A jack is a extremely useful tool that enables you to change a flat, rotate tires, change the oil or brake pads, and many other uses. Unfortunately, they’re also dangerous if used incorrectly. Before you get under two tons of vehicle, here’s everything you need to know.
Which Jack Do You Need?
Odds are, you can’t go all Avengers style and lift your vehicle off the ground whenever it’s needed. However, one tool does allow you to get the same effect. A vehicle jack uses your arm strength in pumping a lever to build internal hydraulic pressure, which in turn powers a ram that can lift a heavy vehicle off the ground. You can raise a vehicle several inches higher than it normally sits, which is useful for any number of routine or emergency repairs. From rotating tires to changing your oil or swapping brake pads, you can save a lot of money with DIY maintenance, but only if you have a jack. There are a couple of main types available from your favorite tool retailer:
- Floor jack – The heaviest and largest jack type, you’ll find these in mechanic’s garages and even used by NASCAR. Strong, stable, and low profile for getting under sports cars, floor jacks are great for a home garage. The down sides are the heavy weight, and they’re more expensive than other jack types.
- Bottle jack – Looking like a steel Gatorade bottle, this jack type is the strongest you can buy. Some very affordable versions ($50) are able to lift up to 20 tons. Bottle jacks aren’t the most stable design, but are better than scissor jacks, and deliver way more lifting power. The small size means they are easily portable.
- Scissor jack – This is the cheapo factory jack buried under your spare tire. Scissor jacks are not very strong or stable, and are extremely slow to lift. Manufacturers include them in your vehicle because they are the cheapest design to produce and are very light weight. Use only as a last resort for quick/easy work like changing a flat tire on the side of the road.
Basically the decision on which jack to buy is really dependent on price and portability. Between jobs, but need something portable? Stick with a scissor type. Looking to lift a heavy Ford Expedition? Get a bottle. Want the easiest way to lift your Chevrolet Corvette at home? A floor jack is for you.
Jacking Points Explained
Once you have a new jack, don’t go trying to lift your vehicle up by any surface you find underneath. That’ll quickly make for a “jacked up” ride, and not in the good way. Look in your owner’s manual for the jack points underneath your vehicle. These are strong structural parts designed to safely hold the vehicle’s weight. If you don’t have your manual handy, look for thick metal parts of the frame or sub-frame, like the engine cradle. Never attempt to jack a vehicle using the oil or transmission pans, or suspension components, as this will cause expensive damage. If you live in a part of the country were rust is an issue, use a rag over the jack head to protect it from scraping paint or undercoat off. For the home garage with the floor jack, use a dedicated $5 jack pad for the same effect.
Jacking Trucks and Tall Vehicles
Trucks, SUVs and some crossovers introduce a new aspect by being beyond the reach of a small jack. If you’re shopping jacks, notice how high they are able to lift. Compare that to your vehicle’s ground clearance, even taking a measuring tape to it if you need to be sure.
Your included scissor jack is only strong enough for lifting one corner, so if you want to lift the front end, use a heavier duty jack. Lift the rear by placing the jack pad under the rear differential. This piece is designed to carry the weight of the vehicle plus payload and towing, so it can easily handle the vehicle’s weight. Up front, look for the vehicle’s cross member, or “frame rails.” This is the steel cradle that holds the engine. Use a jack in the center, and support on each side with jack stands.
Before you get under a heavy vehicle, there’s a few safety considerations. First, look at the weight rating of the jack versus the weight of your vehicle. A two-ton jack is perfectly fine for everyday cars and crossovers, from a Toyota Corolla to a Toyota RAV4, but (keeping it in Toyota here) the Highlander and Tacoma exceed the safe weight limit. Always try and overdo it a bit on the lifting capacity, as there’s nothing wrong with having a six-ton jack lifting a little Chevy Spark.
Second, no matter the jack type, always use jack stands. Jacks can lose hydraulic pressure and fail, and a jack stand will prevent the vehicle from falling on you. Like jacks, jack stands have different weight ratings and maximum lifting heights, so be sure to check the specs before buying.
Finally, remember to set parking brake. Put an automatic transmission in park, and if you’re one of those rare manual transmission people, put it in first. Wheel chocks are handy if you are parked on a slight hill, but aim for the flattest surface you can find.
Alternatively, for home vehicle maintenance, you might skip the jack entirely and use drive-up ramps. While convenient at home, ramps are bulky and not available if the vehicle is already immobile. And remember that regular vehicle maintenance will prevent many emergency roadside repairs, keeping your vehicle reliable for years to come.