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John Williamson

How do you decide which Power Wheelchair (Powerchair) is for you?

To begin with you have two choices. Manual or Electric Wheelchair?

(More related:  Detailed PowerChair Only Menu  &  Wheelchair Width)

Once you have decided on the only really sensible option of a powered wheelchair since there are NO negatives, which one do you want or need?

There are thousands out there. There are loads of helpful "guides" on the internet to help you. But they really don't because the people writing them generally know about as much about powerchairs as I do women. And at 49 years old I haven't yet worked out which way up they are supposed to go... 

Some of the very worst people to advise you on powerchairs are physios, Occupational Therapists and many so called "experts" in the industry.

The vast majority of these people have masses of training in seating and posture and fancy add-ons like tilt/recline/leg elevating and other weirdness.

But no real clues about powerchair dynamics or capabilities or any mechanical or electrical knowledge of the things.

That requires an engineer with some hands on experience preferably one that uses a powerchair day in and day out. (That's me then!)  

They get their knowledge from brochures and company reps who are selling "features",  

Usually these "features" make a powerchair much worse!

They ("experts") seem to have no clues about the REAL issues like exactly what effects range or handling and manoeuvrability or about battery technology or motor efficiency for example, or what goes wrong, corrodes etc. Other than looking at manufacturers brochures and dummed down "stats" which are very far from the whole story and extremely misleading.  They "know" for e.g. the weight limits, having learned them parrot fashion and been on a "training course" but have no clue "why" those limits are there and what effect it has if you exceed them. And the same with every part and design of powerchairs. The best thing you can do to help yourself is to read all of this site or at least these pages here!

In addition if they work for a organisation like the UK's NHS for e.g. (The "so called "wheelchair services") then they also have a vested interest in not spending any money. They are "trained" up fully in providing you the cheapest wheelchair that they can get away with from the 3 or 4 motorised deck chairs on their "list"...Mainly due to budget considerations but also partly from ignorance.  They provide most people with one of these at best! powerchair

They also have a very limited range of chairs they can/will supply and have almost no idea about what's available and what people really need or why. They are best suited to supplying a basic standardised manual wheelchair to old people or someone that only has a temporary need.

They CAN supply powerchairs, but trust me, these are nothing more than cumbersome barely motorised deck chairs that take up too much space and are barely usable by any active user.  We are talking about things like Harriers and other equally crappy barely usable powerchairs designed for old people to sit in front of the fire that don't actually move about.

So where do you start? You have to LEARN what you want and need and understand which types of wheelchairs will give you that and why. I will try to explain my thinking below in easy (ish) stages.  Facts and logic are what you need and a little experience which you probably don't have or you wouldn't be reading this.

So to begin with, we need to know a few things so we can understand how it affects the type of powerchair we require.

  • Weight and size of user. This is important since the range of the powerchair and its speed and its size and its weight are all affected and determined by user weight. Or they would be if the people supplying and assessing you for a powerchair had any real clue! With any given powerchair the range specified by the manufacturer is little more than a best guess based on battery size in amp hours and its speed (gearing) Its almost meaningless.

    If you weigh 25 stone you will get much less than half of that range. If you are a skinny 6 year old then you may even get a little more than they specify as long as its on a flat smooth surface (not carpet, grass etc) and go in perfectly straight lines...   

    Your Weight directly effects which powerchairs are suitable for you.
    The chair opposite with its plastic small skinny wheels and small batteries (less than say 40ah) and 4mph top speed and a "small amperage" control system is a typical example of a folding powerchair. As such if you are heavy this chair will be very underpowered and short of range. And suitable only really in flat areas like a shopping centre because of its motor/speed/battery size/controller as well as its small wheels and very nose heavy layout.

    The sad thing is that this one is typical in that even with its small motors and low speed and small lighter batteries its actual overall dimensions are bigger than my own "full size", full speed, all day long, indoor/outdoor powerchair!  The only thing it does better is weigh less and fold up. Everything else is compromised. So if folding is important to you understand then understand the trade offs.

