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An East End Elevator Pitch

Thu, 11/09/2023 - 11:43

Pneumatic vacuum technology helps homeowners age in place

Neil Cornfield proudly shows off a pneumatic vacuum elevator he recently installed at a Montauk client’s house.
Christine Sampson

It looks like something straight out of a “Star Trek” episode. That’s why someone riding a pneumatic vacuum elevator may be surprised to learn these systems rely on decades-old technology.

The residential elevator is gaining popularity on Long Island and on the East End in particular, where aging homeowners are finding that it’s adding years of useful life to houses taller than a single story.

“It’s one after the other the past two years. There’s been an incredible response,” said Neil Cornfield, a Port Washington contractor who has had so much success with installing pneumatic vacuum elevators (P.V.E.s) that he became a certified distributor for the manufacturer as well. Several of his clients live on the South Fork.

Even during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, business was booming for Mr. Cornfield. “People were staying home and realizing they couldn’t do the stairs.”

He installed such a system earlier this year for Janine and Bart Dalli of Montauk, who have owned their home, a two-story house with a basement, for 22 years.

“We’re both retired and live here full time, so that’s why we were thinking of some other means of going up and down besides the steps,” Mr. Dalli said. “We love it. It just feels like it’s part of the furniture.”

Showing off a long scar from a total knee replacement, he noted, “We probably couldn’t have stayed here if we didn’t have this elevator.”

“Everyone wants a ride in it,” Ms. Dalli says, jokingly telling a guest to say, “Beam me up, Scotty.”

If you’ve ever done a transaction in the “drive-through” lane at your bank using a canister in a vacuum-sealed tube, well, you’ve already got an idea of how the technology works.

P.V.E.s come in three widths: a 30-inch diameter model for a single rider, a 37-inch model for two people or one person using a walker, and a 52-inch version large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. There are options for fold-up seats. The whole thing typically takes two to three days to install.

The system can accommodate up to five levels, or 50 vertical feet of elevator. It doesn’t require a below-grade “pit” or heavy-duty cables and machinery, in the way a standard hydraulic elevator does. Without the need for lubricants, it’s considered to be friendlier to the environment. Powered by electricity, it features an emergency backup brake system in case of a power outage. As is required by law in New York State, each P.V.E. is also equipped with a phone.

With the average life expectancy of an American adult at 76-plus years, and advanced medical care becoming more accessible in many parts of the country, the elevator industry is looking at long life as something to celebrate. Having a residential elevator makes it a little easier to enjoy what for most people is the single largest asset they own — their house.

“You start thinking, ‘Do I have to sell my house and find a one-story home because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to climb stairs?’ “ Mr. Cornfield said. “You naturally know, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’ “

The Dallis also use their elevator when doing their laundry and taking food to their outdoor deck when they have company over. “We use it constantly — we use it all day long,” Ms. Dalli said.

Mr. Dalli explained they chose the P.V.E. over a conventional elevator option that would have required a closet-like addition built onto the outside of the house. A stair lift wasn’t a practical option.

“It’s not new technology; we basically just changed the scale of it. This product has been in production for over 20 years, and we’re in 100 countries around the world,” Mr. Cornfield said. “My motto is, don’t relocate — elevate.”

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