Among the arsenal of auto repair equipment that I own, one category stands out as a must-have for any DIY enthusiast or professional mechanic: jacks. These ingenious devices serve as the backbone of vehicle lifting, allowing access to crucial components underneath. But with a myriad of options available, understanding the different types of jacks for cars and their unique functionalities is essential in making an informed choice.
Whether you are an experienced automotive enthusiast or just want to find a reliable jack for changing your car tire, this article will help you to have a deeper insight into the vehicle jacks’ world.
What is A Vehicle Jack?
A vehicle jack is a tool to lift the vehicle off the ground, allowing users to perform several maintenance tasks, repairs, or changing tires. They come in different types and capacities to accommodate different vehicle sizes and weights and perform different tasks.
Not all jack types are recommended for every job, as you will find below.
- Small floor jacks are practical for changing tires and minor repairs on the side on the road; they offer the best of both worlds.
- If you are a fan of adventure, I recommend having a conventional jack in case of a puncture and a high-lift jack as a backup just in case. Besides, high lift jacks look cool on the back of vehicles like Jeeps.
- For small shops or home garages, I would go for two sizes of floor jacks and some bottle jacks.
Different Types of Car Jacks
1. Scissor Jack
These are the simplest and easiest-to-operate jacks available, often included in the toolkits of small and medium cars alongside the spare tire. They consist of two-piece arms on each side connected to a base and a saddle. These arms are interlinked by a worm screw mechanism that makes the joints close or open.
The saddle is raised or lowered by turning a handle connected to the worm screw. When fully down, both arms of the jack fold completely, making it convenient for storage and transportation. They are called “scissor jacks” because both arms look like a pair of scissors when they are in motion.
- Affordable: Scissor jacks are affordable compared to other types of vehicle jacks. Besides, they are usually included in car toolkits.
- Compact and Light: Their compact design and lightweight makes them easy to store and transport.
- Easy to Use: These jacks are easy to operate as you only need to rotate clockwise or counterclockwise to raise or lower the car.
- Maintenance Free: Thanks to their simple design, they don’t need much care other than keeping them clean and dry.
- Low Profile: They fit almost under any car.
- Poor Stability: As they have a narrow base, they tend to flip over. That’s why they are recommended only for emergencies, like changing a tire.
- Limited Lifting Range: These jacks don’t offer much lifting height; they can usually lift a car about 15 to 30 inches, depending on the model. Besides, because they are not as stable as other jack types, they are not recommended to extend them completely.
- Limited Weight Capacity: Scissor jacks usually have a weight capacity of 1.5 Tons or less.
- Practicality: Even when they are easy to use, lifting your car using this type of jack can be slower and more tedious than other jacks. Turning the handle when the bed is still close to the ground and not in contact with the vehicle can be tricky. Besides, lifting a car using a scissor jack may require more manual labor than their hydraulic counterparts because they don’t have a de-multiplication system, and their handles usually don’t have much leverage.
2. Floor or Trolley Jacks
Trolley jacks and floor jacks are very similar, and people usually refer to them interchangeably as they share the same working principle. Floor jacks are usually more portable, making them more practical for carrying inside vehicles and home and small shops. On the other hand, trolley jacks are larger, stronger, and designed for professional use, although they are popular among car enthusiasts.
These jacks use one or two hydraulic cylinders connected to an arm on one side and a swinging lever on the other. As users pump the lever, hydraulic jack oil pressure is built inside the cylinder/s making the saddle go up. Depending on the model, pressure is released by twisting the handle or opening the release valve by hand, which makes the saddle go down. The system is mounted over a frame with wheels. The size, strength, and type of wheels vary depending on the model of the tool.
- Stability: While stability varies depending on the jack’s size, they are overall stable and safer than other types of jacks as they have a good support base.
- Easy to Use: Using these jacks is straightforward. You just have to swing the lever to raise your car, suv or truck and, depending on the model, twist the lever or open the release valve to lower it.
- Versatile: They come in different sizes, making them suitable for a wide range of vehicle sizes and uses. They can be used for simple tasks such as changing a tire to heavy vehicle maintenance.
- Heavy Lifting: These jacks have lifting capacities starting from 1.5 tons to 4 tons and up, depending on the model.
- Price: Although they come in different models and prices, they are usually more expensive than other jacks.
- Bulky: These jacks are bulkier compared to other types of jacks. Some small jacks are portable enough to be carried in your trunk, but they will cost you some cargo space.
