For many wheelchair users, the wheelchair is an extension of themselves. Like a car, a wheelchair needs to be maintained properly to ensure it lasts as long as you want to use it. Using a preventive attitude, with regular repairs, maintenance and general care, can help prevent it from needing extensive maintenance, frequent replacement parts or emergency trips to the nearest repair centre.
There are two main types of wheelchairs, power wheelchairs and manual wheelchairs. This guide will take a formulated look at how to maintain both types of wheelchairs to ensure a smooth wheelchair experience every time. The instructions are general and applicable to both types of wheelchairs, unless specified.
- Regularly check the nuts and bolts of the wheelchair, ensuring they are tight and, for power wheelchairs, that any electrical connections are securely fastened. If a user notices any that have fallen off, gotten too loose, or are missing, arrange for a repair visit, or purchase replacement parts. Never tighten the centre pin, which should move freely.
- Ensure power wheelchairs are charged regularly as it runs best when fully charged, which can take from 8 to 10 hours every day. A new, fully charged battery will typically power a chair for 10 to 20 miles per charge. Allowing the battery to become fully discharged can damage it, and it may eventually have to be replaced.
- Clean the chair regularly to get rid of dirt, debris and grease. Use a soft cloth on the metal components, near any electrical components and the seat, and a regular dishcloth or tea towel on the wheels. Use a mild detergent-soaked cloth for stains and sticky spots, and then wash off with a clean, damp cloth. Clean axles and bearings with a clean cloth containing a few drops of light oil.
- Inspect the electrical connections of the power wheelchair daily, ensuring the wires are kept clear of moving parts. They can be tied down, bunched or clipped up.
- It’s a good practice to always lock the brakes before getting in and out of the wheelchairs and, on power wheelchairs, to turn the power off, as it can save the battery charge.
- Lift the footplates up before getting in or out of the wheelchair, to prevent wear and tear, and tripping over them.
- If the wheelchair has a tilt mechanism, ensure it can recline and return to upright easily. It may need to be lubricated with an all-purpose silicone lube spray if it halts when moving.
- If you have a folding wheelchair, ensure it opens and folds easily. Lubrication may be necessary if it does not.
- Check the cross-brace of the folding wheelchair for cracks. Check the frames of all wheelchairs regularly for any cracks or breaks in the metal. Repairing cracks depends on the location of the crack, ranging from a simple welding procedure (cracks at a junction point in the frame) to replacing the entire frame.
Weekly Wheelchair Check
- Using an all-purpose silicone lube spray, lubricate the points on the chair that fold, swivel, pivot and are removable. Ball bearings on most manual wheelchairs will be sealed or have wipers to protect from water and dirt. A trained specialist must only service these.
- Ensure the tyres are inflated properly, and aren’t showing signs of wear. They will need to be replaced if worn, cracked, loose or if the sidewalls bulge out when fully pumped.
- Check the rear wheels for cracks and broken or loose spokes. Ensure the spokes from the axle to the rim are intact, the rims are not bent and the wheels parallel to each other.
- Make sure the wheel locks are operating correctly, are secured tightly to the frame and that they hold the tyres firmly in place and are easily activated.
- Check the casters to make sure they spin properly, don’t wobble, and aren’t damaged or cracked, as this may lead to eventual collapse.
- Use a sharp tool or pick to carefully clean the axle of the wheel and the caster bearing, getting rid of hair, fibres and other accumulated debris.
- Purchase a tube of touch-up paint for small scratches and chipped paint.
- Wash the cushion cover at least once a week, as it can become damaged or develop a slight odour with time. Purchasing an extra cover for the wheelchair that can be used while the other is in the wash can be helpful.
- While the cover is in the wash, clean the cushion itself according to manufacturer’s instructions. Check for any signs of rips and tears.
- If it is a foam cushion, check for flaking and cracks, as they indicate signs of aging. If it is contoured or too compressed, it will have to be replaced for a new cushion, which can be a better support and distribute a user’s weight.
