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Electrically Operated or Manually Operated Operable Walls?

To paraphrase Shakespeare: To push the button or push the panels? – That is the question! In reality of course to activate an electric wall you would most likely turn key switches and I suppose you could also pull manual panels but the overriding question is” “What is the best choice: an electric system or a manual system?” At the outset, Moderco has both but based on 40 years of experience we also have knowledge & opinions. This is the purpose of this blog.

The only application that typically requires an electrically operated wall is the division of gymnasiums where many setups per day are frequently required is the overriding concern (not aesthetics or acoustics). This paper will not address this application. The only perceived benefit that an electric wall has over a manual wall is “convenience” which is the supposed ability to quickly and easily extend and retract a wall system with little effort and by anyone whether or not they have the skills. But does this single benefit outweigh potential negativity? First of all there are two applications where electric walls should never be used:

In a project that is in a remote location. Far away from the installing distributor or manufacturer or someone who can service the wall in case of an unexpected malfunction. An electric wall has motors, cables, clutches, gears and all kinds of mechanical & electric whozits that are subject to wear & tear and breakdowns. As time passes components on electric walls have to be adjusted and repaired and replaced much more so than on a manual wall system. Unfortunately parts that are more prone to wear & breakage are not readily available locally or able to be fixed/replaced by a local mechanic. A specialist is most often required and until the problem is determined what repair parts will be needed. This takes time and could be extremely expensive especially if the project is slightly south of the North Pole or in West Texas etc.
On a project where the guaranteed operation of the wall is mandatory and critical to the success of the facility in which it is installed. If a wall is going to break down I absolutely guarantee it will happen at the worst possible time (Murphy’s Law). The electric wall (and it does not matter who made it or who installed it) will cease working on a Sunday Afternoon of a long weekend during a blizzard (or Hurricane) just before it is to divide a meeting of the Union of Mine Mill and Smelter Workers on one side and The Daughters of the American Revolution on the other. And in spite of the fact that the manufacturer says that the wall can be “manually operated” by releasing it from the motor unit you will not be able to do so unless you have quick access to a Humvee. If it positively “has to work” an electric wall is not the right choice.

Other factors to consider are the following:

Deflection of Structure:

Operable walls are suspended from steel beams that are typically designed to deflect from both live and dead loads. ASTM E557 calls for a maximum beam deflection of 1/8" in 12'-0". If a wall is 50’ long this would mean that the allowable deflection is 0.52" at mid point of the clear span. Remember that an electrical wall is one big unit all hinged together with little flexibility and any movement will put some strain on the hinges. However, a single panel system (maximum 4’ wide panels) that is composed of individual units and with 2” base seals can easily accommodate the 0.52” deflection.

Care & Maintenance:

A “brief” synopsis of the care and maintenance of an electrical wall would read as follows:

Monitor and adjust breaker arms to ensure panel flattening
Check trolley adjustments ensuring that each panel is always carrying equal amounts of weight.
Lubricate hinges to reduce friction on hinge barrels.
Check top sweeps to reduce friction
Check base seals to reduce friction.
For safety reasons two operators are recommended.
Maintain a safe distance from wall when in operation.
Check for obstacles. Ensure stack area is free of obstructions and debris
Adjust vertical seals periodically to ensure they are plumb.
Clean & lubricate track
Ensure all pass doors are shut before operating.
Maintenance of the drive unit – grease flange bearing, check the oil level in the brake system or check the degradation of the mechanical brake, adjust the chain or cable.

A “brief” synopsis of a single panel manual wall would read.

Clear path of obstacles before moving panels
Raise all manual seals
Close pass doors
Manually push panels to stack area. Only one operator is required.
Clean and lubricate track
Check top sweeps for wear & tear.

It is obvious which system is more “user” friendly. In terms of care and maintenance manual walls are the best choice.

Time to set-up.

Times to set up walls vary but the following is a general but accurate estimate. An electric wall (two persons) can be set up at the rate of 33 ft/minute. A manual wall (one person) can be set up at the rate of 14’/minute. So an electric wall is a little over twice as fast. Definitely faster but whether or not this advantage outweighs the disadvantages is something to ponder.

Alternate Locations.
An electric wall can close off one opening and will not set “flat” unless the entire wall is extended. A manual wall can be relocated as long as alternate track locations are designed into the structure. Individual panels can also be brought out and by the use of mechanical seals set up in many locations in the space for the purpose of hanging photos or using writing surfaces.


Stacking requirements.

A continuously hinged electric must stack on the center line of the track. It can only go one way – straight in. A manual single panel system can stack remotely, off to the side, on angles etc. It is more able to use available space much more efficiently.


Electric walls are more costly to purchase primarily because of the motor drive unit and accessories. A rough estimate after you add in extra installation, freight and set up would be 9 to $10,000 more than an equivalent in size manual wall system.


Each application is different and although Moderco offers a complete range of both manual and electric wall systems we feel that manual walls are always the best choice. Please contact your local Moderco distributor or Mario Fyfe at Moderco (1 800 363-3150) to discuss your particular requirement.