Tips for Choosing a Winch

A winch can’t do everything, but some winches can come close.

If you need to lift or pull a large load, such as a heavy piece of equipment, a powered winch is handy. Choosing the right winch for the job helps ensure that you can get the work done safely and efficiently. Here’s what to consider.

Which winch: Air or electric?

Winches use a series of gear reductions to make the lifting or pulling of a load easier. The load is attached to a cable, which winds around the drum of the winch. Most industrial winches come with a single brake to keep the load from falling.

There are two types of winches used for heavy-duty lifting. An air winch, aka air tugger, uses compressed air to power the gears. Pneumatic winches generally have a larger gear reduction and can handle heavier loads, making them ideal for industrial applications.

An electric winch uses electricity. Typically, these winches aren’t as heavy-duty as air winches. Some electric winches are meant to be anchored to something on the jobsite, but other, smaller electric winches are more portable. Some are powered by a car battery and can be used to pull a vehicle out of the mud.

Load size

Winches are rated for a specific weight; so, you’ll need an idea of how much you’ll be lifting. Some electrical winches are rated for just 1,000 pounds, while larger air winches can pull or lift up to 10,000 pounds.

Desired speed

Air winches and electric winches move loads quickly, at about 28 feet per minute. The exact specs vary among specific products. The bigger the winch, the slower it pulls. So, if you’re looking to maximize efficiency, choose the smallest winch that can safely handle the load you’re moving.

Cable size and length

The cable must be compatible with the winch. The winch and cable need to have the same weight rating, and the cable must fit safely within the winch’s braking system. If there’s an onsite engineer, that person generally will determine the necessary cable size.

Also consider how much cable length you need and whether it will fit on the drum of the winch. For safety reasons you should maintain three spools of cable on the drum, which means having 30 to 40 extra feet of cable.

Cable is available for purchase, as opposed to rental. Your equipment rental provider can guide you to a cable suitable for the winch you’re renting. If you already own cable that is appropriate for the job, you’ll want to choose a winch that fits the cable you have, since buying new cable can be expensive.

Other considerations

When buying or renting a winch, remember:

  • You’ll need an anchor. Winches need to be secured in place before they begin pulling. They can be mounted to a beam (with the appropriate weight rating) or anchored into the ground. Some smaller winches are designed to be affixed to your vehicle.
  • To lift people, you’ll need a double brake. Many winches come with just one brake. If you plan to lift people, the winch must have a secondary braking system. Always check the operations manual to confirm whether the winch is designed to lift people.
  • A hoist may be another option. If you’re lifting and not pulling, a hoist is another option. (Winches can be used for pulling or lifting, whereas hoists are designed for lifting only.) A hoist uses chain instead of cable to lift a load. If you’re lifting a load, choosing between a winch and a hoist comes down to personal preference.
  • Expert Advice. This article is meant to be a resource for general information on winches. Since every job is different, it is important for you to consult with an expert regarding winches and the specifics of your job to ensure safe use and operation, as well as compliance with applicable rules and regulations.

RELATED: Choosing the Right Hoist for the Job 

Kelly Burch is a freelance writer who covers business, manufacturing and consumer guidance. 


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