The Science Behind Garage Door Springs
The original article was authored by Tal Joseph, co-owner of Twins Garage Doors, in 2017 and later published in the National Collegiate Honors Council journal in 2019, where it has been downloaded over 5,000 times. Tal originally wrote the paper while completing his Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering at Yale University. He went on to earn a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and is currently pursuing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, also at MIT. With his strong background in engineering, Tal provides unique insights into the physics and mechanics behind garage door components and operation.
The Science of Garage Door Springs – An Engineer’s Perspective
A typical residential overhead garage door is quite large, usually 7-8 feet tall by 9-16 feet wide. They are constructed of 4-5 horizontal panels joined by hinges that allow the door to roll up and down. These large doors can weigh 200 pounds or more but are designed to be relatively easy to manually open and close thanks to counterbalancing torsion springs.
Garage Door Components
The six main components involved in lifting and lowering garage doors are:
- Cables – On each side of the door, a thin steel cable runs from the bottom corner up to a drum on the torsion shaft above. The cables are attached to the concrete floor at the bottom to provide anchoring.
- Drums – The cables wrap around circular drums positioned on the torsion shaft. The drums function as pulleys to provide mechanical advantage.
- Torsion shaft – A metal rod that spans the width of the door horizontally across the top. The drums and springs attach to this shaft, which rotates as the door is opened.
- Tracks – Garage doors utilize vertical tracks on both sides to keep the rollers aligned and horizontal tracks to allow door panels to move away from the opening as they are lifted.
- Rollers – Each panel has wheel-shaped rollers on its sides that roll up and down the vertical tracks during operation.
- Springs – Torsion springs are attached to the torsion shaft on both ends. They provide the counterbalancing upward force needed to lift the weight of the door.
How Torsion Springs Lift Garage Doors
The operation of torsion springs relies on stored potential energy to lift the weight of the door. With the door in the closed position, the springs are tightened (wound) which builds up significant tension and elastic potential energy. The drums are locked in place by the winding cones preventing the springs from unwinding while the door is closed.
When the door is opened, the winding cones release the drums on the torsion shaft allowing the springs to begin quickly unwinding. As the springs unwind, the stored energy is released as rotational kinetic energy turning the torsion shaft and cables. The cables attached to the bottom corners of the door pull it up and back into the garage.
Other Lifting Mechanisms
While most residential garage doors are lifted by torsion springs on a horizontal track, other designs are also used:
- Vertical lift doors operate on a straight vertical track with no horizontal component. They utilize a cone-shaped drum that compensates for the decreasing spring tension during lifting.
- High-lift doors follow an angled track that provides more vertical lift than a standard overhead door but less than a pure vertical lift design. A hybrid drum is used in high-lift systems.
The coiled torsion springs resemble a “donut” shape which in geometry is known as a torus. The torus has a center radius (a) and a minor radius (b) which relate to the spring dimensions:
- Mean diameter of the spring coil = 2a
- Wire size of the spring = 2b
As the spring coils are bent around the torsion shaft, compressive stress is generated on the inner surface of the coil while tensile stress occurs on the outer surface. The neutral surface located halfway between experiences no stress during bending.
Spring Theory and Calculations
Repeated use of garage door springs leads to metal fatigue and eventual failure over time. The expected lifespan of a spring depends on:
- Number of active coils
- Wire diameter
- Mean diameter
- Cycles of use
The torque generated by winding the garage door spring can be calculated based on the geometry and material properties. The lifting force provided by the spring is proportional to its torque.
Properly sizing and winding springs requires complex calculations accounting for factors like door size, weight, lift height, and frequency of use. Following the spring specifications from garage door manufacturers helps ensure safe installation and operation.
Garage door springs are precisely engineered mechanical devices that rely on stored elastic potential energy to provide a counterbalancing lift force. The coiled steel torsion springs experience significant stresses with each use. A thorough understanding of the underlying physics and engineering is key to proper selection, installation, maintenance, and repair.