    The problem here is that if you want a small light powerchair or a folding powerchair for travel it will have small batteries by definition (because the bigger ones are very big/heavy) and a low top speed because small batteries demand this. So if you are heavy its not going to have much range or performance at all and you will be sadly disappointed

    You need to consider how all of these various things effect your final choice. If you are heavy for example a folding or small shopper type powerchair may not be a good idea at all in your case. This then means a bigger non folding or heavier powerchair that needs a different vehicle to transport it since it doesn't fold. In addition folding chairs tend to be a bit flexible and don't feel too good on our rough pavements either. Life's never simple. It means you have to make decisions about which way to go, especially if you are heavy.  No Occupational Therapist or Physios seems to quite "get this" kind of thing at all because its engineering.  They just look at the "weight limit" in the brochure as if it actually means something that they understand.
  • Usage -- Indoors or outdoor or both? Personally I use a fairly big powerchair (big in weight carrying, battery size, speed, etc) that is good both indoors and out.

    And it has big batteries so it has good outdoor range and is 6mph which is fast enough. I am heavy. I chose it (actually I built it) to suit my needs because I understand all the various limitations and know what I want.

    I didn't choose 8mph gearing for e.g. because I understand the effect that this has on torque (power) and battery range at my heavy weight.

    You need to know what your needs are to buy a chair that suits your requirements.
  • (Continued) If you are small, (child?) or light. and never want to go outdoors then there are many reasonably cheap indoor only powerchairs that are dimensionally small and that have small solid wheels and castor wheels.

    These use relatively small batteries and the small wheels and tight dimensions allow maximum capability and manoeuvrability indoors. But these are really out of their depth when you leave the house! They lack the power, range, speed and the small wheels seem to hit every rut and crack in the pavements.

    These can be used outdoors at a push if you want to suffer being all shook up and with the inevitable failures that will happen. And the smaller batteries will limit your range and will need replacing earlier due to the
    average depth of discharge being higher. If you want to go outdoors properly then you really need more speed, proper bigger tyres and 9 or 10 inch castor wheels and if you are heavy bigger 55 or 70 amp hour batteries. So know what you want to do with it and how far you intend to travel outdoors.

  • Outdoor only powerchairs are uncommon. Indoor/outdoor ones are more common. But obviously better suited to outdoors in some cases!  They will have big batteries, higher 6 to 8 mph speeds and are generally bigger.

    It is however possible to find an indoor/outdoor powerchair than can be good outdoors and that still has the compact dimensions needed for indoors as well.
    But there are not too many and I am not going to point you at them so you can blame me when you don't like them!  The main problem is that the manufacturers don't seem to understand just how important every inch really is!     Range  Depends on, pattern of use, how much indoors or outdoors, if you live in a hilly area or a nice flat one, if you drive on thick carpets and grass, user weight (hugely), and a bunch of other smaller considerations. There are no rules here other than ignore the salesman and the brochure. Its like this. You want the biggest batteries you can find in any powerchair you are looking at. Batteries are ALWAYS the weak point if you intend to use your powerchair a lot.

    Battery technology isn't really good enough yet, that's why all the powerchairs with "full all day range" and a barely usable 6mph top speed are so big. The batteries are huge and heavy. A full size all day powerchair has 55ah to 75ah batteries or in some cases bigger still. Even at that size they don't last all day if you go far, are heavy, or you live in a hilly area or drive on grass... 

    If battery technology was good enough powerchairs would all be smaller lighter so great indoors and all be capable of 8mph with a fat bloke on board all day long. But they are not and that's why. Consider the battery issue carefully.  Assess your weight, your needs, the chairs length with you in it, and you need to measure its width with it adjusted for your seat cushion size. And then consider speed and its detrimental effect on torque and range and battery longevity..

    If you are light, the batteries are pretty new you will get about half what the brochure claims in "real world" conditions with road cambers and ramps and lots of turning left/right etc.  I have a page
    powerchair range here.  So don't expect a folding or indoor powerchair to go all day outdoors with their small batteries unless you are about 5 stone and live on a runway. Consider this when buying a powerchair. Batteries are one of the greatest problems people have with them. 

    And remember that if you run your batteries down to 80 percent of their capability daily you will need new ones inside a year! The lower the average discharge level the longer they last. Another good reason to buy a "full sized" powerchair with small overall dimensions and big batteries even if you don't "need" them.

  • Mid wheel drive These are very popular now especially in North America due to the marketing value that their "perceived agility" gives them. Due mainly to the slightly incorrectly perceived benefit of their greater manoeuvrability by having the wheels in the centre. It "looks" on the face of it to be a great idea to have the main wheels directly under you.  It seems like it will offer better control and abilities in tight spots.

