Uplifting Experience: Garage Door Openers

When I was a kid, one of my jobs was that of official garage door opener. In rain, sun or snow, I hopped out of the car to open and close the overhead door for my parents. But when my father installed an electronic garage door opener, all that changed.

Relieved of my duties, I created a dangerous game (unbeknownst to my parents) of pushing the wall button and then racing from the back of the garage to see if I could slip under the door before it closed. It’s a wonder I survived my childhood.

These days that game wouldn’t be nearly as exciting: Thanks to pressure and obstacle sensors and improvements in motor speed and direction reversing, modern openers are far more sophisticated — and safe — than the early models of the 1970s. However, the current variety of bells and whistles can make choosing a garage door opener complicated. So we consulted the experts at Chamberlain Garage Door Openers and Aker Doors to learn everything you need to know about the various models available today. Read on the take the guesswork out of your next opener purchase.

By far the most common and inexpensive type of residential garage door opener is the chain-drive opener. These old-style devices incorporate a very long bicycle-style chain that can be noisy, so they may not be the best choice if your garage is close to a bedroom (though being able to hear the door open and close can help you track the comings and goings of teenagers). Chain-drive openers are available in both 1/2- and 3/4-hp models and typically cost $125 to $200.

The three main types of DIY-oriented consumer garage door opener drive systems include screw (top), chain (center) and belt (bottom).

If you want an opener that’s both quieter and easier to install, consider a screw-drive model. Instead of a chain, these openers have a long, threaded steel rod that’s turned by a gear at the opener’s motor. Because they have very few moving parts, screw-drive openers make less noise and require less maintenance than chain-drive styles. Typical prices range from $150 to $225.

Even quieter than a screw-drive opener is a belt-drive opener. Similar in design to chain-drive models, these openers use a long rubber belt to raise and lower the door. They require very little (if any) maintenance and typically cost $200 to $300 or more.

A relative newcomer to the residential opener scene is the jackshaft opener. Instead of hanging from the ceiling, this type of opener is mounted on the same wall as the overhead door and directly engages the door’s jackshaft (the large steel tube that runs the width of the door and upon which the springs are wound), so there’s no overhead track or drive system. These openers are extremely quiet and incredibly nonintrusive, but they require professional installation.

When residential openers first hit the market, they featured AC- (alternating-current) powered motors. Strong, durable, inexpensive and dependable, AC motors remained the only option until the early 1990s. But because an AC motor’s speed and torque are more difficult to control due to three electrical parameters (frequency, voltage-to-frequency ratio and phase relationship), manufacturers began introducing smaller, quieter, faster and more efficient DC (direct-current) motors.

A jackshaft opener mounts on the same wall as the overhead door and directly rotates the jackshaft, eliminating the need for an overhead unit.

DC motor speeds can be controlled smoothly down to zero, followed immediately by acceleration in the opposite direction. Due to a high torque-to-inertia ratio, DC motors respond more quickly to changing control signals, so they allow for features such as soft starting and stopping of door movements, separate opening and closing speeds, faster obstruction response and more accurate door-position control. And in cases requiring quick stops, a DC motor eliminates the need for a mechanical brake by using dynamic or regenerative motor braking.

Although DC motors require a conversion from AC power (distributed to the home) to DC power, they draw about two to four times less current and therefore consume less power than an AC motor of equal output. As a result, manufacturers have been able to incorporate battery backups for use in the event of a power outage.

One of the benefits of a DC-powered opener is that it can be outfitted with a battery backup that will operate the opener in the event of a power failure.

When garage door openers first hit the residential market, any stranger with a compatible remote control unit would be able to open the garage door. To solve this problem, early units were equipped with eight dip switches – tiny on-off switches that could be set to one of 256 different code variations.

With rolling-code technology, every time the transmitter is operated it not only sends the code to the receiver but also creates a new code for the next operation.

Modern openers use much more sophisticated means to ensure security, thanks to rolling-code technology. Whenever the transmitter sends its code to the receiver, it then generates a new code using an encoder. After receiving a correct code, the receiver uses the same encoder to generate a new matching code that it will accept the next time. And because there’s always a chance that users might push the “open” button while they’re out of range, the transmitter and receiver also generate look-ahead codes to prevent accidental desynchronization.

