Floor jacks are fundamentally hand tools which are used to raise and/or hold an otherwise heavy object off of the ground, generally to get underneath the object for extended periods of time. More often than not, this applies to automobiles and engines in general, but jacks are regularly used in construction and other fields as well. Of course, this begins to bridge into jacks that are not of the “floor” variety and into commercial or industrial jacks. Still, when choosing a floor jack, it is important to consider what kind of floor jack you want, its different specs and qualities, and what you expect to lift with it. In this article, we will go through all of these aspects when choosing a floor jack as well as a few other tidbits aside.
- Types of Jacks
- Things to Consider
- Other Accessories
- What’s Next?
Types of Jacks
Thankfully, floor jacks are not a terribly complicated market and are dominated by three primary categories: bottle, scissor, and hydraulic floor jack. That said, there are a number of floor jacks which do not necessarily fit into these three neatly contained boxes and border on two or more types. On top of that, some floor jacks implicitly hybridize their mechanical function such that it is a blend of one or more type. Finally, some floor jacks provide two or more separate functions so that if one breaks down, the second function can step in right away as a temporary backup.
Hydraulic Floor Jack
This is by far one of the more popular of the primary floor jack types, but it is also often the most expensive. This type of floor jack functions by using some type of cranking method which can take the form of an actual crank or, more commonly, a lever, to pump pressure into a hydraulic pump. This raises the jack which is almost always attached to a fairly robust base in order to support both the hydraulic system as well as the cranking force. The primary benefits of this type are the fact that it is one of the easiest to use, both physically and mechanically, as well as being safer than some of the other types.
This is may not be the most popular type of jack in terms of new sales or customer use, but they are easily the most plentiful type of floor jack out there. This is because most new cars are equipped with some sort of scissor jack as part of their spare tire package. Of the three main types, the scissor jack is easily the least expensive and has the most reliable mechanism without the use of hydraulic fluid, but it also presents some safety issues if it should slip and fall–far more likely of a reality for this type of jack. The scissor jack is also unique in that it almost exclusively employs a turning crank as opposed to a lever crank.
A bottle jack is actually also a hydraulic floor jack, but we generally associate that term more closely with the standard hydraulic floor jack than we do the bottle jack. In terms of functionality, the bottle jack works incredibly similar to the hydraulic floor jack to the point where both types of jack generally employ some form of cranking lever. However, the bottle jack can be best understood as a much smaller, much cheaper, version of the hydraulic floor jack. Except in this instance, a bottle jack does not have a large base and can be more easily transported as well as set up on the side of the road. That said, bottle jacks have the highest average minimum clearance which can make it difficult to fit underneath of lower-riding chassis.
In an effort to differentiate themselves from their competitor, floor jack manufacturers target key, non-essential aspects of using the tool that are not defined by the tool’s physical limitations. In this case, we are referring to the ergonomics of the floor jack or the qualitative considerations which make using the tool better or worse. These qualities do not actually affect what the floor jack can accomplish as much as they affect the user trying to accomplish it. Technically, floor jacks with high ratings in these categories are going above and beyond, but sometimes times the result is worth the cost.
While this is commonly used to refer to the lift speed, in this instance, it applies to the speed with which you can set up the floor jack. Like with many of these qualities, the hydraulic floor jack takes the number one position with its ability to quickly and effortless roll into position. On top of that, the hydraulic floor jack is also able to make quick, minor adjustments much easier than the other types as well which always require repositioning and sometimes may even need to be lowered once lifted. The slowest of the three types is the bottle jack which loses some of the quickness of the minimally designed scissors jack. That said, the scissors jack with its turn crank is the slowest to breakdown due to the slow lift speed.
