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Whether it's your first power wheelchair or your third, selecting the right one for you is a personal process. There are pros and cons to many chairs out there, and much like driving a car, it's all about how it feels and suits your unique needs. Here are just a few tips to consider when thinking about your next power wheelchair purchase.
WHAT KIND OF BATTERY AM I GETTING?
Group 24 batteries give you the range that most are looking for. Batteries that are too small will not give you the range and power that you're looking for. I think "range anxiety" is a real thing; many people start watching the battery life on their chair and adjust their lifestyle around it without even realizing.
But if you're able to secure Group 24 batteries – the largest lead batteries you can get – you'll at least have more flexibility in your day-to-day activities. Over time I've switched entirely to lithium batteries due to my active lifestyle, but most manufacturers do not recommend lithium batteries in their owner's manuals.
HOW FAST IS THE CHAIR?
Speed matters to me because I travel far. 4-pole motors generate more power than 2-pole motors, making them better for outdoor use. I pair that with an Rnet 120A controller (which handles the rate of discharge) to receive all-around faster performance because they work together.
All that being said, speed is really a personal preference, and there is a trade-off. Going at slower speeds (like 6.5 mph) will give you more torque for climbing hills. And slower motors are often used with a 70A-90A controller that would use less battery power. Faster motors that can achieve 8.5 mph will be faster of course, but at the cost of using more battery life. You can also lose up to 20% of torque on inclines depending on your weight.
IS THE CHAIR REAR-WHEEL DRIVE (RWD), MID-WHEEL DRIVE (MWD), OR FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE (FWD)?
Power chair bases are built as one of three different drive types: rear-, mid-, or front-wheel drive. No one drive type is necessarily better than the others; choosing which is right for you comes down to personal preference.
I've found that RWD is best for me, and I wouldn't accept anything other than RWD because driving it feels most natural for me. I like how it performs in the outdoors when tacking hills, curbs, and more. From the speed to the overall control and handling of the chair, RWD gives me the performance I'm looking for.
RWD, MWD, and FWD chairs will all feel different when it comes to maneuverability and performance. My recommendation is to demo the chairs you are interested in and device which type of drive base feels comfortable to you based on your needs.
WHAT ABOUT THE CHAIR'S PROGRAMMING?
Programming your power chair is extremely important. No chair straight from the manufacturer will be set up to specific needs because the manufacturer needs to set up the chair with a single profile that captures everyone to the best of their ability. Unfortunately that "factory" profile doesn't always fit the user, and most users just accept that that is the only profile available.
With the right programming you can make easy and simple changes to the chair's acceleration, braking, turning speeds, and more. Also consider the delays that are pre-programmed in your chair. Adjusting these delays will make a big difference in the performance and feel of your chair. You can also set up multiple profiles, so I recommend one for outdoors and one for indoors. You'll find that the profiles will need to be adjusted and fine-tuned over time and usage to get it right – don't expect to have it perfectly suited to your needs in one day.
Ultimately, it's definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to power wheelchairs. Next time you're in the market for a new chair, think about some of these considerations and how they relate to your specific needs. And remember: never be afraid to ask questions!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My name is Claudio. I'm 51 years old and have been in a chair about 20 years. I grew up in the Bronx and have worked at St. Barnabas Hospital in the computer department for approximately 15 years. I moved to the City and got my own apartment ever sinve I started using a chair. After getting stuck a few times, I had to do something about it. For me, I found that lithium was the answer; I never worry about running out of battery now. I like to try and get as many users involved in choosing their chairs as possible.
In addition to lithium batteries, my other interests include espresso and music. I prefer Tube Audio and Klipsch speakers.