Garage Opener Drive Types

There are many ways to skin a cat, as they say. It’s the same with opening garage doors. There’s a bunch of ways you can accomplish this simple task with automatic openers offering a number of features and designs.

In general, you’ll find five types of garage door opener drives in products online and at your local hardware store. Each one has some advantages and disadvantages that could influence your buying decision. It may be a bit confusing at first, but actually it’s not complicated at all.

Chain Drive

The cheapest and probably most common option is a garage door opener that uses a chain drive. The motor drives a chain, which turns a sprocket that works the door. Chain drives are pretty reliable, but their main disadvantage is that they are loud. The chain can rattle and bang against the rail, since it’s basically impossible to perfectly tension the chain. Chain drives do need a bit of maintenance every now and then when the chain becomes too slack, but in general they are pretty hands-off.

Apart from noise, the actual opening motion can be relatively slow and jerky, which may have long-term implications for wear on the motor and other parts. Modern openers now often feature sophisticated electronic monitoring systems that work to mitigate this issue.

If you are on a strict budget, chain openers are a good choice, but if your garage is adjacent or even close to a bedroom or other place that needs quiet, this might not be the best option

Belt Drive

Belt drives operate on essentially the same principle, but instead of a metal chain and sprocket they use a toothed belt to accomplish the same goal.

Because the belt is made of a rubber compound it dampens noise, doesn’t jangle and tends to provide smoother operation because its flexibility helps to maintain the right tension.

Belt-drive garage door openers are generally a bit more expensive than chain-drive models, usually by aout $50. They are much, much quieter, which is a big advantage especially if your garage is underneath your living space or bedroom.

Screw Drive

The Genie company is probably best known for screw-drive garage door openers. These drives work by rotating a threaded rod, which moves a carriage back and forth to pull the door open and closed.
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In terms of noise, a screw drive lies somewhere between a chain drive and belt-drive system. They are, however, very smooth and often much faster than either belt or chain designs. They are also low on maintenance and long on lifespan thanks to the small number of moving parts. You’ll see substantial warranties on these, but the drawback is that they carry a price premium of between $100 and $150 compared to chain-driven units.

If speed, durability and smooth operation are important to you, then screw-drive might be your choice. Bear in mind that modern belt-driven systems are catching up on those fronts, while being both cheaper and quieter. That means the screw-drive’s days could be numbered.

Direct Drive

Developed in Germany and mostly featured in Sommer products, the direct-drive system is a quirky approach to opening a garage door. At first you might mistake the moving carriage for a screw-drive system, but actually the entire motor is inside the carriage.

It pulls itself along a stationary chain, almost like a tram, while pulling the door behind it using a J-arm. Direct-drive systems are fairly quiet and have only one moving part (the motor), which means that they are quite durable and don’t really need maintenance. Many direct-drive units are just as quiet as belt drives, since the chain does not move and jingle during operation. Since the motor isn’t in the main unit, the whole thing is less bulky. Motor replacements are obviously much simpler.

Direct-drive motors are a bit more expensive than chain systems, usually around $100 more, depending on exact specifications.

Jackshaft Drive

The last drive type is the jackshaft drive. You’ve probably seen a jackshaft before. It’s exactly the same type of drive used to connect farm tractors to utility trailers that need mechanical power.

Jackshaft units are mounted on the wall rather than the ceiling and use a shaft to directly turn the drum of the door. They only work on specific spring-loaded drum type doors, so make sure your door meets the requirements. Jackshaft garage door openers are not suitable for DIY installation and are some of the most expensive openers on the market. The garage door needs to meet a rather lengthy set of requirements and may need adjustment if the original door installer didn’t perfectly balance and tension it. Perform a DIY install at your own peril. At best it just won’t work when the safety system kicks in, at worst you’ll end up with a destroyed door and possibly an injury or two.

The advantages are substantial, however. These openers are hands-down the quietest. They last forever and don’t take up overhead space, so they’re perfect for garages with low ceilings. If you can afford it and your garage is right for it, these are wonderful systems to go for.

Your Money, Your Choice

In the end, your budget is king. If you can live with the noise of a chain-drive opener, then it will serve you well if you buy a reputable model. In general, a belt-driven model is a great balance between price, noise and durability. Screw-, jackshaft-, and direct-drive models carry higher price tags, but if you’re in the market for their particular features and can afford the extra dollars, they could do the trick.