13 June 2015

Take the stairs... or the lift

While working in the city for a few months, I have made the effort to take the stairs rather than the lift (that's 'elevator' for you friends in the USA).

When they are such beautiful stairs as these, its hard not to. Mostly I do it for the pleasure of the stairs, and for my health, but it also seemed the obvious sustainable choice.

However, when I sat down to research it I discovered that lifts use hardly any electricity to operate. This is completely counter-intuitive to me: great big metal boxes being lifted many metres straight up through the air by electric power... surely that must guzzle energy? It seems, on account of the system of counterweights involved, not really. It probably uses more energy to keep the lift air-conditioned with a light on and back-lit buttons than it takes to actually lift me three floors to the office.

I use more energy to make my cup of tea when I reach the office than I would have used to get there in the lift.

So for once I am saying to you:  This thing I've chosen to do? It doesn't make much difference to the environment; don't feel remotely guilty if you're not doing it too.

That said,  I still feel better taking the stairs.

Initial Time: To climb three flights of stairs generally takes me about half a minute longer than if I walked straight into the lift. If I have to wait for the lift, the time is not much different and the stairs can even be quicker.

Initial Cost: Zero (although it uses more of my energy)

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Same as above each time.


There are many factors determining exactly how much energy a lift uses, but calculations on this reputable-looking blog put it at roughly 0.0015kWh per floor. That would mean I use 0.009kWh per day if I use the lift (I don't leave the office much once I'm there). Over the course of the three-month contract I'm currently completing, in a third-floor office accessed by the gorgeous 109-year old timber staircase shown above, I will have saved 0.342kWh of electricity - a grand total of 280g (yes grams, not kilograms) of CO2. Even if these calculations are wildly low, its in no way a substantial saving.

Of course, there is the issue of embodied energy in the lift, as well as air-conditioning, lighting and computer systems to run the lift, which are questions when considering whether to put in a lift at all, but on balance having universal access to all levels of a building without enormous ramps probably outweighs these concerns, and this energy is used whether I get in the lift or not.

Climbing stairs uses approximately 0.17 calories per stair going up and 0.05 per stair going down (depending on your weight and how fast you climb - slower uses more!) so my daily climb uses about 15.5 calories up and 4.5 down. I'm not a very fit individual, so it is definitely worth me using those calories each day.

The other stairs I climb regularly in the course of my work. If you recognise them and value this place, you might consider popping a letter to your MP about funding cuts...


One Two Three blogs or articles about the energy savings (or not) of taking the stairs (the last one has quite a detailed calculator, but you need to know a bit of technical detail about your favourite lift)

A mug's guide to how a lift works.

Fun facts about stair climbing -  but don't believe their 'fact' about taking the stairs saving 0.3-0.6kg of CO2 per day; I can't find any data to support this claim.