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Winch vs. Hoist: Which One Is Right for the Job?

Grainger Editorial Staff

While they look similar, winches and hoists are made to do separate things. A winch is designed to pull a heavy load horizontally over a slightly inclined or level surface, and a hoist is designed to lift a load vertically over steeper inclines that are greater than 45 degrees. Both tools can make heavy lifting tasks easier. However, it’s important to ensure you’re choosing the right equipment for the job. Learn about the differences between a hoist and a winch:

What Is a Winch?

Winch systems are devices used to wind a cable or a rope in or out, so that the resulting tension pulls an object. The winch drum is powered manually or by air, electricity or hydraulics. Most winch drums are made of fabricated steel and are designed for a specific load capacity. A simple winch, such as a manual one, consists of a rope or cable wound around a drum or barrel. More complex industrial winches, like electric winches, are used to tow automobiles, boats or to help move pieces of heavy equipment.

Choosing the Right Winch System

Winches are rated by the maximum load it can pull with only the bottom layer of rope on the drum. As the layers of wire rope increase, the line pull typically decreases by approximately 10 percent per layer. The size of winch you need for a job depends on many factors including: weight, mobility and surface level.

Here’s a quick easy formula to determine the minimum size of a winch you’ll need: multiply the gross weight of the heaviest object you plan to pull by 1.5. For example, if you plan to pull a 1,000-pound object, you’ll need a winch with a minimum of 1,500 pounds of line pull. It’s important to keep in mind that there numerous variables associated with winching, so it is best to consult with the manufacturer to verify the proper winch size for your intended application.

What Is a Hoist?

Lifting heavy objects, like an engine block or construction material may seem like a perfect job for a winch, but that’s not always the case. Instead, use a hoist for jobs that require you to lift or lower a load. Hoists are typically made with chain or wire rope, and can be operated manually or by powered motors. Powered hoists include all those that are driven by electric, hydraulic or pneumatic motors. Manual hoists include all those that are ratcheted, levered or hand cranked. Electric chain hoists are ideal for mechanics and machine shops because they can be plugged into any standard electrical outlet. Air chain hoists are recommended for lifting heavy materials in flammable, dusty or dirty environments.

Choosing the Right Hoist

There are numerous hoist types out there. These tools are rated by state of loading, duration of use and area of application. These factors determine the hoist duty cycle rating ranging from H2 (light duty) to H4 (industry standard). An H2 light duty hoist means that it will run for no more than 15 percent of the work period with a maximum of 75 starts/stops per hour. A hoist with a rating of H4 means that it is rated to run approaching 50 percent of the work period and can handle a maximum of 300 starts/stops per hour.

Most common problems with hoists arise when used beyond their intended duty cycle rating. Before using a hoist, consider the task, and match the duty cycle rating accordingly. If your hoist is undersized, it can cause premature damage. Also, another important factor to consider is the environment in which the hoist will be used because duty cycle ratings work within certain temperature ranges.

Winch vs. Hoist

One major distinguishing factor between a winch and a hoist is the breaking system. The majority of off-road winches are made with dynamic brakes in which the gear system is designed to automatically hold the load. Dynamic brakes use the gears in the winch for resistance making it unstable for suspended loads. For this reason, if you were to try to use a winch as a hoist, the load could slip or the gears could strip resulting in a very hazardous situation.

Hoists use mechanical braking systems that feature a physical brake which locks the suspended material so there is no line to bleed. Hoists also do not have a free spool mechanism. This makes hoists the safer option for lifting materials, since there is a reduced risk of the load slipping off. Hoists are also equipped with a load-limiting switch to prevent it from trying to lift more than its designed capacity.

Some winches are specially manufactured to double as a hoist. In order for a winch to be used as a hoist, it must have a locking brake and no free spool mechanism, or you must be able to remove or disable it. You should never use a winch as a hoist unless the manufacturer clearly states the winch is approved to use as a hoist.

Hoist and Winch Maintenance Tips

Due to the potential risk for injury, hoists and winches must be properly maintained. It’s important to follow your manufacturer’s maintenance instructions in addition to these general guidelines for safe operation.

  • Inspect your winch before and after each use. If the wire rope has become damaged, frayed or kinked, it’s important to replace it right away.
  • Keep the winch, wire rope and remote control clean. If necessary, unwind the winch completely, and use a clean rag to remove any dirt and debris.
  • When using a vehicle-mounted winch, be sure to check and maintain your vehicle battery and its cables. Operating the winch for long periods of time puts extra strain on the battery.
  • Ensure your hoist remains in proper working condition through regular maintenance. Conduct routine load testing to ensure you know just how much weight the hoist can handle.
  • Regularly inspect your chain hoist, and lubricate according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

For more information on overhead hoist inspection, read this Quick Tip to help with your compliance with OSHA regulations.


“Industrial Hoist Information” IHS Engineering360

“Industrial Winches” IHS Engineering360

“Choosing the Right Hoist for the Job” Grainger Workbench Video

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.


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