If you purchase a traditional overhead-mounted opener, many retailers offer installation services that typically range from $75 to $100. But if you want to do the work yourself, you probably can. Installing a standard garage door opener is a job that most homeowners can handle.

However, professional expertise is necessary for some situations — such as installing a jackshaft opener. Because the motor directly turns the garage door’s jackshaft, it’s extremely important that the door be perfectly balanced. This involves adjusting the tension of both of the door’s torsion springs, and for safety reasons, that’s a job that only a professional should undertake. In addition, jackshaft openers have unique features that require specific installation knowledge.

Typical DIY Installation

The first step in a typical opener installation is to assemble the rail sections and attach the drive mechanism – in this case, a belt.

For proper operation, it’s vital that the belt be set at the correct tension.

After hanging the motor and rail, connect the door bracket to the trolley.

Install the safety sensors no more than 6 in. from the floor. Notice the extra coil of wire to alleviate any tension.

Carefully route the wires for the sensors and attach them to the wall and ceiling using a stapler.

No matter what type of installation you favor, keep these points in mind as you choose an opener:

  • Select a 1/2- or 3/4-hp opener rather than a less expensive 1/3-hp model. Horsepower directly affects the rate at which a door opens and closes. Contrary to popular misconception, the overall weight of the door is not a factor, as the overhead torsion springs balance the door and carry most of the door’s weight as it travels up and down. If the springs are balanced properly, a heavy door should be just as easy for the opener to lift as a light one.
  • Pay attention to warranties, as there are big differences among various brands. Look for a long-term warranty that covers the motor and all other parts.
  • If you’re impatient, keep in mind that some openers operate at higher speeds. The average speed of most openers is 7 in. of lift/drop per second. Some newer models double this speed.
  • Because the garage door opener often functions as the primary light source in the garage, be sure it will provide adequate illumination. Standard models can handle two 60-watt bulbs, but if you need more illumination, choose one that can handle two 100-watt bulbs.
  • Consider extras. Wireless key pads, biometric identification systems, extra car remotes, laser parking guides and auxiliary door-open reminder lights are available for many models, and some openers include more extras than others. Closely examine the packaging to identify what comes in the box and what you’ll have to buy separately.

When it comes to purchasing a garage door opener, you get what you pay for. A stronger motor and a quieter drive system will cost more, but they’ll offer better overall durability and ease of operation. In many cases spending just $50 more will pay off with a lifetime of superior performance.

Jackshaft Opener Installation

A jackshaft opener is mounted on the same wall as the overhead door.

A safety mechanism that monitors cable tension is installed and wired into the motor.

A clamp secures the motor drive to the overhead door’s jackshaft.

Because this type of opener has no gearing to prevent the door from being manually opened by unauthorized parties, an electronic deadbolt is mounted to the rail.

In place of an overhead motor, a remote lighting unit that’s activated whenever the door is in motion is installed on the ceiling.

Safety Codes
The garage door is the largest moving object in a home. An improperly adjusted opener can exert strong – even deadly – force and might not reverse the garage door in an emergency. To ensure safe operation, follow these guidelines:

  • Make sure the door’s torsion springs are properly adjusted – a door that’s out of balance may not reverse properly.
  • Check that the header bracket of the opener track is securely mounted to a structural member of the garage wall. If it’s loose or improperly mounted, it may pull away from the wall, causing the door to fall.
  • All garage door openers manufactured since 1982 are required to have a red handle and red rope that is attached to the trolley and disconnects the opener from the garage door so it can be raised in an emergency. The handle should be mounted no higher than 6 ft. from the ground. Openers manufactured since 1982 are also designed to automatically reverse if the door strikes a solid object. Periodically check to make sure that your opener’s reversing system is working properly.
  • The wall console/push button should be mounted at least 5 ft. from the floor.
  • Remote controls should be kept out of the hands of children, and children should never be allowed to play with or use the garage door opener remotes or wall buttons.
  • By federal law, garage door openers manufactured since 1993 are required to have safety sensors on both sides of the door mounted no higher than 6 in. above the ground. The sensors emit an invisible laser beam across the door, and when the beam is broken, the door reverses.