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

Grainger Editorial Staff

They may look similar, but winches and hoists are made for different work. 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 greater than 45 degrees. Both kinds of tools can make heavy lifting tasks easier, but it's important to choose the kind that's right for your task.

What Is a Winch?

Winch systems are devices that 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.

Manual Winch

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.

Electric Winch

Choosing the Right Winch System

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

A rule of thumb to figure out the minimum size of the winch you’ll need is to 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. But keep in mind that there are many 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, might seem like a perfect job for a winch, but that’s not always the case. In fact, many winches are not intended to be used as hoists, so hoists are often better for jobs that require you to lift or lower a load.

Manual Chain Hoist

Hoists are typically made with chain or wire rope, and they 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 available. Electric hoists are rated by state of loading, duration of use and area of application. Rating criteria are published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). The standard for electric chain hoists is ASME-HST-1. The Hoist Manufacturers Institute (HMI) has published a Compendium of Basic Information and Standards for Hoists (PDF) that describes the standards applicable in the U.S. and around the world.

Electric Chain Hoist

Electric hoists have a duty cycle rating ranging from H1 (light duty) to H5 (heavy duty). Many 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. 

Electric Hoists vs. Pneumatic Hoists

In some situations, hoists powered by compressed air, called pneumatic hoists or air hoists, offer advantages over those with electric motors. Electric hoists are not intended to run all the time, though those with the highest duty rating (H5) are suitable for operation that's closer to continuous. On the other hand, many air hoists are suitable for continuous operation. Also, air hoists don't pose an electrical arcing hazard, so they can be used in flammable environments.  

Pneumatic Chain Hoist

Winch vs. Hoist Braking Systems

One major distinguishing factor between a winch and a hoist is the braking 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, leading to a very hazardous situation.

Hoists use mechanical braking systems featuring a physical brake that locks the suspended material so there's no line to bleed. Hoists also don't have a free spool mechanism. This makes hoists the safer option for lifting materials, since there's 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 this mechanism. 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

Because of the potential for injury, hoists and winches must be properly maintained. It’s important to follow the 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 that 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.

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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