product manager at Skyjack. Contractors working on mechanical systems (like plumbing and HVAC equipment) and in factories and warehouses often find this maneuverability essential. A telescopic boom lets you reach farther with more capacity. To a limited extent, operators can get some up-and-over capability with a telescopic boom, but they’ll need a longer boom than normal and to position the machine further out from the building or work surface.
Vertical mast models have a small footprint and can maneuver in narrow spaces and tight areas where larger lifts may not work. They are also useful for tasks that require access to high ceilings, elevated platforms and overhead installations. Articulating boom lifts offer a height range from roughly 35 to 150 ft. Telescopic booms typically start at about 40 ft and can reach as high as 185 ft in certain models. For vertical mast lifts, basket height is typically under 30 ft.
Weight Limitations? Consider a Telehandler
While you can take some materials up with you in a boom lift, allowable platform weights typically run no heavier than 500 to 1,000 lbs, including people and materials. Telehandlers, however, are designed specifically to lift large amounts of drywall, roof trusses and other construction materials — but not people. On some jobs you may see the two types of machines working side by side, but their functions are not interchangeable.
To Tow or Not to Tow Your Boom Lift
Boom lifts are further categorized by their method of movement.
- Tow-behind models, sometimes called trailer mounted, can be towed behind a pickup truck or SUV using a common trailer hitch. These typically offer a vertical height of 35 to 55 ft. Sitting on outriggers, the carriage of the machine remains stationary.
- Self-driving models have their own ground drive system, often with four-wheel drive or tracks. They are likewise fixed in place with outriggers.
- Self-propelled or 4×4 models don’t have outriggers but run on foam filled or solid tires and can be driven back and forth on a jobsite from the basket at full height. In many cases these are the most efficient boom lifts, but they require flat, stable ground for safety purposes.
All-Electric Boom Lifts
All-Electric Boom Lifts
With their relatively low power demands, boom lifts are an ideal machine type for electrification and these are growing in popularity. “The majority of these machines are designed for all day use,” says Shawn Boone, general manager at Haulotte. “That’s going to vary depending on how often you drive or move. Most people move, work in height for a while, then come down and move somewhere else. So, they should get a full day’s work, as long as you’re not constantly driving around.”
When choosing a boom lift be prepared to talk to the dealer or rental house in detail about how you intend to use it. The larger the machine, the more expensive it is to rent, says Connolly. “They need to really understand how high and how far they actually need to reach because sometimes they overcompensate and rent a larger machine than they require.”
The big thing is to understand the full scope of the job and the environment around it, says Connolly. “Where are they doing that work? What type of surface are they working on? Is it solid ground or landscaped? Improved surfaces or rough terrain? Sloped or flat? The speed of the machine may be a factor as well depending on how much it will be moved. Does the machine need to maneuver through doorways or gates or between buildings that are close together? Do they have any space constraints that one model might not fit? How high do they need to reach?”
Work height and the amount of room and weight you need in the basket are also considerations, says Hoover. If you choose an electric machine, do you have a power source for charging? And how long will your shifts run between charging? Are there any environmental or surrounding area regulations — like noise, emissions, etc. — that you need to comply with?
Accessories for Boom Lifts
One big reason for the popularity of boom lifts is all the work tools, jigs and accessories you can take with you onto the platform. Examples include generator sets, welders, pneumatic air lines and specialized tool trays. Glazing and window handling packages are also available.
Additional compartments can hold personal items like mobile devices. USB charging ports are available on many boom lifts today. Lighting packages help illuminate the work area and the ground around the machine. Cold weather or arctic packages enable these machines to operate effectively in below-freezing conditions. Accessories like pipe racks keep conduit and pipes in place outside of the platform, and panel carriers enable operators to load drywall, glass, plywood or sheetrock panels outside the boom lift’s rails in a carrier tray.
Platform Additions for Boom Lifts
When the work-at-height requires users to exit the boom lift’s platform, fall arrest options such as additional platforms and bolt-on solutions allow workers to leave the platform and perform their work without detaching the safety lanyard, says Hoover. This gives them the ability to work 6-ft beyond the platform while remaining attached to it. These systems are useful for a variety of applications, including aircraft inspection and maintenance, roof installation or repair, chimney repair, bridge construction, petrochemical plant inspection and maintenance, steel erection, as well as general construction and maintenance. To keep workers safe, mesh kits for the platform keep the materials and tools on the platform from falling out.
Tom Jackson is a freelance writer for Compact Equipment. He has been writing about construction equipment for more than 20 years and now edits an online column, Heavy Equipment Insights, on construction technology and sustainability at Substack.com.
Safety and Training Around Boom Lifts
Whether you’re buying or renting, most vendors are not going to let you out the door without some kind of training. There is an ANSI standard for aerial machines in general that has to be met, and most dealers and rental houses can fix you up with an effective training session before you get on your way, says Shawn Boone, general manager at Haulotte.