Assuming you make sure the jack is placed on a flat, level surface and follow the manufacturer’s instructions, you should not have any issues with safety. That said, the world often presents an imperfect setting in which to use a floor jack, so the flat, level surface should not be considered a guarantee. With that in mind, the hydraulic floor jack is easily the safest type of jack on the market because it prevents the slipping issue and the lost leverage issue simultaneously. With the scissor jack, you have to worry about slipping, while the bottle jack presents issues with maintaining pressure for extended periods of time. Of course, outside of a shop or off the track, the bottle jack does provide a bit more stability with its slightly larger base.
Floor jacks, almost by their very nature, are generally easy to use, though some of them are definitely simpler than others. That said, simple does not mean intuitive, and even simple tools can require some care and specificity. For instance, scissor jacks only require you to turn a twist crank, but they must be aligned with a specific part of the axle’s chassis to maintain safe leverage. Hydraulic floor jacks, on the other hand, are generally a bit easier to use and position, but they may have additional features which make them more complicated. Bottle jacks are like a combination of the other two, in this regard, and are arguably the most complicated due to positional restrictions and complex mechanisms.
Things to Consider
When choosing a floor jack, it is important to consider the different qualities or “specifications” of the product. The different types of floor jacks will generally have a rough average or industry standard but can vary a great deal from type to type. This makes things even trickier for those floor jacks which blend or hybridize their types. It is important to remember that there is not a single type of floor jack which is the best in every quality. Depending on the setting or type of automotive being lifted, you may actually prefer a floor jack with lower ratings across the board except in particular key categories.
This quality definitely gets more hype than it deserves as most jacks provide a lift capacity that covers upwards of 80 to 90 percent of also consumer vehicles. As such, making sure you get the floor jack with the highest lift capacity is a waste of money as a premium in lift capacity signifies its uncommon suggested usage. This does not apply to all hydraulic jacks unless your vehicle happens to fall on the high side of the hydraulic jack’s lift capacity. In this instance, you might want to opt for a model that can handle a bit more load to extend to jack’s lifespan. Scissor jacks do not really have issues with lift capacity, assuming you maintain them unless they are made of inferior metals.
The materials used for floor jacks are few and far between due to the economic and engineering constraints. Basically, it is difficult to produce a tool that can lift a car and make it at a cost that everyone can afford. As such, most floor jacks, regardless of their type, are made of either aluminum or steel. Technically, aluminum is more expensive than steel, but this does not really bear out in the pricing. Aluminum is lighter weight than steel, but steel is more durable and less likely to bend when at the boundaries of its lift capacity. On the other hand, aluminum is naturally water-resistant and far more resistant to chemical corrosion than steel. Essentially, if you have a large, heavy vehicle, go with steel; otherwise, stick with aluminum.
Minimum Clearance Height
It may seem a bit trivial upon first glance, but the minimum clearance height is easily one of the most important qualities. This is potentially more important than both the lift capacity or the maximum lift height because you cannot make use of either if the minimum clearance height is not met. Between the three types, the hydraulic floor jack on average has the lowest minimum clearance height with some models with a clearance as low as 2”. On the other end of the spectrum, the bottle jack comes in as the type with the tallest average minimum height clearance and rarely dips below 5” to 6”. That said, even most bottle jacks are designed to work with a majority of the consumer vehicles on the market.
Maximum Lift Height
Much like lift capacity, maximum lift height is another much-ballyhooed quality that gets far more credit than it deserves. Basically, you should not be using a floor jack to raise and hold your vehicle for extended periods of time–that is what jack stands are for. As such, any time you would need to be under the vehicle for prolonged periods, you should either be using a commercial jack in a garage or stands which is the maximum lift height you need. If you have a lifted truck or SUV or lowered truck or car, the maximum lift height might actually be more relevant for floor jack appropriate tasks. In this case, it is worth the additional expense to get those half dozen additional inches of clearance. Otherwise, you generally only need about 1’ to 1 ½’ of clearance with anything more simply providing comfort of body and mind.