    But although the often advertised superior "turning radius" looks good on paper that's not what you actually need in practice in the real world. It CAN be helpful in some situations. Mostly its not.  To turn around in my hallway it doesn't matter what your advertised "turning radius" value is, all that really counts is the total length of the powerchair.  (And the diagonal length corner to corner as seen from above)

    You see on my own REAR DRIVE powerchair below (see photograph) my head touches the wall first when I reverse. The total length from my head to the tip of that long deep footplate is 40 inches. Of course its a little longer with my size 11s on there but not by much.  I even trimmed 4 inches from those push handles on the seat, moved the seat back (along with my legs of course!), shortened the anti tip wheels too get it to reverse back this close so my head touches first...  Every inch matters on a powerchair.  EVERY SINGLE ONE. Any chair longer than 40 inches long (plus my toes) cannot turn here in my hallway. That includes almost all mid wheel drive powerchairs that are indoor/outdoor types. And many that are indoor only. But this isn't just my hallway we are talking about. Its every restaurant, bar, bedroom, and every time you turn in a confined space. 

    Several pride mid drive powerchair owners that have tried to turn in my hallway and cannot do so. They have a total length that is longer than my hallway is wide.  And they cannot go into my bathroom and come out forwards either. They cannot turn in the space available regardless of what the "advantageous" turning radius" quoted says!  They have too many bits sticking out in the corners.

    And all of  the front wheel drive powerchairs that I have ever seen try it certainly could not!   Swing away footrests, and rear casters compound the problems as they are in the "corners" making the diagonals longer and unpredictable as they swing around behind you.  "Corners" are bad.  They prevent you from say turning into a doorway from a narrow corridor. So a mid drive powerchair really doesn't help you indoors unless its short too without any "corners". 

    If you cant reverse to a wall until your head touches it then your powerchair is too long and wasting space and is therefore lacking possible manoeuvrability.  Its just too just long!   Maybe find a different design for indoor use if compactness and manoeuvrability matter to you.  Or modify yours as I did

    In addition mid drive powerchairs have 6 wheels on the ground. They have to have!  Or they would fall over either backwards or forwards. This also causes a few issues. Even forgetting about them getting in the way they cause the wobble factor! They have to have some kind of "give" or suspension in these extra front or rear casters. Otherwise when you drive off a ramp you would either leave the drive wheels clear off the ground or the opposite effect at the top of a ramp where you wobble about with the casters off the ground which scares people. Same thing happens anywhere the ground isn't actually level.  So they "have" to be able to move.

    That means that either they are too stiff to allow you to drive easily over a say 2 inch step easily, or so loose that they can do the small step thing but you wobble back and forth like a drunken sailor as you accelerate and decelerate!  The idea is to get them adjusted to be tight enough to stop the wobbling but loose enough to allow you to navigate a bit of the uneven real world!  And I hate compromises.  They seem to manage to be a bit bad at all of the above.

    If you have not experienced any of these things then you either don't use a powerchair very hard and/or you don't have the thing programmed to go and stop hard as I NEED to be able to do.  Ever wondered why you don't see any real vehicles with casters at both ends? Compromises like this offend good engineers. I've tried a good few mid drive powerchairs. They all make me seasick and I can't wheelie up or off curbs etc. They look ungainly and they slow me down.  I have to look for ramps with one of these mid wheel powerchairs. With my own powerchair I just wheelie and go off or up small curbs.

    Some people however swear by them. They don't suit me or my lifestyle though. Either way you know what to look for. Now you can test them and decide if they suit you while understanding these issues. They may suit you fine. The only way to see what suits you is to try them out. But it helps if you know what you are looking for.

radio controlled power wheelchair

Short PowerChair medium | Short Powerchair large   My latest home made modified powerchair...  Short!

  • Rear drive. As all my powerchairs (as above image) are rear drive including 3 home built ones.  If configured correctly they are the best of all worlds in my opinion for doing everything indoors and out. My full sized one with 6mph top speed and 70ah batteries is shorter, narrower, has no rear castors swinging about to hit things and is more manoeuvrable indoors because of all of this than any mid or front drive powerchair that I have seen or tried. And that includes the latest pride offerings. And its a naturally stable configuration outdoors too!  Of course there are over long and unwieldy rear drive powerchairs too!  Its up to you people to read all this and then armed with the information you now have and all the compromises that are important to go off and find a chair that suits your requirements.

