Modern homes don’t have enough storage space in them. Closets are getting smaller and you rarely find a home built anymore with linen and coat closets in them. Basements are an option, at least in those areas of the country where it’s possible to put one in. At a time when most of us are accumulating more and more possessions, we’ve got less and less space to store them.
This has fueled the growth of the mini-storage industry, with many families renting a small storage space to put the things they can’t fit into their homes, but can’t bring themselves to get rid of. If only there was more room to store those things in the house, without turning our garages into junk piles. And for those of us who use our garage for a workshop, that’s just not an option.
Once upon a time, people used their attics to store all those things, back when roofs were made with rafters, rather than trusses. But somehow, once we started building with trusses, we came to the collective conclusion that we couldn’t use our attics for storage anymore.
That’s just not true. While it is harder to use an attic for storage, if you have trusses, than if you have rafters, you can still do it. Rafters are strong enough to support the weight of flooring and items you would store up there. The only difficulty is that the stringers used in making the truss’s web, make it harder to install flooring, move around the attic and store large items. But for many of the things any of us would want to store in our attic, those really aren’t insurmountable obstacles.
Part of the trick to making your attic usable, is to have easy access to it, both for you and for the things you want to put in the attic. I can tell you from personal experience, that as useful as they are, it’s no fun to carry large boxes up a drop-down attic stair. You’re better off with an attic lift.
Commercial Attic Lift Systems
For those who don’t have the time to build their own attic lift and don’t mind paying for it, there are a number of companies who offer ready-to-install attic lifts. A few of them will even install them for you, for a price.
Most of these lifts provide a 2’ x 4’ platform (although some are larger), with a cable hoist system that attaches to all four corners. This makes them a bit more complex, as it takes some spools and pulleys to make it so that one motor can pull on all four of those cables. That makes it a bit more complex than something you might want to try building at home. It also looks to me like there’s a real potential for problems, if the cables aren’t synchronized just right.
On the plus side, these commercial systems can be installed anywhere in your home, because once they are in the lifted position, there’s almost nothing visible from downstairs. The bottom of the lift is covered with a white panel, making it blend into your ceiling quite well. Some even use Bluetooth for the controls, so that you can run the lift from your smartphone.
The big problem with these lifts and the reason why we don’t see them in more homes, is that they are rather expensive. While there are cheaper lifts out there, they really aren’t made to do what attic lifts do. They’re more like a storage system to lift things up and use the space up near the ceiling of your garage for storage. That’s not the same as actually getting things up into the attic.
Making Your Own Garage Attic Lift
The best solution is to make your own attic lift. This isn’t actually as hard as you might expect. All the components are readily available and the one really complex piece of equipment, a cable hoist, isn’t even all that expensive. You can find good cable hoists which will lift several hundred pounds for one to two hundred dollars.
The reason I’m calling this a garage attic lift is that it will have tracks, which need to be mounted to the garage wall. That probably wouldn’t look all that good in your living room and you can’t trust your kids to not play with it if you put it in one of their bedrooms.
For tracks, you can use Unistrut, also known by the trade name Superstrut. Unistrut comes in different sizes, but the basic design is a C channel with “ears” on it, making it possible to use it as a track. If you can’t find it at your local home-improvement center, then check at an industrial supply. You’ll also need four trolleys to go with the Unistrut. While these are normally used for overhead applications, they have the necessary wheels and bearings to be able to be used for a vertical track as well. Just make sure that the size trolleys you buy match the size of the Unistrut.
In order to install a lift in your garage, you’re going to have to make a hole in the floor of the attic above. This will have to be in the gable end, as that’s the only place where the ceiling is going to be high enough to install the lift and allow you to unload it at the top end. Don’t worry about this getting in the way of parking your cars, as the lift should be stowed in the up position, for safety, when not in use.
Making that hole will require you cutting the floor joist part of the truss that is closest to the wall and installing a double header. As this joist is an integral part of the truss, you will want to reinforce the adjacent truss, as well as attaching the cut joist to the double header well at both sides. I’d recommend using joist hangers for this, as they will ensure a solid connection between all the parts.
The two Unistrut tracks that you are going to use for your lift’s platform to ride up and down on need to be mounted to the wall, so that they protrude up through this hole. Be sure to keep the tracks perfectly parallel, so that the trolleys don’t bind up in them, as the lift is raised up and down. Use whatever blocking is necessary to support the tracks, keeping in mind that they need to be strong enough to support a couple of hundred pounds of weight.