This generally refers to the speed with which the jack raises the object and differs from type to type, but the hydraulic jacks definitely have the edge in this regard. However, the speed of the hydraulic jacks, which include the bottle jack, has more to do with the mechanism being easier for the use, not so much the efficiency of the mechanism itself. In this regard, the screw of the scissor jack is likely just as fast, if not faster, than the hydraulics of a bottle jack, but it is much easier for you to pump a lever than it is to turn a crank. It is also worth noting that hydraulic pumps can wear out over time and provide diminishing returns at the higher ends of the lifting spectrum.
While it seems like the hydraulic floor jack is the undisputed winner in virtually all meaningful categories, one area where it simply cannot provide better specs is the setting. Depending on what kind of vehicle or object you are lifting, you may actually want to go with a different type of floor jack. This will also change depending on what kind of accessories you will be using with the floor jack if any. It is also worth considering whether or not the jack will be lifting an object that will move a bit or if the jack may be expected to provide some minor extended hold. Of course, little of this matters if you are simply using a floor jack to change spare tires on the side of the road. Still, the most important usage factor involves the object being lifted more than anything else.
Because cars are the most common type of vehicle in the world, it only follows that most types of car jacks, and in fact, most car jack models are made to be usable by the wide majority of car models on the market. As such, this often means that when choosing a floor jack for a car, you do not need to worry about the usage nearly as much as for other usage instances. It should be more or less expected that a floor jack works for a car unless it is a particular model or has aftermarket bodywork–both of which you already know one way or the other. If you have to think about it, then you do not have that kind of vehicle. This makes the setting far more relevant in the selection process and truly opens the door for a hydraulic floor jack.
This type of usage will be pretty similar to cars in that most floor jacks are designed to work with most trucks or SUVs. However, much like with cars, there are always exceptions to the rule, and some models may be taller than expected, eliminating a number of options from the very beginning. This brings us to the first point about looking for a floor jack to use with trucks or SUVs: always try to get a little bit taller than you need. Though additional inches of maximum lift height comes at a premium, it will often provide the benefit of room to maneuver–something that is often a bit more important for SUVs than for cars or trucks. SUVs can be a bit trickier as some use a car chassis and others use a truck chassis as the base model, the answer of which will determine which type of jack usage you should look for.
RV/Travel Trailer/Fifth Wheels
Floor jacks are generally not designed to be used with vehicles that have more than three axles unless otherwise specified. This is because vehicles with more than three axles have a tendency to weigh too much for a consumer-grade jack. Granted, there are commercial and industrial floor jacks, but you probably are not reading a buyer’s guide on floor jacks for professional models. That said, there are plenty of camper-types of vehicles which are not nearly as large as full-sized RV. These vehicles can often accommodate a floor jack for lifting purposes–especially if it is a trailer that can easily be pulled by a compact car.
This is where things really start to get a bit tricky as there are dedicated motorcycle jacks. They are much smaller and have different engineering, but you can use some floor jacks to jack up a motorcycle too. The issue is that motorcycles need to be lifted from the absolute center or they are liable to fall over. Of the different types of floor jacks to use to lift a motorcycle, the hydraulic floor jack tends to be the best as it can be positioned to pick up the motorcycle from the center. Of course, if you are careful and skilled enough, you can lift a motorcycle with any type of floor jack, but it is not recommended for beginners.
This is a little bit different than the others in that using a jack to lift a transmission is less about actually lifting the transmission and more about suspending it until heavy-duty hardware can be applied to keep it suspended. As such, floor jacks for lifting transmissions generally do not need to have near the same level of specs as a floor jack for lifting an entire vehicle. The one instance in which this is not the case is with the maximum lifting weight. When lifting a transmission, the jack will be centered either medially or to either side. However, a jack lifting a vehicle is generally only lifting one-quarter of the vehicle.
