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Q&A: Home elevators can help seniors age in place gracefully

Pneumatic Vacuum Elevators typically cost between $30,000-$50,000 for the equipment and installation.

Neil Cornfield of Custom Renovators of New York. With permission.
Neil Cornfield of Custom Renovators of New York. With permission.

Three years ago mortgage rates in the U.S. were hovering just above 2.6 percent, many took the decision to downsize to a smaller home. This was a process adopted by many retirees looking to reduce costs and leave behind pesky multi-level dwellings.

Today, with rates holding steady at nearly 7.5 percent, fewer (more expensive) smaller homes on the market, and 10,000 people a day turning 65, many seniors are deciding (or being forced) to stay in their large, sometimes difficult-to-navigate homes. To do so, many are installing stair lifts or home elevators.

To discuss the practical implications of installing a home elevator, Digital Journal sat down with Neil Cornfield of Custom Renovators of New York, who has installed more than 100 pneumatic vacuum elevators (PVEs) throughout Long Island, NY, over the past few years.

Digital Journal: What are the benefits of having an elevator installed in one’s home?

Neil Cornfield: Home elevators are helping seniors age in place by providing enhanced mobility, safety, and independence within their homes. They offer several key benefits:

  • Improved Accessibility: Elevators eliminate the need to climb stairs, allowing seniors to easily access all levels of their home despite reduced mobility or physical limitations. This enables them to remain in their familiar surroundings and maintain independence as they age.
  • Increased Safety: Stairs pose significant fall risk for seniors. Elevators provide a safe alternative for vertical travel, reducing the likelihood of accidents and injuries. Many elevators also feature safety features like nonslip flooring, handrails, and emergency controls for added security.
  • Convenience and comfort: Elevators make daily tasks more manageable for seniors, such as carrying groceries or laundry between floors without the strain of using stairs. This convenience enhances their quality of life and allows them to perform routine activities independently.
  • Emotional Well-Being: By enabling seniors to move freely within their homes, elevators help maintain a sense of normalcy, autonomy, a connection to their living spaces, thus minimizing feelings of isolation and promoting emotional well-being.
  • Aging in Place: Elevators are a key component in aging in place strategies, allowing seniors to remain in their beloved homes for longer periods without the need to relocate to assisted living facilities or nursing homes.
  • Increased Home Value: The installation of a home elevator can increase the property’s resale value, as it’s considered an attractive and valuable accessibility feature for perspective buyers.

DJ: What is a pneumatic vacuum elevator?

Cornfield: A pneumatic vacuum elevator (PVE) is a type of residential elevator that uses air pressure to gently lift and lower an elevator car instead of cables and pulleys. They consist of a transparent cylindrical shaft with an interior cabin that moves up and down on rails. They are self-supporting, requiring no elevator shaft or machine room for installation. They can be placed through a floor cutout, attached to stairs, or mounted to a balcony. Their small footprint and panoramic design make them a space saving and stylish option for homes.

DJ: How do PVEs work?

Cornfield: At the top is a turbine assembly that creates air pressure differences to move the cabin. To go up, air is extracted from the cylinder above the cabin, creating a vacuum that allows the higher air pressure below to push the cabin upwards. To descend, air is slowly released back into the cylinder, allowing the cabin to lower smoothly by gravity (which works even if the power goes out). They are highly energy efficient, using minimal electricity and no hydraulic fluids. With few moving parts, they require a little maintenance beyond a periodic seal replacement every 4 to 5 years.

DJ: Are PVEs safe?

Cornfield: Absolutely. Pneumatic Vacuum Elevators are designed with multiple safety features to ensure secure and reliable operation for passengers. Each unit undergoes rigorous testing to conform to stringent safety certifications and standards. Here are some key points about their safety:

  • In the event of a power failure or any detected unsafe condition, PVEs have built-in air pressure protection that allows the cabin to descend safely to the ground level, preventing any risk of freefall. Gravity automatically lowers the cab to the next level at a controlled rate, and the door unlocks when landed, allowing the passenger to walk out.
  • They are equipped with emergency brakes that engage immediately to halt the cabin’s movement in critical situations, providing an additional layer of protection. These brakes can stop the cabin within the first five centimetres of freefall in case of vacuum loss.
  • Door interlocks prevent the door from opening when the elevator is in motion, eliminating risks of accidental falls or entrapment. The doors remain securely locked until the cabin comes to a complete stop.
  • As added security, every elevator is equipped with a telephone for back-up emergency contact.

DJ: What is the cost of a Pneumatic Vacuum Elevator compared to a traditional elevator?

Cornfield: Pneumatic Vacuum Elevators typically cost between $30,000-$50,000 for the equipment and installation. Traditional cable or hydraulic home elevators have a lower starting cost, around $27,000, but they require construction of a dedicated elevator shaft and machine room which adds significant expense. The self-supporting design of pneumatic elevators eliminates the need for a separate shaft, saving on construction cost compared to traditional elevators. As a result, pneumatic vacuum elevators tend to have a higher initial purchase and installation price, but their operating costs are lower over their lifetime.

DJ: Do PVEs really increase the value of a home?

Cornfield: According to home improvement expert Bob Vila, installing an elevator can increase a home’s value by 10  to 25 percent. In fact, I’ve had at least one customer tell me that they doubled their investment in a PVE when they sold the home two years later. Additionally, if the alternative is to move to an assisted living facility or nursing home, which can cost more than $50,000 per year, the cost of installing a PVE is more than made up in value in the first year of use.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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