- Require Maintenance: These jacks are based on hydraulic systems that require some care. Besides, they may leak or suffer other issues that must be addressed.
- Limited Lifting Range: Even when most of these jacks have a higher lifting range than others, their lifting range is usually slower than bottle jacks or hi-lift jacks. They are great for working with cars and some crossovers and SUVs but are not as practical for larger automobiles such as trucks and off-road vehicles.
3. Bottle Jacks
Bottle jacks use a hydraulic system similar to the one used by floor and trolley jacks.
The main difference is that these jacks are basically vertically oriented cylinders and the bed is mounted right on the piston’s top. See the detailed comparison between floor jack and bottle jack here.
The bottle jack has a lever with which you can pump the hydraulic oil to raise the piston go up and a release valve to make the cylinder go down.
Bottle jacks are more effective than other jacks; for example, they usually have bigger pistons and a compact design that makes them capable of achieving high lifting capacities with a relatively small size. Some industrial bottle jacks can lift more than 20 tons, placing this type of jack among the most effective available.
- Price: Their price is between scissor jacks and floor jacks, making them an attractive choice in terms of value for money.
- Compact and light: They are lighter and smaller than the floor and trolley jacks with the same ratings, so they don’t use much space and can be hauled in tight trunks or inside spare wheel holes.
- Easy to Use: Operating them is as easier as operating a hydraulic floor jack.
- High Lifting Height: They are tall, which helps them lift vehicles even higher than floor jacks. This quality makes them suitable for lifting off-road vehicles and light trucks, even when using a medium-sized model.
- High Lifting Capacity: Bottle jacks can lift heavy loads; some models can lift more than 20 tons.
- Unstable: Bottle jacks have a narrow body and base, making them unsteady unless they are used on an even and flat surface.
- Clearance Limitations: As bottle jacks have their piston built vertically, they are taller than the lowest floor jacks, making them unsuitable for lifting cars with low floor clearance.
- Require Maintenance: Bottle jacks need regular maintenance to ensure proper functioning. This includes checking for leaks, maintaining proper fluid levels, and lubricating moving parts.
- Slow Operation: When compared to hydraulic floor or trolley jacks, bottle jacks usually require more strokes to reach the same height, resulting in a slower lifting process.
4. High-Lift Jacks
These jacks use a similar ratchet mechanism to the old-style bumper jacks. They are 100% mechanical and operated by a swinging or rotating handle, depending on the model. As you crank them up, several pawls bite into a long-toothed beam, making the saddle rise.
Popularized by the brand Hi-Lift, these jacks are designed for off-road vehicles with lifted suspension, where other types of jacks won’t work. They are extremely useful for helping trucks stuck or sunk into the mud, sand, or other soft and unstable grounds. Some Jeep models include them as optional equipment, and thanks to their long and thin design, many adventure enthusiasts keep one handy on their all-terrain vehicles.
They are tough and usually can handle about 7,000 pounds.
- Versatile: These jacks are designed for all-terrain vehicles with lifted suspension, making them suitable for off-roading conditions where other jacks may not work. Even when they are not meant for changing tires and won’t fit cars with low ground clearance, they can be helpful to do the job and take you out of an emergency in an SUV, Jeep, or truck.
- High Lifting Height: They usually can raise a vehicle up to 5 feet, much taller than other types of car jacks available on the market. Besides, their height allows them to help users to easily remove stuck or sunk vehicles from unstable grounds.
- High Lifting Capacity: They have lifting capacities of around 7,000 pounds, allowing them to handle heavy automotive easily.
- Low Maintenance: They require minimal care, mostly keeping them clean and dry.
- Portable: Their shim design makes them easy to transport. Besides, there are supports available for users that like to keep them outside their trucks for practicality purposes, easy access, or aesthetics.
- Unstable: They are tall, and the base is pretty small, so they have to be used carefully, mostly when using them off-road.
- Slow Operation: They can be pretty hard and slow to operate because they don’t have a hydraulic system.
- Specialized Use: High-lift jacks are intended for off-road vehicles and are not suitable for passenger cars, or other small and medium vehicles with relatively low ground clearance.
- Training is Advised: Since they are meant for specific use under potentially hazardous conditions, they require some expertise to use them safely and properly. Many off-road schools and clinics include how to use these jacks in their training programs.