Most floor jacks hover within a given price range depending on their type which follows a scissor, bottle, hydraulic floor sequence ascending. This means that scissor jacks are generally the least expensive while hydraulic floor jacks are the most expensive. While floor jacks are not a market where the most expensive is necessarily the best, the price does often reflect the upper limits of the floor jack’s specifications. However, you generally pay for diminishing returns when you look for the outright top-performer of any given metric.
Floor jacks are incredibly useful tools, but rarely, if ever, are they used alone. Generally, floor jacks are used in conjunction with other tools to perform some type of maintenance or modification to the object being lifted. As such, you may want to consider checking out models among these product categories as well if you are already looking for a floor jack since you are liable to need some of them anyway. To be clear, this covers more accessory tools as opposed to the actual hand or power tools that you would normally use to work on a jacked up object.
While jacks may be used to lift vehicles and other dense, heavy objects into the air, they are not designed to keep them suspended up there. This rule applies doubly for hydraulic-based floor jacks which can have the constant pressure of the weight wear out their hydraulic pressure system and ultimately decreasing the maximum lift height the floor jack can reach. This is where a jack stand comes into play as the tool which holds the vehicle in the air, so you can release the pressure on the jack. Because of their job, these are almost always made out of metal and are designed to be positioned directly next to the jack to maintain the structural integrity of the chassis and positional leverage.
Wheel chocks are a fairly simple tool designed to prevent a vehicle’s wheels from rolling while it is lifted by a floor jack. This tool is more or less a door jamb for wheels and is often made of wood, though metal, rubber, and other materials are sometimes used. This tool is so simple that you can likely make them yourself with pieces of scrap wood and any saw designed to cut a 45-degree bevel. While wheel chocks are vital when using a floor jack to raise a single wheel on a multi-axle vehicle, they are also pretty useful for a number of automotive situations when you need to make sure the vehicle does not move.
This is the first category where we have to differentiate between two different items that are referred to as car ramps. The first is a standard ramp made out of either a single piece of material or two strips which can be laid out. The second kind of car ramp is really a modified jack stand that has a ramp leading up to the stand and allows the easy transition from jack to stand in less than ideal circumstances. The first kind of car ramp is not really necessary unless the vehicle is used for a particular reason other than general driving. The second is only recommended if you have enough experience to handle the automobile’s torque while using them.
Portable Air Compressor
A portable air compressor is just an all-around useful tool that every person should probably have just in case. However, so many functions, tasks, maintenance, and tools surrounding the automotive field require a portable air compressor that you should at least get an entry-level model. It is worth noting that if you are an average consumer who is not looking for a floor jack to do some time of mechanical work, then a portable air compressor is probably not that big of a deal in your life. However, if you do any kind of automotive or even just general construction work, a portable air compressor is a must-have.
A mechanics creeper is a rolling support that automotive mechanics lie on when working underneath a vehicle. It is essentially little more than a board with wheels on it, but the higher-end models do provide genuine value. Once you get the vehicle jacked up to get underneath and work on, there is no sense in putting your back against a dirty floor. Aside from the fact that it is uncivilized, it is also inefficient and more dangerous too. The mechanics creeper allows you to move quickly in case that vehicle starts to shift, and it just makes working underneath a vehicle quicker and easier.
Because transmissions are denser than automobiles alone, a floor jack needs to be able to support the transmission differently than a vehicle. If you are not using a specialized transmission jack to do the job, then you will likely need to use a transmission adapter for a floor jack. This can take a couple of different forms with centrally located adapters for scissor and bottle jacks, to more disperse adapters for hydraulic floor jacks.
While the floor jack market is not exactly bursting with innovation, there is a regular, steady rate of improvement in the technology used for floor jacks. Granted, these are the product models that cost more than most for a questionable increase in value, but they are also how everyone else figures things out too. The newest development is the rise of dual and hybridized floor jacks that either employ two different functions or blend different functions together. These are a bit more expensive and a bit more difficult to judge, since they have not been around nearly as long, but they do seem to justify their higher price tag.