Update: More apparent trouble with Harbor Freight jack stands, according to the owner of a replacement set for his recalled units, as reported by The Drive. According to the owner, one jack stand failed dramatically at the welded seam under the weight of a Volkswagen Golf (as seen in the Facebook photos below). Harbor Freight told The Drive that the company is investigating the issue. We’ll keep an eye on the situation and update this article if necessary. Please be safe while working under your car. The original article continues below.
The terrifying Harbor Freight recall of jack stands that could fail due to a manufacturing defect is in the news right now, and it is as good a time as any to review the procedures and equipment we’re all using to lift our cars. But first, let’s take a look at the issues facing those particular Harbor Freight jack stands so you have an idea of why this is all so troubling.
Harbor Freight’s recall covers some 3-ton and 6-ton “Pittsburgh” brand jack stands with item numbers 56371, 61196, and 61197. (View the PDF of the recall document here for more details.) These are pawl-type jack stands, with a pawl that engages with teeth on the lifting arm of the jack stand. A design flaw caused by old tooling in the factory that constructed them could cause the pawl to disengage, letting the jack (and the vehicle on top of it) suddenly and unexpectedly drop.
This is dramatically illustrated by a few photos from a Reddit user, who shared it with us anonymously and we’re reprinting here with permission. They applied some paint to the pawl of a unit in question and let it transfer onto the teeth of the jack stand, which gives a sense of exactly how little the pawl is meshing with the teeth. See the mark on the pawl below:
There’s only a sliver of paint transferred onto the tooth, a graphic illustration of how little holding power this particular set of recalled jack stands can muster. You can see the mark, below:
Without knowing about the recall, this sort of defect would be incredibly hard (if not impossible) for a user to notice—until the vehicle came crashing down, with potentially tragic consequences. For reference, the same user took a photo of an older Harbor Freight jack stand that’s not involved in the recall, using the same technique. The larger paint mark means the pawl grabbed a lot more of the tooth. See below:
If you have jack stands from Harbor Freight, please take a minute before reading on to see if they’re affected by the recall. It could save your life.
Working underneath a lifted car is inherently extremely dangerous, and it’s easy to be cavalier or place too much trust in equipment that might not deserve it. Our guide below is intended not as a how-to, since every car and truck is different, but rather as an outline of some best practices that will get you thinking critically about your methods.
As always, carefully read the manual—for your vehicle, for your floor jack, and for your jack stands—before starting. And if you have any concerns about your situation, or equipment, don’t get under the vehicle.
Check the Weight Rating
Before starting, make sure you’ve got the right equipment for the job. You’ll need a jack and at least two jack stands to work under your vehicle. First, ensure they’re rated for your vehicle’s weight. Depending on when it was manufactured and the specific model, jack stands might be weight rated individually or as a pair. Check your specific jack stands’ manual or label to confirm the weight rating to make sure that you’ve actually got the right equipment to support your vehicle.
Also remember that jack stands are intended to be used in pairs, which partially explains the shared weight rating. It’s not recommended to use only one jack stand to support a portion of the vehicle, nor to use two sets to support both ends of the vehicle at the same time (although raising both ends and supporting them with jack stands is common, in practice). Refer to the owner’s manual if you’re unsure.
What weight rating should you choose? Determine your vehicle’s curb weight (it’s generally in the owner’s manual) and pick jack stands with a similar rating. Round up rather than down. If your vehicle weighs 5,500 pounds, choose 3-ton jack stands (or more) rather than 2-ton. Likewise, make sure your lifting device is up to the job. Lastly, check the lifting dimensions—will the jack lift enough to get the jack stands underneath? Are the jack stands long enough to adequately lift the vehicle?
Should You Use a Jack Stand at All?
If you need to lift both ends of the vehicle, there are other devices, such as the QuickJack hydraulic scissor jack (shown above), that are a safer (albeit more expensive) solution. Quality vehicle ramps are also a safe, sturdy, and less expensive alternative for raising two or four wheels off the ground for certain repairs, and they’re fast and convenient when used properly. In many circumstances, these might be safer and quicker alternatives to the floor jack and jack stand method, provided you’re not working on projects that require the wheels to come off.