5. Air or Pneumatic Jacks
These jacks are connected to an air compressor or other source of compressed air to lift vehicles off the ground. They use air pressure to inflate an air bag or diaphragm, which is connected to a base and platform. They are used in automotive repair shops, car racing, and for lifting heavy vehicles such as trucks, trolleys, or buses.
Pneumatic jacks can also be found in some professional-type lifting ramps. They have high lifting capacity and can lift vehicles from low to high low clearance. They are sometimes used by road assistance companies because of their practicality and quick operation and many seasoned off-roaders use them for their stability on all kinds of terrains.
- High Lifting Capacity: Depending on the model, they can have a high lifting capacity, allowing them to lift heavy vehicles.
- Versatility: They can be used in various environments, including automotive repair shops, and roads, depending on the model and configuration. Besides, they can accommodate to work efficiently with low and high ground-clearance vehicles.
- Effortless Operation: As they are powered by compressed air, they don’t require physical effort o operate.
- Stability: They are stable and provide safe operation on different kinds of terrains as they often have a good support base.
- Price and Running Costs: They are often more expensive than other models of mechanical jacks. Besides the high initial price, you need extra items such as an air compressor, additional hardware, etc.
- Not standalone: Air jacks are not standalone devices and rely on external tools such as air compressors to work. This also generates additional operative costs related to their use.
- Require Maintenance: Air jacks require regular maintenance and inspection along with the compressors or air supplies used to power them.
- Hard to Transport: Pneumatic jacks are bulkier compared to other types of jacks and some models which may be portable but impractical. Besides, the need to use an air compressor to make them work is a strong downside for private users.
6. Exhaust or Tailpipe Jacks
When these car jacks first appeared in the market, they seemed like a passenger novelty. However, in the last few years, they become quite popular among off-road users.
The exhaust jack follow a basic working principle; it consist of an inflatable bag that plugs into the tailpipe. As the engine runs, the exhaust gases fill the bag, raising the vehicle. Some models have an auxiliary plunge to connect an air compressor and offer a choice between exhaust gases or compressed air.
I’m not a fan of these jacks because, in modern vehicles full of sensors, they can trigger the “check engine” light and because securing the clamps to the tailpipe can take considerable time, among other things. However, many users are happy with them and won’t go anywhere without them. If you are new to this type of jack, you will find all the cons and pros to be able to reach your own conclusion.
- Stability: They are stable and provide safe operation on different soils as they have a good support base. Off-roaders often use them as an alternative to high-lift jacks.
- Price: They are affordable, usually in the range of small and medium-sized floor jacks.
- High Lifting Capacity: The most basic models have 4 Ton lifting capacity.
- Bulky: They are foldable, but even when folded, the bag, hose, and attachments use more space than conventional jacks.
- Limited Access To Parts: The bags are pretty big and, when fully inflated, they block a large part of the vehicle’s undercarriage. That makes them unsuitable for working beneath the vehicle, and sometimes even placing jack stands may be difficult.
- Potential Vehicle Damage: Improper placement or over inflation can cause excessive pressure on the car’s exhaust system leading to potential damage to vulnerable components. Besides, these jacks can trigger the “check engine” light on modern vehicles as they can affect their sensors’ readings.
- Require Maintenance: The bags are made of strong materials such as high-density nylon; however, they can break or puncture. Many kits bring patches for emergency repairs, but fixing them will take extra time. Besides, inspecting the bag, hose, and fittings regularly is advised to ensure a safe operation.
7. Jack Stands
While not a type of jack per se, jack stands are essential for supporting the vehicle once it has been lifted. They are used in conjunction with hydraulic jacks or other lifting devices to provide stability and prevent accidents.
After you use a car jack to lift your vehicle, place the stands at jack points to let the weight of the vehicle rest on the mechanical stands.
Jack stands come in various designs, such as tripod stands, pin-type stands, and ratchet stands.
Vehicle jacks come in different sizes and capacities and have countless uses, from changing a tire to rescuing a Jeep stuck in the mud. Choosing the right jack for you depends on the intended use, your budget, and type of vehicle.
Keep your lifting equipment clean and perform periodic maintenance to ensure safety.
Last but not least, don’t forget that jacks are designed for lifting vehicles, not to support them. Always use jack stands for working underneath your vehicle or when leaving it off the ground for long periods.
David Castillo is an automotive industry expert specializing in vehicle electronics and stand-alone fuel management systems. He has over 20 years of experience and owns a car repair garage and tuning shop.
David still runs his shop but is now more focused on pre-purchase car inspections and writing for FinePowerTools.