How to Choose the Right Power Wheelchair For Your Individual Needs
Power Wheelchair or Manual Wheelchair?
Choosing the best power wheelchair for your situation can be daunting.
The first decision is to determine the type of wheelchair you need. In most cases you’ll have a choice between a manual (powered by the individual) or electric (wheelchair w/ external power supply).
This choice will often be the easiest, as you may be forced into one or the other for economic or physical reasons.
- If you need a manual wheelchair, see Choosing the Best Transport Chair.
If you have decided to look for an electric, or power chair, you’ll then have to look at a variety of factors…
You’ll first need to determine what you’ll be using the wheelchair for.
This is where it can become a bit more difficult and it may be necessary to consult with an occupational or physical therapist.
Here are a few questions to ask:
- Is the wheelchair for indoor or outdoor use?
- How important is maneuverability?
- Do you need it to fold?
- How easily can it be transported?
- Are there any weight requirements?
- Are there any seating requirements?
- Are there any speed requirements?
- Cost, how affordable is it?
It also may be a good idea to speak with other individuals that have purchased or have used a power wheelchair in the past. They’ll be able to give you some of the best advice and recommendations.
Ultimately, the user should give the wheelchair a test drive before a purchase is made. This doesn’t mean a testing it in the showroom. This means actually taking it home and putting it to some functional, real world use.
Also be sure to check out some electric wheelchair reviews for user ratings and reviews on current models.
Attributes of Power Wheelchairs
- Powered by a battery – Less physical exertion.
- Easily go uphill – Manual chairs could have difficulty.
- No need for someone to assist you
Drive System & Design Characteristics
Most modern battery powered wheelchairs have designs that can be classified as either Rear Wheel Drive (RWD), Mid Wheel Drive (MWD), or Front Wheel Drive (FWD). Each configuration is determined by the location of the drive system in relation to the users center of gravity. All three systems have unique driving and handling characteristics that will appeal to the different needs of the user.
Front-Wheel Drive wheelchairs offer exceptional indoor/outdoor maneuverability with a design that mounts 2 large wheels in front of the seating area.
Front-wheel drive chairs are great all around wheelchairs that are suitable for outdoor use but will tend to fishtail at higher speeds. For this reason they are typically manufactured to travel slower than other power chair varieties.
The overall turning radius is about 22″ to 28″, depending on the manufacturer. The design gives many users a sense that the wheelchair is pulling them due to the front mounted wheel position.
Mid-Wheel Drive wheelchairs offer excellent indoor maneuverability because the wheels are located directly under the user.
They typically are manufactured with 2 sets of casters located in the front and back that offer stability. Putting the wheels under the user’s center of gravity allows for an extremely tight turning radius.
This design is perfect for small apartments, nursing homes, or anywhere else where precision movement is necessary.
(Below) Mid-Wheel Drive Example: Drive Medical Image Ec Mid Wheel Drive Power Wheelchair 20 inch
The one area of concern for a mid-wheel drive system is the ability to maneuver outdoors, over hills, and across tougher terrain.
A mid-wheel drive system needs to remain on stable, flat surfaces for optimal performance.
However, the fact that they are designed for indoor use doesn’t mean you can’t use them outside though and many retailers will advertise them as being both indoor/outdoor.
Rear-Wheel Drive was the design for the original powered mobility device.
They are stable, maneuverable, and offer the highest top end speeds available in a power wheelchair market (see speed chart below).
Affixing the wheels in the rear provides the chair with excellent balance in almost any terrain.
Rear-Wheel Drive Example (left): Drive Medical Medalist Heavy Duty Power Wheelchair, Rear Wheel Drive
The major disadvantage with this design is that turning radius will typically increase compared with the front and mid configurations.
Rear wheel drive power chairs are great for outdoor use and provide predictable driving characteristics and stability.
Types, Configurations, & Specialty
There are a variety of power wheelchair types on the market. In most cases they can be categorized by their configuration and use.
The Invacare® Pronto® 31 Power Wheelchair above is a compact front-wheel drive power wheelchair features simple handling, durability and comfort all in an ultra-sleek design.
One of the more recent alternatives to powered mobility is a hybrid or power assist system.
This type of wheelchair incorporates a traditional manual wheelchair with the power of electric.
The power-assist system is designed to increase the number of revolutions per pass thus giving the user a noticeable increase in propulsion efficiency. The power systems are light enough to be easily attached and remove to the frame of a manual wheelchair making transportation easier.
