Buying vs Hiring your Access Platforms

As I moved up in the building contracting world, I worked on increasingly large jobs. Sites putting up multiple residential houses, large office blocks, shopping centres, things of that order. Parallel to my career was changes in the worlds of construction equipment.

When I started, we still used scaffolding for almost everything. Then came basic cherry pickers, which were useful for their speed but frankly scary to use, very wobbly in any sort of breeze and stomach churning in proper wind. As I improved, so did the equipment. Cherry pickers became more stable, more reliable, more capable. Scissor lifts went from something you'd see occasionally to a fixture on pretty much every site. The easy way to make sure you or your workers were safe when they were putting together the framework of the building, or doing all the fitting work.

Originally, we'd hire in our "MEWPS" - Mobile Elevated Work Platforms - as we did not need them all of the time, and they represented a big capital investment when we always had other things we'd rather spend the money on.

However, as our company and the size of the projects grew, so did the size of our bill for hiring equipment in. Surely if we were using the machines all the time, we'd be better off buying then rather than renting?

Buying Pros

  • Cheaper if usage high
  • Always available

Buying Cons

  • Cost of purchase
  • Maintenance costs
  • Storage

Hiring Pros

  • Spread cost
  • Can get replacement machines if maintenance required
  • Can get latest machines

Hiring Cons

  • Machine may not be available (not a problem with larger firms)
  • Drip feed of costs out
  • Need to find reliable provider

Once we had worked out the pros and cons of each approach, we started to properly look at the machines we used. There was no point us getting a Bronto or similar large boom, we just didn't need them often enough to justify the massive outlay of buying one. However, getting a Skyjack scissor lift or maybe two did make sense as we used those constantly.

Even though we had "done the maths" and saw that investing in our own machine would make sense, they are still a big cost. After looking around and talking to the people we regularly hired from, we discovered one of our main suppliers, Facelift, also sold second hand access equipment. They now sell new machines as well, but when we first bought they sold their ex-hire units.

We bought two ex-hire scissor lifts to start with. This made me nervous as we all know how bad the life of a hire car is, could the life of a hire Skyjack be any better when it's living on building sites most of the time? Turns out, they were not so bad. We had one with much less hours use on it than the other, but actually, the newer model had more trouble than the older, problems eventually fixed with a simple control unit replacement.

If you are looking to buy second hand access machines

  • Make sure it has a new LOLER certificate (think MOT for access equipment)
  • Check hours of use and try to find out where a lot of that was - work inside a mall where it'd be sitting unused a lot is a much easier life than on a dusty construction site
  • Give it a good look over - just like you would a car. Look at all the joints and wheels especially and hydraulics
  • Test drive it - if it's a cherry picker, make sure to do it somewhere you can test the full range of motion, remote drive, etc
  • See if they offer any type of warranty or deals on ongoing servicing - using the machine a lot means more maintenance to keep it working and you can't pop these things in to your local garage

We graduated from second hand scissors to new ones of the models we did use all the time, and then some small Nifty scissor lifts. We've now got a combination of newly bought and second hand, which depended on the condition of what was on offer when we purchased. Credit is easier to get currently, so we've tended to buy new where we can. Maintenance is all done by the same guys at Facelift and although we have considered bringing that in-house, that feels like it's a diversion from our main goals and just another thing to manage. Maybe when we're bigger and have more platforms of our own to look after.

If you're looking at buying, I recommend looking at a used machine first. You can get a good deal, and as long as it has been regularly maintained and that has all been logged, you can save a lot of the purchase price but still get a platform with many hundreds of hours of use left in it.

John Norris has grown his construction company over the last 25 years. Thanks to John for talking to Paul to create this article.

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