Your Wheelchair and Mobility Scooter Resource
Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 at 12:41 pm
The wheelchair is one of the oldest known mobility aids, greatly improving the lives of those who have difficulty walking. There are many types of wheelchairs available, with sports wheelchairs becoming much more popular over the last ten years. However, for many the choice is whether to buy an electric wheelchair or a manual wheelchair, with both offering their own advantages.
This guide provides the answers to some frequently asked questions about electric wheelchairs, which will help the consumer make an informed purchasing decision.
Electric wheelchairs, which are often called power chairs, are quite popular, but with so many choices and models available, it is important to understand how electric wheelchairs work and what their features are, before submitting to a high pressure sales pitch from your local medical supply store or online dealer.
An electric wheelchair is a motorized wheelchair that is powered using one or more rechargeable batteries. This allows the electric wheelchair, which is often referred to as a power chair, to be used easily away from the home, over both indoor and outdoor terrain.
The first electric wheelchairs, which were developed during the 1950′s, were simply manual wheelchairs that were outfitted with an electric motor, but today, they are custom made.
Choosing between a manual wheelchair or an electric wheelchair is often a very personal decision, as they both offer advantages and disadvantages. In many cases, this comes down to personal preference, but there are several important things that should be considered when deciding whether to buy a power chair or a manual wheelchair.
The main advantage of an electric wheelchair is that it requires very little effort to use, while using a manual wheelchair is very strenuous. Where manual wheelchairs require that the user be pushed or self propel, with the latter requiring a great deal of upper-body strength, an electric wheelchair can be controlled with very little effort on the part of the user.
However, one disadvantage of electric wheelchairs is that they are much heavier and more difficult to transport than manual wheelchairs, which will be discussed later in the how do I transport an electric wheelchair section. Another consideration is that manual wheelchairs usually cost significantly less than power chairs.
Like Mobility Scooters, electric wheelchairs are designed to be used both indoors and outdoors. However, they preform best over tightly packed surfaces. Due to their design, they are also not as well suited for outdoor travel as a mobility scooter is though, usually with a much shorter wheelbase and sometimes smaller wheels, making them work best over concrete or other hard surfaces.
However, unlike mobility scooters, an electric wheelchair can be driven directly up to a table or desk, in the same way that a manual wheelchair can.
Rear-Wheel Drive Power Chairs typically have four wheels, which are spaced evenly apart from one another. The set of wheels in the back, the rear wheels, are what actually moves the power chair.
Mid-Wheel Drive Power Chairs, on the other hand, usually have three sets of wheels. The set of wheels in the middle is positioned directly under the seat and the front and back set of wheels are positioned about the same as those on a Rear-Wheel Drive chair. However, it is the middle set of wheels that moves the wheelchair, with the front and back set of wheels providing support and stability.
The main advantage of a mid-wheel drive wheelchair is that it is more maneuverable than a rear wheel drive wheelchair. Like manual wheelchairs, electric wheelchairs are steered by moving one wheel, while holding the other still. A Mid-Wheel Power Chair allows for a much smaller turning radius, as the turning axis is directly below the wheelchairs seat.
In contrast, a rear-wheel drive wheelchair turns from the back, as this is where the drive wheels are, which means it will have a higher turning radius. However, because the weight of the rider is more evenly distributed between the front and back of the wheelchair, a rear wheel drive wheelchair is typically more stable and better able to support larger weights. To counteract this, some mid-wheel drive wheelchairs are considerably larger and include support wheels that are positioned further from the frame than normal.
The basic control system that was first developed during the nineteen-fifties is still used today, with a joystick control being the standard control system for most electric wheelchairs. Of course, it is electronically based and made using much better technology, but the concept remains the same.
Typically, the joystick is mounted to the armrest on either side of the wheelchair, with most models also including simple throttle and horn controls as well.
For those who are unable to use the traditional joystick control, a number of alternate wheelchair controls have been developed, with many of these having roots in the first wheelchair systems. Power chair control systems that allow the head to control the wheelchair are one of the more common, with several available that allow the wheelchair to be controlled by head movements.
Another popular option allows the users breath to control the movements of the wheelchair, with the user blowing through a small tube, similar to a straw, to move the wheelchair. There are also a number of experimental controls being developed, with one of the most promising allowing the user to control the wheelchair with their tongue, as it is common for movement of the tongue to remain, even in those who are otherwise paralyzed.
There are also a number of control systems developed with the caretaker in mind, which include remote control systems that allow the wheelchair to be controlled by someone walking behind it.
Also in development, there are several systems that allow the wheelchair to learn an environment, either by using GPS to map the environment or by manually adding map. This allows the wheelchair to navigate a room, building, or even campus, using proximity sensors to detect objects in the way. While still currently being developed, there are several live studies of these types of chairs, including one at a nursing home. Other potential controls, which could revolutionize wheelchair movements, include eye tracking software, which is able to detect where a user is looking.