With weight capacities of up to 700 lbs and seat sizes up to 30,” bariatric wheelchairs (often referred to as extra wide wheelchairs or heavy duty wheelchairs) are strong enough to accommodate almost any user.
Just like the lighter, manual chairs, heavy duty models are usually foldable and feature armrests and swing-away footrests – but they differ quite a bit in their construction. While lightweight wheelchairs often employ materials like aluminum or titanium alloy, a bariatric wheelchair is usually fashioned from steel.
Foldable Power Wheelchairs
If you’ll be traveling often, and need a highly-portable option, a folding lightweight wheelchair may be for you. Some popular examples are shown below.
Lightweight wheelchairs provide convenience and comfort to the user and caregiver alike and are often built using materials like aluminum and titanium alloy, while foldable wheelchairs allow for easy storage and transport. Merge the two styles, and you’ve got a great mobility aid that isn’t a pain to lug around.
Electric Wheelchair Wheels & Tires
Pneumatic tires offer an extremely smooth and stable ride. The air and tread on the tires hug the road. They really only have one drawback, they often require more maintenance, will often lose air, or if punctured, can go completely flat.
The foam filled and solid rubber designs are also popular options. Even though you’ll feel every bump and indent in the road, you’ll have the peace of mind that they will never lose air or go flat. It usually comes down to user preference between one design or the other.
The Wheelchair Controller/Joystick
The controller for most powered wheelchairs is a keypad alongside a joystick that controls both direction and speed.
When the chair is put back in neutral state, it will decelerate, the brakes will re-engage, and the chair stops.
The keypad activates other functions of the chair that you may need. Some wheelchairs offer more sophisticated, alternative wheelchair controlling devices for individuals that have limited use of their hands.
Some of the other controlling options are:
- Sip and Puff – commands are given by inhaling or exhaling with an attached tube.
- Head Controls – switches are added to the sides of the headrest.
- Foot Controls – pedals and buttons are added to the foot rests of the wheelchair.
- Chin Controls – the controller is mounted near the chin.
- Speech Controls – the controller uses a simple speech recognition program.
Power Wheelchair Batteries
Electric wheelchair users typically have limited strength in their arms and torso, and thus need an external power source for assistance.
The battery used in most power wheelchairs is a (deep cycle) lead acid battery that is either a wet cell, a gel cell, or an AGM (absorbed glass matt) battery. Although they look and feel similar, electric wheelchair batteries shouldn’t be confused with car batteries. They are vastly different in design and use and should never be interchanged.
Wet cell batteries typically hold a charge for longer and offer more power than the gel cell variety. Their major drawback comes down to maintenance issues and leakage during transport.
They are not recommended for travel because of the acids that are housed within the unit. If tilted or cracked the battery could spill and corrode the vital electrical systems, wiring, or motor of your wheelchair.
Many air and cruse lines will often refuse to transport any motorized wheelchair if it is powered by a wet-cell battery. Wet cell batteries are relatively inexpensive compared to gel cell and thus are still very popular.
Gel cell batteries were developed to alleviate some of the safety and maintenance concerns that were involved in transporting an electric wheelchair.
Gel cell batteries are sealed and dry with no potential for spills. This is due to the silica gel that suspends the acids (electrolyte) in the battery. So if they are broken or punctured they will not leak.
Gel-cell lead-acid batteries were developed to be maintenance free and should be approved for storage on most airlines and cruise ships. The disadvantage of gel-cell batteries is that they usually have less capacity and are more expensive.
Power wheelchairs typically utilize 2 – 12 volt deep cycle batteries that must be re-charged on a regular basis.
The batteries make them significantly heavier than most manually powered chairs, making it necessary for the wheelchairs to be manufactured with a stronger sturdier frame to support the battery, motor, the user, and any additional adaptive equipment.
The range of the battery will often depend on a number of factors including: the users weight, ground level, and temperature.
Speed – How Fast Can Power Wheelchairs Go?
The speed of your power chair will typically depend on the model. The top baseline speed of most electric wheelchairs and many other powered mobility vehicles is about 4-5 MPH.
Range – How Far Can They Go?
The distance a power chair can travel, or range, will largely depend on the model and its intended use. Many manufacturers will quote a range of 20 – 25 miles for a typical power chair.
Ultimately, the range of your electric wheelchair will depend on a number of factors including: wheelchair battery type, battery age, battery size, the weight of the rider, maximum driven speed, drive train efficiency, driver behavior, and the terrain. In general, the use of a wet cell wheelchair battery will also increase the range. Range is an important metric that should be considered in the selection and design of a power wheelchair.
Thoughts, questions, tips? Feel free to comment below.
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