One of the most basic necessities in any garage environment, be it professional or amateur, is a decent quality automotive floor jack. The benefits these offer in terms of speed, safety and flexibility cannot be underestimated. Which style of operation, design, size and strength to choose can be confusing..
Floor jacks for the do-it-yourselfer come in two price ranges: economy ($30 to $40) and semi pro ($65 to $99). We don't recommend the economy jacks, even for occasional use. They have a short wheelbase, a narrow width, an extremely small “saddle” (the part the car rests on), poor stability and a low lifting capacity. Their short pump handle forces you to crawl under the vehicle just to place it in the right position for jacking.
For about $35 more, you can buy a 3-1/2-ton semipro jack. You'll get a wider, more stable wheelbase, heavy-duty wheels, a higher lift (22 in. vs. about 15 in. on the low-priced models) and a nice, long pump handle. The long pump handle allows you to place it under an engine cradle or differential without crawling under the vehicle. It'll take up more garage space, but the additional features are worth it
Types of Floor Jacks
Hydraulic Floor Jack
The hydraulic floor jack is the most instantly recognizable variant of the floor jack, and is the type that most mechanics gravitate towards due to their convenience. A hydraulic floor jack typically consists of a trolley with four wheels that houses a hydraulic cylinder. This cylinder raises and lowers a lever arm with a small platform that interfaces with your car or truck. Hydraulic floor jacks usually have a detachable lever that is pumped in order to actuate the lifting mechanism. The advantages of this type of jack are they they are extremely easy to use as they do not require a substantial amount of physical effort to lift a vehicle. In addition, they also often have a very high maximum height which allows you to lift your car higher off the ground than with other types of jacks. The wheels on the trolley also aid in keeping the jack properly positioned underneath the car as you lift which helps to eliminate jack lean and makes for an all around safer jack. The only disadvantages of this type of jack are cost and the fact that they can be rather heavy and sizable which means slightly less portability than other types of jacks.
A scissor jack is actually provided with many automobiles right from the factory. These jacks are typically light weight and space efficient, which is why auto manufacturers choose to place them in the trunks of cars for swapping in your spare tire on the side of the freeway in the event of a flat tire. They consist of a lead screw that compresses a scissor linkage to gain elevation. This type of jack typically has serious limitations in height as well as lifting capacity due to the fact that they are designed to be so compact. These jacks work great in a pinch, but will only get your car high enough off the ground to change a tire. It’s unlikely that a factory provided jack that’s buried away in your trunk will have the height to do more involved car repairs such as transmission work as they won’t get high enough to allow the space for a human to slide under the car (read more about climbing under the car below in our floor jack safety section). This type of jack has existed for a long time, but most people tend to find hydraulic floor jacks to be more convenient for garage use.
Bottle Jack / Piston Jack
Much like a floor jack, a bottle jack is hydraulically operated. It consists of concentric cylinders that provide stiffness that are actuated by hydraulic pressure that results from pumping a lever, much like a normal floor jack. The major advantage of these jacks is their small footprint. If you are working with limited space or on uneven surfaces (which is ill-advised), the small footprint allows a bottle jack to be more stable in some situations. Their downside is that they have a very high free height, meaning that they don’t get nearly as low as a scissor jack or regular floor jack when fully compressed. This makes them difficult to use on lowered cars and even many sports cars and sedans at normal ride height. As such, they see the majority of their use when lifting trucks, since ground clearance issues aren’t as large of a concern. It should also be noted that bottle jacks generate the highest lifting capacity value when compared to other types of jacks.
Floor Jack Safety
Obviously the most important thing when using a floor jack, or when doing any type of work on your car for that matter, is your personal safety. A little common sense goes a long way, but there are some facets of safety that may not be so obvious. To guide you, below is a list of some basic safety principles and tip for using your floor jack.
1. Never trust your floor jack to support your car by itself. Always use jack stands.
Any mechanical component ever designed can theoretically fail, but mechanical components designed to move tend to fail at a higher rate. A floor jack falls into the latter category. It has been well documented that hydraulic floor jacks can and will fail over time due to wear on the hydraulic components. Unfortunately this mode of failure is rather innocuous because instead of a catastrophic failure, the jack will slowly let the car down. While one would think that this would be an advantage to someone in danger of being crushed, it really isn’t. Often times the slow descent during a failure goes unnoticed for the few precious moments a person has to escape. Keep in mind that a person on their back underneath a car has limited speed and agility to get out of the way as well.