  • Front Drive (rear casters)   Front drive seems to address nothing really. Either in an indoor or an outdoor chair. I just cannot see an advantage over the rear drive (as I prefer) or the mid wheel drive chairs that at least are directionally stable (neutral). Whereas front drive is naturally unstable.

    The front drive powerchairs seem to always have a great lump of heavy powerchair/batteries swinging about behind you that gets in the way indoors making the chair longer And as I keep saying every inch does really matter here! and also meaning that you cannot see the great big lump sticking out behind you to avoid it hitting stuff. 

    And worse there are casters swinging about back there too hitting stuff you cannot see...! 

    And it causes instability outdoors. Physics and basic engineering says its an unstable configuration. A bit like driving your front wheel drive car with casters on the back!  Or driving a fork lift truck forwards fast. (They spin round and face the wrong way.  So would a front drive car with the casters on the rear!  A great game when you are bored.

    The rear will always try to come around and overtake you if you get up to any sensible speed. So they are seldom very fast. In some designs the control system monitors this and corrects for the natural tendency to wag side to side or spin and this works great (ish) until you find a less grippy bit of pavement covered in leaves or moss etc and it skids and spins round anyway because the control system cant help and either hits something solid or tips you out... Trust me I have spun two different ones round 180 degrees and don't like it -- fortunately it didn't tip over as it was slippery and wet.   If you don't believe how unstable this setup is try reversing and rear drive powerchair at speed in a straight line! You cant.

    The programming is usually configured in such a way that it slows response to try to disguise this tendency but that makes them harder to control as well. As such these chairs are a non starter for me. Some people seem to like them but I really cannot see why unless you spend your life indoors with a lot of space around you. Try one if the whole idea does not upset your mechanical sensibilities!  As it does mine.

  • Width  Obviously it has to go through doorways in pubs, loos, your house. Some chairs are wider than others. Its no good having a powerchair that is wider than your doors in your house!  Ideally you need this measurement to be as narrow as humanly possible as you never know what you will find on your travels and will need to get past or into/through!  And measure it with your own chosen seat cushion width too. Manufacturers have a habit of quoting width with a "narrow" seat cushion. My own powerchairs total width is 26.25 inches with super fat tyres or 25.25 inches with the wide off road tyres fitted below and that's with a 18 or 20 inch cushion!  So width should not ever be an issue here.  Unfortunately nobody told most of the manufacturers this. Use your ruler. At that size a powerchair will fit through almost any door and be able to fit in a van neatly like this with plenty of clearance while lined up centrally with the steering wheel. If its wider than 26 inches beware!

close up of a powerchair in position in a vehicle

wheelchair in minivan medium | wheelchair in minivan large    25.25 inches total width. 40 inches total length. No "corners" If this full sixe battery, all day do everything chair can be that narrow with an 18 or 20 inch wide cushion then there's no excuses for anything wider (or longer) ever! Every inch really matters. Here for a better look if interested.

  • Kids and small people. I often see young people or very small adult people sat in a full sized powerchair with a small seat or cushion. Their feet are literally a foot from the floor (SEE OPPOSITE>>>) making getting under tables and desks unnecessarily difficult.    This one is designed for allowing the child to be lowered to the floor in front to play etc. So there is at least some excuse, but even so the chair is massively too wide/long and stops her enjoying the other 99 percent of its duties. 

    They often have batteries that are twice as big as their weight requires so the powerchair is heavier and bigger longer and higher than required. But mostly longer... See opposite again. Length stops you turning or manoeuvring.  They have the arms tucked in much narrower than the frame or tyres and are seated perfectly. Those expert OT's and Physios and so called "experts" have struck again!  Best to ignore them,

    They do not understand that every inch counts. They don't "get" powerchairs just seating.  A small person NEEDS a small, low, short, narrow powerchair with smaller batteries etc.

    There is no point having a big wide chair when a narrower/shorter lower one would allow so much more mobility. This happens because the people that make these decisions are "fully trained" in bodies, people, seating, pressure and pressure sores etc. But completely clueless about powerchairs!  I feel sorry for the girl in the picture. But I could fix that with my hacksaw...