- Gel cushions may ooze if there are any cracks in them, and will have to be replaced.
- Some cushions are filled with a viscoelastic substance with both fluid and solid properties. It must be kneaded daily to distribute the substance evenly.
- Air cushions can slowly leak, so it is advisable to check the inflation once a week.
Monthly Wheelchair Check
- Check the front casters, the back and the seat, ensuring they aren’t ripped, torn or missing any hardware.
- Clean the upholstery with water and gentle soap, and clean the frame with a damp cloth. Car wax can be used on the metal frames to make future cleaning easier.
- Check the seat positioning strap and handgrips for signs of wear.
- Clean the wheel bearings if and when necessary.
- Inspect the battery every few months. If it starts to deplete in charge very quickly, or won’t hold a charge at all, it may indicate an electrical problem, which may take a qualified service technician to correct.
- There are two types of battery for power wheelchairs: wet and gel. Add distilled water every two months to wet batteries as it may become damaged permanently if the water level falls below the level of the battery plates. It may be difficult to reach the heavy batteries, and can be a two-person job. It can also be taken to a qualified service technician.
- Never overfill the battery as it could result in leakage of battery acid. Fill up to 1/8 inch below the ring in the hole, and use a flashlight if needed.
- Use gloves and eye protection to ensure battery acid does not get on the skin and in eyes.
- Ensure any metal and smoke is away from the battery terminal.
- Replace the caps tightly to prevent leakage.
- Every three months: Check the wheel alignment, making sure the manual wheelchair is running in a straight line without pulling to one side. Make sure the electronic conduit is in good working order on power wheelchairs.
- Every six months a qualified technician should service the wheelchair. They will clean the chair, and fix any loose or missing hardware. Evaluate whether the batteries give you enough power for daily use, and replace them if necessary.
If one finds their manual wheelchair veering to one side, check the tyre pressure, the caster head tube angle and the distance of the rear wheels from the seat frame (it should be equidistant).
If it is turning slower than usual, check the tyre pressure and for any loose nuts and bolts.
If the casters flutter (the side to side motion which usually happens at high speeds), check the tyre pressure, caster head tube angle and for any loose nuts and bolts. The casters may need to be replaced if they flutter. Loose nuts and bolts can also cause the chair to squeak and rattle.
Important General Guidelines
- Every wheelchair is different so it is worthwhile spending some time reading about one’s particular wheelchair, especially the manufacturer’s manual and recommended maintenance schedule. Keep it in a safe place where one can refer to it when needed.
- Ensure you have a full understanding of all the features and components of the wheelchair to make it easier to recognise any problems. Talk to the wheelchair’s provider/seller who may be able to give some advice.
- Try to avoid operating the power wheelchair in the rain as it can damage sensitive electrical connections, including the controls. It may also cause rust to build up over time, which can be prevented by using a thin coat of a light oil such as mineral or baby oil.
- Do not over inflate the wheelchair’s tyres, as it can shorten their lifespan and cause them to blow out. Avoid using a high-pressure pump, opting instead for a gentler bicycle pump. If you have a pneumatic rubber tube tyre, purchase a patch kit to repair any broken tubes.
- Attaching a small set of tools to the wheelchair can help with small, on-the-go repairs. Recommended items include a Philips and flat head screw driver, several Allen keys which fit the components of the wheelchair, adjustable wrench, spoke wrench and a tyre repair kit. Store them in a pouch attached to the wheelchair.
- Wheelchair maintenance will differ depending on climate, environment, frequency and vigorousness of usage and wheelchair type.
Regular maintenance can help extend the life of your wheelchair and reduce the number and cost of professional repairs. Knowing one’s wheelchair and how it works and sounds will help identify any potential problems before they become irreparable by the owner.
Following a regular routine can make maintaining your wheelchair by yourself a consistently easier task, as you get used to the procedures and techniques.
By carrying out a few simple steps every time you use the wheelchair and by making sure you do weekly and monthly checks, you can ensure that the wheelchair stays in top condition.