You want the entire weight of your lift, along with whatever is being hoisted up on it, to be carried by the wall of your garage, not the rafters. While the rafters could support probably the weight without problem, they really aren’t designed for that. Nor is the floor of the attic. On the other hand, any weight on the wall is going to be supported by the studs in the wall, which will carry that weight down to the foundation.
Whatever you’re planning on putting up in the attic will ride up and down on a track, somewhat like a simple elevator. So, you’re going to need a platform for the “elevator car.” this doesn’t need to be fancy, but it does need to be strong. It’s going to have to support the weight of whatever you decide to put up in the attic, including yourself.
As you can see in the diagram below, the platform should be constructed in an L shape, with a diagonal support stringer. The vertical part of the L will be what rides along the track. A large eye bolt attached to the top will serve as an attachment point for an electric hoist, which will be doing all the work. In order to ensure sufficient strength, it’s a good idea to add a diagonal support stringer between the back and the platform, because the entire weight of the platform and its load is cantilevered. Without this stringer, there’s too much of a chance of the joint of the L breaking.
Four trolleys for the Unistrut should be attached to the platform, two for each track, one at the top of the back and the other at the bottom. The more distance between them, the smoother the lift will operate.
Overall size of the platform needs to be slightly smaller than the hole you’ve made in the floor of the attic. Ideally, you want about 1/2” of space all the way around; so that you can make sure the lift will fit in it smoothly. Avoid going with a much bigger gap though, for safety.
To provide power for your attic lift, you’re going to need an electric wire rope hoist. These can be purchased for as little as $69.99, which will lift 220 pounds. Even so, I think you might want to spring for a little better one. Just like buying a winch for a four-wheel-drive vehicle, it’s always better to buy a bigger one than you think you’ll need.
One precaution when looking at these, is to always check if the manufacturer’s rating is with a single or double line. A single line means that the steel cable from the joist is going directly to the item being lifted, in this case, the attack lift. Adding a pulley at the platform, and then running the wire rope from the hoist down through that pulley and back up to the hoist is called double line. This allows the hoist to lift double the weight, but it will operate at half the lifting speed.
Even though it is quicker to use the hoist single line, without a pulley, I’d recommend adding the pulley and using it as a double line. Your hoist may be able to handle the weight without doing this, but this gives you a greater safety margin.
The difficult thing to do here is to mount your hoist in a way that the weight isn’t being held by the rafters, but rather by the wall. To do so, you’ll need to build a sturdy L bracket, to mount the hoist to, which can attach to the wall. If you are going to attach it to the rafters as well, make it long enough that it can attach to several, spreading the weight.
You may also need to extend the controller cable; most only have a fairly short cable. But that cable only has a maximum of three wires in it, so cutting it and splicing a longer wire in isn’t really much of a problem. You can use a cheap three-wire extension cord for the wire, but make sure you solder all the connections and tape them well to prevent them from shorting out.
One last thing you should do with your attic lift is to paint the area on the floor where it comes down yellow. This is a warning sign not to put anything where the lift is, so that whatever would otherwise be placed there won’t be in the way of the lift. As an alternative, you could store something easily moveable there, like your trash can, keeping people from piling other things in that place.
An Attic Lift in Your Home
If you can’t install an attic lift in your garage for some reason, you can still install one in your home. ideally, this would be in a closet, much like an elevator. But you probably don’t have room for this. That leaves putting your attic lift in the middle of a hallway somewhere, much like people do with an attic ladder. You will probably have to remove a section of the floor joist for this, just as we did in the garage version.
The main difference in doing this is that you won’t be able to use a rail for the attic lift. Rather, the platform will need some sort of hanger for the cable from the hoist to attach to. In the drawing below, the hanger consists of a piece of steel or iron pipe, with an eye bolt attached in the middle and holes in the ends for cables to be strung through. Those cables are attached in turn to the four corners of the platform.
Variations of this can be made, with iron pipe and fittings being used to make a similar means of attaching, albeit with squared off corners, rather than trying to mount the pipe in such a way as to make the angles shown above.
Either way, there is a slight problem with the lift tending to turn, while being raised and lowered. So it will need to be guided while raising it.
In order to give a finished appearance to your lift, you’ll need to attach a piece of AC plywood to the underside of it. Finish the edges neatly and paint the entire board to match your ceiling. That way, while it will still be visible when it is in the raised position, it won’t be so obvious.