Check the Condition of Your Jack Stands and Floor Jack
Regardless of what you’ll be lifting or supporting the vehicle with, check the condition of all of them. Make sure the jack is stable and in good working order. Examine your jack stands—whether the pawl, pin, or screw type. If any of this equipment is bent, damaged, or appears questionable, don’t use it. Try to use high-quality equipment from a reputable manufacturer.
We don’t recommend using the jack that came with your vehicle, usually a scissor or bottle jack, for regular maintenance. They’re emergency items for occasional use, like changing a tire on the side of the road.
Jack From a Flat, Hard, Level Surface
Whenever possible, a flat, hard, level surface–like a concrete garage floor—is by far the best surface to lift a vehicle from. This isn’t always possible, especially for a tire change. Do what you can to level the vehicle, and ensure the jack stands rest on a hard surface. A soft surface could cause the jack stands to shift, potentially dropping the vehicle.
There are products called jack stabilizer pads that can be used to support a jack or jack stand. A sturdy piece of wood can also be used in a pinch. But the best option is a hard, level surface.
Before You Lift, Use Chocks
Chocks are simple wedge-like devices that prevent the vehicle from rolling. Place two behind the wheels of the end you are not lifting up. In a pinch, a sturdy block of wood or a brick can be used, provided you ensure it’s enough to prevent the vehicle from rolling. Make sure to set the parking brake, and put the vehicle in “park” or in gear to help ensure it won’t roll as you lift up one end. But also remember that the parking brake generally only works on the rear axle. Make using chocks a habit no matter which end you’re lifting.
Locate Your Lift Points and Your Jack Stand Points
Where you lift from, and where you place your jack stands under the vehicle, is going to vary depending on the vehicle in question. Consult the owner’s manual to determine how to lift. Many vehicles have sturdy lift points intended for this purpose—but make sure the shape and style of the lifting point is a good match for your jack and jack stands. Some vehicles can be lifted by the axle or differential, but this could also damage other vehicles. Don’t make assumptions; consult the manual. If the jack points are damaged or you can’t locate one, don’t lift the vehicle and consult your dealer or trusted mechanic.
Ensure that wherever you jack from, there’s adequate clearance to the jack stand support point to get the jack stand in and squared up underneath that point.
Start with the jack stands on a lower setting. You can always raise them more later. Make sure they’re set to the same height on both sides. Only raise the vehicle as much as you need to do the job safely—more height means more potential instability.
Ensure the Jack Stands are Vertical and Secure
Once the vehicle is chocked, the jack is located safely, and the vehicle is lifted, it’s time to place the jack stands at the indicated points. Ensure the jack stands are vertical and not resting on any debris. Make sure no one is under the vehicle, and it won’t contact anything coming down. Place the jack stands and adjust the height as close to the support point as possible. Slowly release the jack to settle the vehicle onto the jack stands.
As the vehicle settles, make sure the jack stands stay vertical and make good contact with the jack points. Watch carefully, because the vehicle may come down at a slight angle, and you may have to move the jack stands slightly before the vehicle rests on them so they are lined up properly. Once down, and before getting underneath, double check the vehicle’s stability. It shouldn’t rock and the jack stands shouldn’t shift. If it doesn’t feel solid and secure, double-check your setup and perhaps jack the car back up to reset everything.
Create an Escape Path, and Possibly a Back-Up Support
Before getting underneath, think about what might happen if a jack stand (or the jacking point) fails or shifts, dropping the vehicle. How are you going to protect yourself, and how are you going to get out from under the vehicle? It’s not a bad idea to place a third jack stand, the floor jack, or even a tire underneath in a convenient spot to help protect you if the worst happens. Make sure this back-up device doesn’t inhibit your ability to out from under the vehicle quickly.
It’s also not a bad idea to let someone know you’ll be under the car, or have a phone handy. We’ve heard of tragic instances where a person, pinned by a vehicle, would have survived if help came in time.
It doesn’t take long to ensure you’ve got an escape path, or much additional equipment to give create a back-up support, so there’s no reason why you can’t incorporate these potential live-savers into your regular vehicle lifting routine.
When in Doubt, Get Out
Getting bad vibes? Get out, or better yet, don’t get under in the first place. Your life isn’t worth taking a shortcut or using questionable equipment. Stop and make sure you’ve got the right tools for the job, and you know how to use them properly—or take the job to a professional.
Working on your car or truck yourself is rewarding, fun, and can also save you a lot of money, so use safe lifting techniques, common sense—and have fun.
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