Installing a Freight Elevator Versus a VRC Lift, Which Costs More?

As a leading innovator of vertical reciprocating conveyors, we get calls from business owners sharing their stories about the high costs of elevators and the lengthy construction times for installation or modernization of those freight elevators and whether we can help them find a better solution. If you want more information on your project, click here for a free quote today.


Key Takeaways:

  • Cost-Effectiveness of VRCs: VRCs are significantly more cost-effective than freight elevators, which are about 70% cheaper and offer simpler, quicker installation processes.
  • Freight Elevator Complexity and Expense: They are complex, require adherence to the National Elevator Code, and involve costs in installation, maintenance, and modernization.
  • Functional Similarity with Distinct Advantages: VRCs, while functionally similar to freight elevators in moving goods between levels, are governed by a different code (ASME B-20), making them a more efficient and less intrusive option for many applications.

1st Case Study

Recently, one of our sales representatives received a call from the owner of a plumbing company about a problem he was having. The owner purchased an old building that had a non-working elevator.  The goal was to get it working by modernizing the elevator. However, after shopping around he quickly realized the cost for making such improvements was well outside of his budget.  The estimate came in close to $100k.

After asking some discovery questions, the CIP representative learned that only plumbing material was going to be moved, not people. As a result, we determined that a freight elevator wasn’t necessary and that a custom material lift would more than meet his needs. The VRC came in around 80% less than the freight elevator he thought he needed, was installed much more quickly in the existing freight elevator shaft, and with minimal interruption to their operation.

2nd Case Study

Another customer, a custom cabinet manufacturer in the great state of Illinois, purchased an additional building to accommodate their business growth. The building had an existing freight elevator that was out of commission. After getting quotes from all major elevator companies to modernize the existing freight elevator, the customer decided to look for better value alternatives. The main concerns with a traditional elevator modernization ($250-$350k) were its high cost and the long installation time of almost four months, the interruption to his operation by construction crews, and the amount of space needed for the power unit.

CIP was able to offer a customized lift for materials only, which was almost 70% less expensive than elevators. Also, the freight lift installation was significantly shorter and simpler than with the freight elevator. We were able to meet this customer’s scope of work, timeline, and budget to help his operation expand in a safe and expedient manner.

Situations like these come to us regularly.

In this article, we’re going to discuss VRCs as a better alternative over modernizing or installing a freight elevator. For those of you that follow us, you might remember reading the article we published titled: VRC or Elevator: What’s the Difference?. In that article, we did a general compare/contrast piece. This post is going to be a bit different. We’re going to do more of a deep dive into both VRCs and freight elevators, the different types, installation requirements, and cost.

So, let’s get started with freight elevators.

What is a freight elevator? 

According to, a freight elevator is used to elevate, or lift, freight, or goods. It’s built to move material, not people (there is a type ‘B’ freight elevator that does allow for riders). Freight elevators are governed by the National Elevator Code ASME A17.1/CSA B44. Material lifts need elevator-style approved interlocks with many other parts needing to follow the same requirements set forth by the National Elevator Code. These lifts are typically regulated and inspected by local and state authorities that regulate elevators.

Because of the strict coding requirements, freight elevators are normally found in areas that cater to the general public.

There are three main types of freight elevators on the market. There is the traditional type that is installed via a shaft between brick walls with a motor hoistway. Installing this type is extremely labor-intensive.

Then there is the free-standing type. This type does not rely on a building’s structure for the shaft. It is a bit more modular than the traditional kind and only needs to be attached to the building’s structure. This type is less labor-intensive but costly.

Last on the list are modular elevators. A modular elevator is a turn-key commercial-grade elevator. Meaning, it comes prefabricated and pre-wired for a quick installation.  However, the installation setup is no easy task. An elevator pit needs to be excavated, then anchor bolts are embedded in the pit. Finally, a crane is needed to place the prefabricated unit onto the anchor bolts and secured. A huge undertaking!

Freight Elevator Cost of Ownership

As you can probably guess, freight elevators are expensive to own. Not just because of the construction and installation, but all the costs incurred throughout the entire lifecycle of the elevator. And while they have their place, they may be overkill for many applications.

Freight elevators require regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly. Maintenance on a freight elevator is expensive and mandated by the National Elevator Code. In addition to regular maintenance, as elevators age and recurring repairs and excessive shutdowns become the norm, they will need to undergo modernization. In layman’s terms, freight elevator modernization means the elevator needs an upgrade.  This can mean redoing the electrical, conforming to new code changes, and even replacing obsolete spare parts. It’s a costly undertaking and time-consuming. One client we work with had to shut down their freight elevator for 4 months!

Now, let’s talk about vertical reciprocating conveyors (VRCs) (also known as hydraulic lifts, mezzanine lifts, material lifts or freight lifts) as a much more cost-effective, less-intrusive option for lifting everything from boxes to automobiles.

What Is a Vertical Reciprocating Conveyor? 

A VRC is used to elevate, or lift, freight, or goods from one level to another. They’re built to move material, not people. Sound familiar? The definition of a VRC lift is identical to that of a freight elevator.  Of course, there are some differences between the two, which we will be discussing, but for the most part, they do the same thing!

CIP’s material lifts are broken down into two categories: modular and non-modular.

A modular VRC lift is a material lift that comes prefabricated in multiple sections, prewired, and available in various sizes with material lifting capacities up to 5,000 lbs. The Installation of these units are much less expensive and simpler than a freight elevator; an end-user with no experience can install a pre-wired modular VRC in a day or two.

A non-modular VRC is a freight lift that is customizable. Because of this, they do not come prewired or prefabricated. Remember the plumber from above who already had a freight elevator shaft installed? He needed a non-modular unit to fit in the existing shaft. A non-modular VRC can be designed and built to handle material lifting weights to 30,000 lbs. or greater!

VRCs do not follow the same regulations set forth by the National Elevator Code as freight elevators do. Rather, they are governed by a Nation Code called the ASME B-20 “Safety Standard for Conveyor and other related equipment”.

VRC Lift Cost of Ownership 

The cost of ownership for a VRC is substantially less than a freight elevator. The unit itself averages around 75% less than a freight elevator, installation is less expensive, and because our mechanical lifts have fewer moving parts, they require less maintenance. Moreover, they are 100% duty cycle, which means they are designed to run continuously at peak performance. Lastly, our mechanical lifts use a wired cable instead of messy hydraulic lifts, which are more environmentally friendly and less noisy.


As we stated earlier, there is a time and place for freight elevators. However, in more cases than not, a VRC lift can elevate or lift the same materials (can handle the same jobs) as a freight elevator, but for around 75% less upfront cost, quicker installation time, less intrusiveness, and lower maintenance cost.

To learn more, contact our knowledgeable CIP sales representatives to see if a VRC lift is the best solution for your material lifting needs.

VRC Applications