How to Buy a Boat Lift: A Comprehensive Guide for Boaters

Buying a boat lift is a significant investment, but it can save you time, money, and hassle in the long run. A boat lift will protect your boat from the elements, keep it clean and free of marine growth, and make it easier to launch and retrieve.

But with so many different types of boat lifts on the market, how do you choose the right one for your needs? And how do you make sure you’re getting the best possible deal?

This short course will teach you everything you need to consider when buying a boat lift. So let’s get started!

Table of Contents

What is a Boat Lift?

A boat lift is simply a device that is used to lift boats out of the water in order to store them dry docked above the water line, storing them safely within your slip. Thus protecting the prop, drives, hull & motors from the elements until you and your family are ready to go boating.

What do you call all the different boat lift parts?

The image below will help you identify the most important parts of a boat lift.

Features list for the LT Model side mount boat lift for rough water.

How is a boat lift powered, or how does it lift?

There are two primary ways to create an upward lifting force in order to lift a boat out of the water. These are the use of hydraulic lift pressure and pneumatic power.

Option 1: Hydraulic Lift (also called a davit or cantilever lift)

A cantilever boat hoist is a type of boat lift that uses hydraulics to lift the boat out of the water. It has two H-shaped frames that support the boat cradle and are connected by a cable and a winch. When the winch is turned, the cable pulls the H-frames from a horizontal position to a vertical position, raising the boat above the water level. A cantilever boat hoist is simple, reliable, and has fewer moving parts than other types of boat lifts.

These are great if you are on a coastal spillway, canal, or a small tributary that does not raise or lower the water. Likewise, they are good choices if all the docks on your body of water are poured concrete or piling-style docks. In those environments, a floating boat lift may not be the right choice for you. 

If you have a Fixed mooring, try searching for davit lifts.  These are often a better solution for you. If you have a floating mooring or your dock has floats, option 2 is the best option.

Option 2: Pneumatic Power (also called a floating boat lift)

Rough water boat lifts by LOTO Lifts at Lake of the Ozarks

Pneumatics is an application of fluid power—in this case, the use of Air under pressure to generate, transmit, and control power, typically using compressed gas such as air at a pressure of 60 to 120 pounds per square inch (PSI). 

A common nomenclature for these lifts would be terms like floating hoist, floating boat lifts, or pneumatic-powered floating boat lifts. These are the most common type of lift found at Lake of the Ozarks because most, if not all, of our docks are floating docks. Therefore, a floating lift is required. 

Video:  30,000lb Rough water Boat Lift By Boat Lifts – YouTube  Watch this video to view the operation of a floating 30,000lb boat lift. 

Important Note: If you try to place a fixed or piling-mounted lift on a dock that floats, any minor change in water depth or current could render the lift inoperable because the lift cannot float & self-right with rising or lowering water.

Additional Video Resource: Which Boat Lift Do You Need? – YouTube This video contains a great deal of useful information you may find helpful.

Okay, so now that I know which type of boat lift I should be looking at, why should I invest in a lift?

Why should I have a boat lift?

The answer to this question is often best described by starting with another question:

Did you know that a dirty boat hull equates to a horrible performance?

This is just a few weeks of growth build-up on a brand new 2023 BayLiner Element.

Did you also know that marine growth and debris accumulation can decrease your boat’s overall performance and max speed by as much as 20%???

This is several years of growth!

So, one of the benefits of owning a boat lift is that your boat will stay cleaner and perform better for longer. 

One of the additional benefits is that you will use your boat much more than if you had to trailer the boat each time. 

A lift is also much safer than trailering a boat on busy lake roads.

How should I choose a boat lift?

When choosing a boat lift, you need to consider the length of your boat, its weight, and the type of motors and drive systems your boat employs. Also, what type of boat is it? Do you have a pontoon, tritoon, jet boat, catamaran, or a go-fast boat

Other details like slip width, length, roof height, and the roughness of the water on your lake or river are also factors. The water depth is a critical consideration as well. There are endless what-ifs and additional situations to consider, but these are the basics. We will do our best to break them down into subcategories in order to digest all the details.

The Length and Weight of Your Vessel

When shopping for a boat Lift. It’s important to take the weight of the boat into consideration. When sizing the appropriate boat with a lift, we like to use a 25% threshold or 25% ancillary buoyancy rating. This ensures you have extra displacement for all the important stuff that we throw in boats, like coolers full of ice, tools & people.

Allocating an additional 25% is the best practice for ensuring that you’re never overworking your lift. It’s important to note that overloading or misloading your boat lifts can result in a catastrophic failure. So, here are some examples using easy numbers. 

If you had a boat with a dry weight of 7,500 lb using our 25% ratio, we know that we need to be shopping for a 10,000 lb hoist with a total boat lift capacity of 10,000 pounds or more. It is Paramount to consider the total weight of the boat and add-ons. 

However, the length of the boat also must be considered because of the leverage created by excessively long boats. Take, for example, a hammer. When you hold it by the head or up near the head of the hammer, it feels light. When you hold it down at the bottom of the handle, it appears to have gotten heavier. Does it really weigh more? No. Does it feel heavier? Yes. Why?

Leverage (Leverage can mimic weight.)

It’s very important to consider the overall length of the boat in comparison to the length of the lift to find the sweet spot. The more additional capacity you have, the larger the sweet spot for parking your boat. So don’t be afraid to choose a lift that is a little larger than your minimum need. The buying trend is that families go larger when purchasing their next boat. So keep that in your back pocket as you do your research!

Have you ever been cruising down the lake and seen a boat up on a lift, and the boat’s bow is higher in comparison to the stern? For lack of better terms, the boat is, in effect, doing a wheelie in the slip! It looks more like a space shuttle launch than a boat safely stored. This is a less-than-ideal situation that is all too common. 