    Why struggle with a chair that is wider than you are unnecessarily. The powerchair and its arms should be no wider than the person sat in it. If it is then find a better powerchair that fits the user. Small powerchairs are available. Someone weighing say 5 or 6 stone does not need big 70ah batteries! Or even 50ah batteries. So the powerchair can be both smaller and faster (taller geared) without a range penalty. Being small/light has huge advantages here if you take advantage of them. Specialists and "experts" seldom do. Length and "corners" matter here just as much. The idea is to give each person the maximum amount of mobility and accessibility and ease of use as possible. Its already difficult being disabled so why make it harder still for no reason?

  •  Special requirements like seat risers and elevating leg rests etc.  Some people have real medical reasons for standing chairs, seat risers, leg lift, adjustable back or seat angle adjustments or special seating and supports. Not all powerchairs are available with the required shortlist of options here. So if you need these things it limits your options in most cases. But the best powerchair is a simple, small and light as possible one. For ease of use, accessibility to difficult areas, and even range or battery longevity.

    Don't just tick the boxes because you think "elevating leg rests" sounds like a good idea! Only do it if you real need them and cannot manage without.  Just because they are available on a specific powerchair does NOT mean its a good idea. The same goes for any option. In the case of the elevating legs it adds bulk and weight at the front limiting manoeuvrability and moving the centre of gravity further forwards.

    This makes your powerchair more nose heavy and they often get in the way. Often here less is more! Lights even? Do you need them? They add weight and complexity and get in your way. Comfort backs to replace sling backs? They move you forwards and again cause your powerchair to become nose heavy and less responsive and controllable, Elevating seat? Often adds some height, When its lowered, and always adds weight... Automotive type Recaro or similar seats? They move you up and forwards and again mess up the centre of gravity making the chair less able. And they get wet and soiled and then what do you do? A good cushion and a sling back works best with as few extras as you can get away with.

  • Adaptachair - LogoVehicles and powerchairs (low seating) Some mobility vehicles require you to use a special powerchair with low seat height like say the AdaptaChair This may seem like a good idea, but they get the seat low by using small batteries compared to the 75ah ones used in most all day full range powerchairs.

    It therefore is limited in range and speed. Has a fairly small amp controller. In addition its low and long with much weight over the small casters so not very "nimble" compared to my own rear drive powerchair outdoors for example. And it has those "corners" again... (swing away footrests) so is aquward in tight spaces like turning into a doorway from a narrow corridor.

    But it has enough range usually for a day out shopping etc and is the only powerchair that can fit in some disabled converted vehicles sensibly. Its just not an "all day full size powerchair. If you are light and don't mind trying to cross a busy junction at 4mph and surviving its great! I think 4mph is dangerously slow at times.

    But it wasn't intended as a do all powerchair. One of its advantages while driving is the side support that the automotive seat gives you while cornering. Its also a disadvantage as well as transferring into and out of it is very difficult for many of us. This applies to automotive seats like this on any powerchair.

     If you buy a Rollx or Braun lowered floor minivan any normal full sized powerchair will fit without needing to use a special smaller one.

  • finish and durability.  Its sad to say that almost all mobility products and especially powered wheelchairs have an abysmal short lived build quality and finish. Normally only the main frame is properly painted and lacquered and all of the rest of the heavy steel parts have to make do with a thin coat of easy to apply satin black.

    All the fasteners (bolts) and bearings and spacers and axles etc are plain steel with at best a thin zinc plated finish. So after one winters road salt your expensive powerchair looks like its seen 10 winters. They do not clean up well as the salt turns all the plated parts grey or black or rusty and the majority of the rest of the black parts go grey/dull or start to rust. Wiring and connections and cables are all usually unprotected and corrode badly having been built "dry" without any protective grease or Vaseline etc. 

    There really isn't much to choose here between manufacturers and as long as it looks "new" in the showroom that's all that they seem to care about.  So take a good look at what you are buying. Look at one a couple of years old to get an idea of what breaks and falls off goes loose or corrodes.  For this reason I (and a good few others)  build my own powerchairs from old donor chairs instead.  Because that way I can redesign them as I go, powder coat every single part, replace all the bolts with stainless steel ones and make hundreds of changes for the better. here and here. Unfortunately even though these things cost as much as a small car they are finished very cheaply. The only option is to Do It Yourself...


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