Choosing an electric wheelchair can initially seem an intimidating and difficult task, there are many different types available, which offers you a huge but sometimes bewildering choice.
Where will you use it?
The first thing to consider when choosing a electric wheelchair is where it will be used. Most electric wheelchairs can be used both inside and outdoors, but some are only intended for only one.
For indoor use, the key thing to look for is manoeuvrability. Chairs designed solely for indoor use will be more manoeuvrable inside than ones designed for use outdoors too. If the wheelchair must negotiate tight turns, you will need a small turning circle. Mid-wheel drive electric wheelchairs can do this this very well, so are well suited for indoor use. Key points to look at are the overall width and length of the electric wheelchair too, as you will need to ensure it can comfortably fit through doors and turn.
Not all electric wheelchairs are designed to be used outside – and you will need one designed for this specifically. Many can be used indoors and out and in fact it is a very popular type for obvious reasons. Think about what kind of ground you are going over - any outdoor capable electric wheelchair can manage flat pavements, but some may struggle over rougher ground, kerbs and steeper slopes and ramps.
Important features to consider are
- Which wheel drives the electric wheelchair. While dropped kerbs are usually available, kerb climbing can be important on occasions when they aren’t - rear-wheel drive chairs will need a kerb climber fitted to manage this, while only larger more capable mid-wheel drive chairs will be able to climb kerbs.
- The power of the chair, the size of its wheels, and the level of suspension it has.
- Most electric wheelchairs are Class 2 products with a top speed of 4 mph and are limited to pavement use. Class 3 electric wheelchairs are available and will have a top speed of 6 or 8 mph, these can be driven on roads too.
- While manufacturers do advertise ranges, these should always be taken with a pinch of salt and are more useful for comparing different products by the same manufacturer than products from different manufacturers.
- Battery size is a good indicator of range, and this should be considered when working out if a product will go the distance that you need.
Which Wheel Drive?
In the UK, Electric wheelchairs have traditionally had rear-wheel drive. However, front-wheel drive electric wheelchairs are now also popular, as well as the most popular mid-wheel drive ones that come with six wheels. Each has pros and cons, but it is often a matter of personal preference as to which you should go for.
Rear wheel drive arguable the most traditional are "intuitive" to drive, - offering the best pure outdoor performance. However, they also have the biggest footprint and are the least manoeuvrable, with a large turning circle. They are a good option if you only use your electric wheelchair outdoors as most of their negatives are with indoor performance.
Front wheel drive electric wheelchairs are now more popular in the UK. Once mastered they offer a great option with good indoor and outdoor performance. With a small footprint and turning circle they turn well in compact indoor locations and allow you to get close to objects without having castors in the way. Outdoors, they offer better traction than rear wheel drive, and smoother kerb climbing.
Mid-wheel drive offers the best indoor performance and best of both worlds in many ways. The design allows the wheelchair to turn on the spot. They remain intuitive to drive with a bit of practice and are generally compact. Basic mid wheel drive chairs can struggle on bumpy surfaces and ramps as the middle wheels may lose traction if too steep. Top of the range mid-wheel drive wheelchairs come with advanced suspension that overcomes this, giving excellent outdoor performance. We find mid wheel drive electric wheelchairs to be the most popular wheel configuration due to its manoeuvrability.
Comfort, Support and Posture
Comfort is paramount in a wheelchair, especially if you are spending an extended amount of time in a wheelchair or have advanced postural needs. For those with basic needs, a standard padded canvas back or high-back captain’s style seat will offer sufficient comfort. Basic electric wheelchairs will come in a set seat size, so be aware that they may not have a “perfect fit”.
If you have more complex requirements, you may need to go for a more advanced electric wheelchair. Higher-end configurable electric wheelchairs will have adjustable seat sizes and can be fitted with a range of backrests and cushions that can provide postural support and pressure relief to suit your needs. Powered positioning options such as a seat riser, tilt, recline and elevating leg rests are available on most of these.
Electric wheelchairs have different weight capacities; if you are a heavier user then make sure that you choose a wheelchair that can comfortably accommodate your weight. It is always best to allow some leeway - many health conditions can cause your weight to fluctuate.
Not all powered wheelchairs are easy to transport in a car - if you need to transport yours, you will need to bear that in mind when picking which model to go for. Modern folding ones are lightweight and easy to lift, and lithium batteries and auto-folding designs are available. In contrast, standard electric wheelchairs tend to weigh more than 80 kg (and often double that) meaning they cannot be lifted into a car.
The alternative is to get a wheelchair adapted vehicle that can accommodate a electric wheelchair without you having to lift it. This can be done through a hoist, which will do all the lifting for you and allows you to use a standard car. Alternatively, a specialist wheelchair adapted vehicle with a low floor and ramps allows you to drive your chair straight in.
If you are using the wheelchair as a seat in a car (occupied transportation), you will need to ensure that any chair is crash tested. Crash-tested electric wheelchairs have been extensively tested so they are safe to use for occupied transport in a suitably adapted vehicle and come with tie-down points.
If you wish to use your electric wheelchair on public transport, you will need to check with your bus or train company first to see if they have any size restrictions. Compact electric wheelchairs are at an advantage as they will better be able to manoeuvre into dedicated wheelchair spaces, mid-wheel drive chairs are also good for this reason.
Storing an electric wheelchair is an important consideration - they should ideally be kept indoors at room temperature. Storing them outdoors will reduce their lifespan, and batteries in particular do not cope well with cold temperatures or excessive heat. Make sure if possible that you have somewhere indoors to store and charge your electric wheelchair,
For most people, controls are not a concern - electric wheelchairs come with a simple joystick that is easy to use, and similar across most models. These can be fixed to either armrest to allow control with either hand.
Attendant control or dual control is available on some models, allowing a person walking behind the wheelchair to control it. If attendant-only control and a basic wheelchair are required, then potentially a manual wheelchair with a powerpack attached would be an ideal solution, as this allows both to be easily transported.
Special controls can be fitted on higher-end electric wheelchairs - this includes more powerful controllers, LCD screens to display more information, environmental controls via infra-red and Bluetooth, as well as alternate input methods, such as chin and head controls.
The best way to choose your new Electric wheelchair is to try several models around your home or in your local mobility retailor store. With an electric wheelchair we always recommend seeking professional advice, so you have the right electric wheelchair for your specific needs.