Most often, this happens when the boat’s length creates more leverage than the boat lift’s float tanks can displace. This, unfortunately, is a self-perpetuating problem caused by not having enough float tank cubic footage submerged in the water. This yields less lifting force, ultimately resulting in a loss of buoyancy. 

Buoyancy Loss

When a buoyancy loss occurs, it is most evident beneath the heaviest part of the boat – i.e. from the helm to the tip of the props. 

Another example of this is often seen in the swimming pool. I was swimming at the pool with my kids, and my daughter asked to switch flotation rafts out in the deep end. She wanted to jump off my raft. She’s small and doesn’t weigh much, so that’s an option for her (unlike my fat booty)!  

As we traded rafts, I could feel the difference immediately. Every stabilizing muscle in my core worked overtime to keep me upright and centered on the raft. Why? Because even though the raft technically had enough buoyancy lift to hold me above the water, my body’s mass was spread over a greater distance. So in order to combat the lack of neutral buoyancy, my muscles had to pitch in order to accomplish the work.

Lifting boats is not much different. You just have to take into account leverage and have enough additional well-placed displacement spread over the appropriate distance in accordance with the length of the boat. This will result in a more even, neutral & buoyant lifting cycle for years to come.

What do my boat’s motors have to do with a boat lift?

Inboards are cradled at the stern of the boat, whereas outboards stick out further and are also lighter. However, the outboard engine weight is further back due to the transom mounting points. The different engine selections are not usually a cause for capacity changes. But since mounting points are much different between inboards and outboards, this must be considered in order to choose the right boat lift.

Why do drives matter?

Direct drive, V drive forward facing, jet, forward jet, partials – you name it – there are many choices. And every company is different and has different tolerances & solutions. We need to factor in your boat’s drive style in order to ensure we clear props of all potential encumbrances.

What slip or dock information do I need when considering a boat hoist?

You will need to factor in width, length, and water depth in your choice for lifting your boat. Roof clearance is also good to consider, but keep in mind we can help by using stop kits. Overall, some common sense comes into play here.

Look at your slip, and do a good, honest evaluation of the boat in your slip. If it barely fits without a lift, it’s not going to get better by adding something to the slip! Most of the time, a simple width and length measurement is sufficient.

Also, water depth is of paramount importance if your dock goes dry in the off-season. That indicates that a shallow water boat lift will likely be needed.

This video is a helpful resource…

How to Install a Boat Lift

Installing a boat lift can be a complex process, so hiring a professional to do it for you is important. If you are out of state and don’t have access to an installer, some companies will provide a PDF or video on how best to install their products.

How to Use a Boat Lift

Using a boat lift is relatively simple. Just lower the lift into the water, drive your boat onto the lift, and lift the boat using your valve handles. There are a few important things to remember when docking the boat. 

  1. Ensure you are pulled all the way to the front of the slip so that the back of the transom is in relative proximity to the back of the pads or bunks. Just like a trailer, ensuring the end of the bunks is in line with the transom in relation to the slip will ensure the load is properly balanced from port to stern (front to back).
  2. Guide ropes should be fastened to the rear uprights, ensuring port-to-starboard alignment (left to right).
  3. Exit the boat and hold the boat centered using the taught ropes as your guide. 
  4. Turn the valve handle(s) to raise the lift, or hit the raise button on your remote key FOB.
  5. Continue the lifting cycle until bubbles are rolling from the center portion of the submerged portion of the lift tanks & then rotate the handle to the hold position or hit stop on the fob.

Watch this Reference Video:

Safety Tips for Using a Boat Lift

When using a boat lift, it is important to follow all safety precautions. Become a well-informed boater, obey the laws, and go slow. These precautions include:

  • Always wear a life jacket when using a boat lift.
  • Never use a boat lift if it is damaged or not working properly.
  • Never overload a boatlift.
  • Never use a boat lift in high winds or rough water.

Watch this Reference Video:

Should I choose wood bunks with carpet or plastic?

Well, that would depend on the boat. If it’s aluminum or has a sweet custom paint job, selecting a good CCA-treated wood bunk with a marine-grade carpet (like Foss marine-grade indoor/outdoor carpet) is best. 

Poly bunk boards are fine if it’s a gel coat or fiberglass hull finish. Pontoon hulls are thin and soft, so carpet is best for softer metals like aluminum.

What are pitman arms on a boat lift, and why are they important?

A pitman is the portion of steel connecting the front and rear arms to ensure that they rotate evenly. 

It is an important part of a boat lift if your slip is at least 12’ wide. If your slip is 10’ wide and you have a pontoon, you may need to purchase a “pitmans down” lift (see picture) in order to fit the pontoon or tritoon on the lift in a limited size slip width like 10’. 

Whereas on a “pitmans up” lift, the arms are up and out of the water as pictured below.

Pitman arm on a boat lift in the "down" position
"Pitmans Down"
"Pitmans Up"

Arms: The bigger, the better, right?

Yes, like anything else, you would want the arms of the boat lift to be proportional to the load it’s carrying. But something additional to consider is the axle thickness. 

Lift companies love to talk about their arms as much as bodybuilders do! But the true twisting point is dead center on the axle. So, using at least a 3-inch axle is preferred to fight the physics involved. 

A lift with at least a 2” arm is okay, but 2.5” is better. Now, if you already have 3” axles and if you have a 50’ boat, having three 3-inch arms would be preferred. However, 2.5” will suffice for most boats.

What is normal maintenance service, and what needs to be serviced?

For most boat lifts, arm bolts and bushings must be changed early and often. Beyond that, blowing out the tanks and tightening the bolts all the way around is good practice.

What type of add-ons are important to think about?


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