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Going Up?: Find the Right Opener for Your Garage Door

Garage door openers are becoming increasingly popular as the garage becomes a fundamental part of the house, not merely a place to park the car. Garages nowadays are used as storage areas and workshops, and they often have bedrooms, home offices and other rooms above them. In many cases, the garage has become the primary entry and exit point to and from the house. Once viewed as indulgences for the privileged, garage door openers are now standard conveniences.
With new-home construction robust the past couple of years, the industry is flourishing. Exact statistics aren't available, but it is estimated that 3 million to 4 million garage door openers will be sold in the United States this year. And why not? Whether you're building a new garage, replacing an old garage door opener, or turning your manual door into the automated variety, you can buy an entry-level opener for under $140 that will give you easy access, added security and convenience. And you'll never have to step out into the rain or snow again to put your car into its designated spot. With a little maintenance, openers have an average life expectancy of at least 10 years under normal conditions.
When shopping for a garage door opener, you will want to consider cost, noise, installation, lighting, remote access, safety and any custom needs you may have. If you're handy with tools, plenty of do-it-yourself models are available for self-installation. If you're uncomfortable with mechanical or electrical projects, you can hire a dealer to put one in for you. About 50 to 60 percent of all garage doors are self-installed. Garage door openers come in a variety of styles. Your purchase will depend on your preferences and needs. "People are always asking which one is better,"says Bryan Hantke, senior director of marketing for Genie Co. in Alliance, Ohio.
"That's like going to a car dealer, looking at a V-6 and a V-8 engine, and asking which one is better. It depends on what you need. John Zoller, a consultant for garage-door dealers and manufacturers, and also a part owner of several dealers in Wooster, Ohio, says homeowners have a variety of choices. "I think the first thing consumers should decide is if they want all the bells and whistles or if they want a plain Jane," he says. "They can get a plain Jane with 1/3 horsepower, one door and a single switch, and they can get by just fine. If you are more inclined to buy something that has a few more bells and whistles, and a little more durability, there's plenty to choose from.
Genie and the Chamberlain Group Inc. in Elmhurst, Ill., are the two leading garage-door manufacturers in the United States. Chamberlain touts its professionally installed LiftMaster model as the nation's best seller. There are some smaller manufacturers as well, including Allstar Corp. of Downingtown, Penn.; Marantec America Corp. of Lincolnshire, Ill.; Wayne-Dalton Corp. of Mt. Hope, Ohio; and Linear Corp. of Carlsbad, Calif. Self-installed models can be found at hardware and home-improvement stores, warehouse clubs, Sears and other retail outlets. You can find a professional installer by looking in your yellow pages, typically under "garage doors.
Garage door openers lift your garage door using three basic types of lift mechanisms: chain drives, belt drives or screw drives. These openers raise and lower the door using a trolley that slides along a rail; the trolley is moved by the chain, belt or screw. The garage door is lifted or lowered along rails that are installed along the side of the door opening. The three types of openers, however, do have their differences. Chain-drive openers: The most common opener on the market, chain drives are the least expensive but also the noisiest because of the metal chains running along the metal trolley. These are generally the entry-level models and will suit most people's needs.
They typically run from $129 to $179. Belt-drive openers: These operate the same way that chain-drive models do, but instead of a metal chain, they use a belt made of a rubber-like composite material. These are quieter than chain-drive models and retail typically for $149 to $249. Screw-drive openers: These use a long, threaded steel rod to lift the door. They are generally stronger and more expensive than chain-drive models, but they require less maintenance because they have fewer moving parts. They are slower than other models and are ideal for the single-panel, tilt-up-style doors - ones that are prevalent in California - that don't run on tracks.
They generally sell for $149 to $249. There are variations on these styles, of course, and Wayne-Dalton recently introduced its iDrive DoorMaster model that attaches directly to the shaft above the garage door. The design makes the opener a part of the garage door, rather than an extension of the door, and therefore doesn't have a rail extending above the garage where the motor is typically attached to the ceiling. So which model is right for you? Traci Wilson, spokeswoman for The Chamberlain Group, suggests that people assess their homes and their lifestyles before deciding. If you have heavy garage doors, you'll probably want a 1/2- or even a 3/4-horsepower motor instead of a 1/3-horsepower model. If you're the impatient type that hates to wait in the driveway while the door lifts, you might consider a faster-moving model. Here are some factors you might consider:
Noise: Chain drives are the noisiest, and belt drives are the quietest.