The seat on most manual wheelchairs is made of vinyl, which is sewn around the frame of the wheelchair, although more breathable materials are also popular, especially on sports wheelchairs. However, the seat of an electric wheelchair more closely resembles a office chair. Some include a high back, with neck rest, while others have a much lower back, but they are typically made in a similar process, with a cushion built atop a hard flat board.
Depending on the model, some power chairs even have a reclining backrest and most allow the seat to be pivoted in both directions, making it easier to transport into and out of the chair.
If you buy a standard power chair, such as those made by Pride Mobility or Golden Technologies, there aren’t really too many options when it comes to the seat. However, special rehab seats are available, which include more supportive headrests, improved cushioning, and fully reclining seats. These power chairs also include individual leg rests that more closely resemble the leg rests used on a manual wheelchair, instead of the single platform that is usually provided for standard power chairs.
Pride Mobility’s Quantum Rehab division is one of the more well known offers of specialized power chairs, with bariatric and pediatric seats available that are mounted to one of their standard power chair bases. These seats also used a much more ergonomic cushioning that provides improved back support, as well as power tilt, which allows the seat to be reclined electronically.
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This varies depending on the model of scooter, as well as how it is used. However, most travel at speeds of between 3 and 4mph, with a range of around 15 miles.
One thing to keep in mind is that the range and speed is affected by the weight of the rider, as well as the terrain being traveled over. For example, if traveling uphill, the wheelchair’s battery will wear out faster and the chair itself will move slower than when traveling across flat ground.
Also, the battery will need to be replaced periodically, with the wheelchair loosing performance and range as the battery wears down.
Electric wheelchairs are much heavier than manual wheelchairs and can not be folded up and placed in the trunk the same way you would with a self-propelled wheelchair. While most electric wheelchairs are designed to be taken apart, the individual pieces can be rather heavy and bulky. As a result, those who intend to use the wheelchair away from home, usually need to buy a wheelchair lift or a wheelchair ramp for their vehicle.
The least expensive option is the wheelchair ramp, with several foldable metal ramps available. These allow the wheelchair to be driven directly into a van, but do not work as well with other vehicles. Often, these ramps are not actually secured to the van itself, but there are also some van ramps available that are bolted to the floor of the van and can be folded down into place, making it much easier to use independently.
Wheelchair lifts are another option and offer much more flexibility, as they can be used on cars, trucks, SUVs, and Vans. Wheelchair lifts either act as a lifting platform, sort of like an elevator, or as a crane. They are also classified as either internal wheelchair lifts or external wheelchair lifts.
External Wheelchair Lifts are mounted to the hitch of a vehicle and typically store the wheelchair outside on the back end of the vehicle. However, there are several hitch mounted crane lifts that are used to move the wheelchair into inside of the vehicle.
Internal Wheelchair Lifts, on the other hand, store the wheelchair on the inside of the vehicle. These work by either extending a platform from the vehicle onto the ground or by using the crane method. In vans, the platform lift works well when it is installed behind the drivers seat, with the mid row seating of the van removed. However, they can also be used on TRUCKS and SUVS. For passenger cars, a crane lift is usually the only option.
Wheelchair lifts are either powered by a rechargeable battery pack or by directly connecting to the vehicles battery. While wheelchair lifts that are connected to the vehicles battery are sometimes a little more complicated to set up, they end up being much lower maintenance, as you do not need to remember to charge the battery pack. Some wheelchair lifts also allow the wheelchairs charger to be plugged into it, so the wheelchair can be charged while on the road.
Travel Power Chairs are electric wheelchairs that are designed to be as lightweight as possible, which can make it easier to travel with them. They are usually designed to be taken apart easily, with the individual pieces being lighter and easier to manage. Also sometimes called portable power chairs, these wheelchairs can sometimes be transported without having to use a wheelchair lift.
However, this comes at the expense of features and range, as the wheelchair is stripped of as much weight as possible. This means a much smaller seat, with less padding, as well as a shorter range and weight capacity.
Folding Power Chairs are also available, which look similar to a manual wheelchair and can be folded in the same way. While these do take up less space than a standard power chair, they are still quite heavy, so are not often the best choice.
Probably the most well known power chair manufactures are Pride Mobility and Golden Technologies, with both companies offering a number of popular and reliable electric wheelchairs. Pride’s Quantum Rehab line is also very popular, as they offer a number of wheelchairs with improved seating and controls, designed with rehab in mind.
While Pride Power Chairs and Golden Power Chairs are the most well known, there are many other manufacturers, with ShopRider Wheelchairs gaining popularity in the past few years by offering a lower price alternative.
When shopping for an electric wheelchair, however, it is important to not only focus on the price of the wheelchair and instead read reviews and consumer reports for each brand, while avoiding the many cheap no-name wheelchairs available. It is also important to make sure the company offers a comprehensive warranty.