But there’s good news! This problem is extremely easy to avoid by pairing your floor jack with a set of high quality jack stands. Once you raise your car with your jack, place a pair of jack stands underneath the car and rest the car on them instead of relying on the hydraulic components of your jack. Only after you have supported your car with jack stands should you ever climb under to do any work. It is also recommended that you rock the car a little bit by hand near the top to ensure that your setup is sturdy before you climb under. While it would be bad to have your car fall off a poorly placed jack stand when you give the car a little test shake, it would be much worse if it fell on you because you didn’t. You may also consider using chalks if you are only using two jack stands in order to prevent your car from rolling. As an added measure of safety, you may also place a wheel that you removed under your car for added safety (although this should only be used in addition to a sturdy jack stand, not as a replacement).
2. Always raise your car on level ground.
It is never a good idea to raise your car on any terrain other than that which is level. Resting your jack or jack stands at an angle as a result of an uneven floor creates a tipping hazard as the car can easily go over center relative to your jack and fall. The most common occurrence is when someone tries to lift their car on a slanted driveway. For much the same reason you shouldn’t use a forklift on a hill, you shouldn’t use your jack on any kind of slope.
3. Raise and lower your car slowly.
Raising and lower your car slowly allows you to identify any problems before they happen, thus hopefully allowing your to prevent them. In addition, lowering your car too quickly can lead to several scenarios where damage to your car can occur. When operating your jack either up or down, it’s best to use slow and controlled movements.
4. Use appropriate jacking points on your car.
This cannot be stressed enough. Your car has very specific points where the frame has been reinforced to support the load of the car when raising it with a jack. These locations are always lined out in your owner’s manual for your car as well as often times well marked on the car itself. Do not lift a car under any circumstances unless you are confident that you are jacking the car up from an appropriate location.
What To Consider When Buying A Floor Jack
There are several considerations that you have to make when shopping around for a floor jack. While your intended use is important, there are also some other aspects that you must pay attention to to make sure that you make a wise purchase and don’t fall for any of the “gotchas.”
1. Consider what type of car or cars you will be using the jack on.
The type of car that you are using your jack on plays an important role in helping you choose which jack to buy. The most important factor here is ground clearance. Ground clearance is defined as how high off the ground your jack point (the place where your jack contacts your car when lifting) sits. Cars with low ground clearance typically are easiest to lift with normal hydraulic floor jacks. In fact, jacks in this style can be had in “low-profile” options for particularly cars, such as lowered performance cars, sports cars, and race cars. They hydraulic floor jack is also a favorite for most sedans, SUVs, vans, coupes, and trucks. If you have a particularly high car, such as a lifted truck, you might find a bottle jack to be more suitable. If your goal is just to toss the jack in your trunk for emergencies, then a scissor jack is ideal due to compact size and low cost. That said, a hydraulic floor jack will be suitable for most people and most cars, so if you can’t decide your best bet is to stick with a hydraulic floor jack.
2. Consider the weight of your car.
All floor jacks are rated to a certain maximum weight capacity. You must be diligent about making sure the maximum capacity on the jack you want to purchase exceeds the amount of weight you intend to lift with it. Typically this rating is provided in tons, with 2 ton jacks and 3 ton jacks being the most common. It’s important to remember that your jack will never support 100% of the weight of your car. The worst case is lifting near the engine, where it is likely to support a maximum of roughly 60% of the weight of your entire car. That said, a general rule of thumb is that most sub-compact, compact, and economy midsize cars can be safely lifted with a 2 ton jack. For luxury midsize cars, full size cars, suvs, vans, and trucks, a 3 ton jack is suitable. If you have a particularly heavy or large car, you may have to jump up to a 3.5 or 4 ton jack (or bigger), but this doesn’t apply to most cars.
3. Consider the build quality.
Like with any investment, it pays to do your due diligence up front when it comes to buying a floor jack. Long term, a high quality floor jack will cost you less than buying a poorly made one and constantly having to replace it do to failure. Sure, you may be attracted to the cheap cost up front, but when you compare the cumulative total that you would spend if you have to replace a few poorly made jacks, you’ll rarely come out ahead if you buy the cheapies. To identify a jack with superior build quality, the best thing to do is to pull it out and look at it if you can. A well built floor jack will have predominantly metal parts, whereas a cheap one will have many plastic components. In addition, the quality of finish is often an indicator of material quality. If there is lots of brushed or polished metal with some nicely painted/coated sections, this can mean that a manufacturer is trying to show off their components. Conversely, if paint is sloppily piled on to every component indiscriminately with visible overspray, a manufacturer might be trying to hide inferior quality metal. In addition, a high quality floor jack will be heavy and will operate smoothly. There should also be no leaks. Of course, since not everyone has the ability to actually inspect a jack when buying online, reviews become like the ones below become critical in evaluating quality.