Speed: Garage doors lift up at an average seven inches per second. But screw-drive models are slower, and some models are faster. For example, Genie has a model called the Excelerator that lifts at 14 inches per second. For safety's sake, it closes at the standard speed.
Remote access: Most openers will come with two remote-control devices to open and close the door; a third remote will run you $25 or $30. Some models use a one-button remote, and others have two or more buttons, which are ideal if you have more than one garage bay, each with a separate door.
Security: Garage door openers today use "rolling codes" for security, to prevent code theft and ensure that your neighbor's remote opener won't open your door - and vice versa. This simply means that the transponder code changes every time it is used so it is very hard to copy - and expensive to replace. Virtually all openers also have security lights that come on when the opener is activated, some models come with two lights and others are designed to cast the light downward to give greater illumination.
Safety: By law, all garage door openers are required to have "entrapment protection" devices to prevent the door from shutting down on children, animals and other objects. The most common are optic sensors that are placed on either side of the garage and can detect when something is breaking the optic wave. Some doors have pressure-sensitive contact strips on the bottom of the door that tells the motor to stop when it comes into contact with something, but those are more common on commercial doors, Hantke says.
Accessories: Today, garage-door manufacturers offer more accessories than ever. You can have one-, two- or three-button remotes, keychain remotes, and fixed-keypad remotes. Some keypads, which are installed on a garage wall, allow you to lock the door electronically for a specific amount of time, such as when you go on vacation. Genie recently came out with a product called G-Mail, which allows people to leave audio messages for other family members on fixed keypads, much the way some telephone answering machines work. Chamberlain has a monitor to place in your home - on a kitchen counter or nightstand, perhaps - with two lights on it to tell you if the garage door is open (green) or closed (red).
Customization: You should also consider whether you want one opener for a single, wide door on your garage, or two openers for two separate doors. Wilson, with the Chamberlain Group, says more people nowadays have three- or four-door garages; she's seen garages with up to eight spaces for cars. She has also seen custom door openers to accommodate special needs, such as the family she once saw that needed the opener to be specially installed so the garage could house a basketball court. You can even buy a model that opens garage doors sideways, but those are extremely rare and can be found only on high-end houses, Zoller says.
Now that you've determined your needs, you're ready to make your purchase. But you still have to decide whether you want to install it yourself or hire a professional to install it for you. If you hire a pro, you can expect to pay an additional $75 to $150 - but experts say it pays to shop around. If you're handy with tools and want to save a few bucks, you might want to install the door opener yourself. Installing an opener is a relatively straightforward project, but the process differs from opener to opener. Typically, however, it involves assembling rail pieces, hanging the motor and rail from the ceiling and attaching the trolley to the door. You also will have to install the electric eye, power head and control console. Make sure you are equipped with a power drill, hammer, adjustable wrench, screwdrivers, pliers, measuring tape and stepladder. Set aside at least half a day or so for the job, and possibly up to a day if you've never installed one before. Recruit a helper to make it much easier (it is almost always a two-person job).
A seasoned pro, on the other hand, should be able to have the job done in less than an hour, Zoller says. Once the opener is in, your job isn't over. Joe Hetzel, technical director for the Door & Access Systems Manufacturers Association, says the homeowner should test the opener and door to make sure everything works properly. You should make sure the motor head, which must be at least seven feet off the floor, isn't vibrating to ensure it doesn't shake loose and fall to the floor. Make sure the optic sensor system - the safety device that sends a beam from one box to another on either side of the garage door - is correctly aligned. The door should slide up the rails smoothly.
Homeowners should routinely conduct a reversal test to make sure the entrapment-protection device operates correctly. They should also conduct a visual inspection of the springs, rollers, pulleys and cables, and make sure the door is balanced. "Ongoing maintenance is very, very important," says Chris Long, managing director of the International Door Association. "Most people don't think about it too much. As long as the door goes up and down, they're happy." Clarke Canfield is a freelance writer based in South Portland, Maine.