Motorized, power or electric wheelchairs are designed for people who are unable to self-propel manual wheelchairs or need partial/full propulsion assistance. People suffering from chronic conditions such as spinal cord injury usually don’t have the upper body strength needed to propel manual wheelchairs. Motorized wheelchairs help such people participate in routine activities by making it easier for them to move around.
Manual wheel chairs are generally considered to be more reliable, are lightweight and inexpensive and can be easily folded/transported. However, despite the advantages they are not suitable for everyone. Motorized wheelchairs on the other hand are more expensive, bulkier and involve complex technologies which can be hard to fix if something goes wrong. But they can be a blessing for people suffering from chronic injuries and certain neurological disorders.
Who Should Buy a Motorized Wheelchair?
Choosing between manual and motorized wheelchairs largely depends on individual needs, the living environment and physical condition. Motorized wheelchairs are suitable for people with weak arms/upper body or suffering from chronic/neurological conditions such as PP Multiple Sclerosis and spinal cord injury.
Another important factor to consider is who is going to bear the high cost of a motorized wheelchair. Some countries allow you to buy wheelchairs under insurance or social security. If that an option and you have the budget, it’s an easy decision to make.
Patients who have the upper body strength to propel a manual wheelchair can also opt for motorized wheelchairs for added convenience. However, such people should still try to use a manual wheelchair because of the physical activity involved in propelling, which helps keep them fit.
The best option while searching for a wheelchair is to consult your doctor or a medical expert who can give a better opinion by evaluating your condition and individual needs. You might also want to consider seeking assistance from an expert that specializes in assistive technologies such as occupational therapists. Opinions and advice from people suffering from similar conditions can be helpful and easily accessible through online communities/resources.
Retailers that just want to sell people whatever is available in stock should be avoided. We highly recommend buyers to test-drive different motorized wheelchairs to see which works best for them. Since power wheelchairs are expensive and not something you can change every now and then, buy from a retailer that offers a customized fitting service. If you want to buy an electric wheelchair online, do some online research and read user reviews to make sure it’s suitable according to your individual needs.
Types of Motorized aka Power Wheelchairs
Full-sized Motorized Wheelchairs
As the name suggests, these motorized wheelchairs are large, comfortable and come with complex electronics. Designed for all-day use, these everyday chairs can be upgraded with different components such as luxury seats and all-terrain tires, which means the price goes up according to the parts you choose.
Many manufacturers offer customizability options for full-sized chairs, including size and seat height. The weight capacity starts from 300 lbs. / 135 KG, making them suitable for most people, while their large and powerful batteries can last all day long.
Prices of full-sized wheelchairs vary according to battery size, features, materials used and seats. When it comes to comfort, they rank in the upper tier and are priced accordingly. Users can also opt for upgraded seats for extra luxury or all-terrain tires for unpaved areas or even skimp down on certain features to cut cost.
- Comfortable, more padding, larger seats and arm rests
- Suitable for people who are going to spend most their time in a wheelchair
- Good travel range
Heavy-duty Motorized Wheelchairs
These power wheelchairs share most of the features with full-sized wheelchairs, but are mainly targeted at heavy-weight or larger-than-normal users. That’s the reason behind use of reinforced frames and powerful motors in heavy-duty power wheelchairs. Some of these wheelchairs are designed for unpaved areas or icy terrains and are equipped with larger batteries for a better runtime.
With an extra-stable and safe base, heavy-duty wheelchairs have a weight capacity of up to 600 pounds / 275 Kg. and are up to 32-inch wide. These wheelchairs cost more than regular power wheelchairs, but the extra money is worth it in the long term as they are more durable, stable and can perform well in challenging environments.
- Higher weight capacity
- More durable than full-sized power wheelchairs
- Reinforced frame
- Wider seating area
- Added durability and space comes with a matching price
Travel Motorized Wheelchairs
These motorized wheelchairs are lightweight and designed to be more portable than other types of motorized wheelchairs. Better usability in tight spaces and good turning radius makes them transport-friendly. Travel wheelchairs are suitable for use on smooth surfaces such as indoors or inside malls. Most travel chairs can also be disassembled into smaller pieces for better portability.
Since transport wheelchairs are lightweight by design, they are suitable for up to 6-feet tall people weighing under 250 lbs. / 110Kg. These chairs are also the most affordable motorized wheelchairs, thanks to their compact size, reduced weight and use of lightweight materials. Transport or portable power wheelchairs are usually rear or front wheel drive chairs and are not very suitable for all-day use (due to less seat padding and support).
- Can be folded/disassembled
- Smaller, compact and lightweight
- Usually less padding on the seat, not as comfortable as other options
- Less weight capacity
Power assists for wheelchairs are add-on devices allowing conversion of a standard wheelchair into a motorized wheelchair. Power assists might sound like you’ll get the best of both worlds i.e. benefits of manual wheelchairs such as foldability and convenience/comfort of motorized wheelchairs. However, compatibility can be an issue and not all power assist add-ons work seamlessly with all manual chairs.
Front, Mid and Rear Wheel Motorized Wheelchairs
A power wheelchair has three key components i.e. a power base, controls and a seat. The drive wheels are connected to power base and there are three main types of wheel drives. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Front Wheel Drive
The drive system and drive wheels of a front wheel drive is located at the front, while the casters are located in the rear. That’s what makes FWDs more suitable for avoiding obstacles as they can easily go over up to 2-inch high bumps. FWDs can also maneuver pretty well around tight corners, resulting in a stable ride, especially when moving up or down the slopes. However, FWD power wheelchairs at high speeds have a tendency to fishtail so maneuverability at high speeds is not so good.
- Good obstacle avoidance (small obstacles up to 2 inch)
- Handles soft terrains well (like grass)
- Easier foot positioning (closer to the body)
- Lower seat-to-floor height
- Good maneuverability around tight corners
- Stable on the slopes
- Suitable for both indoor and outdoor use
- Can fishtail at high speed
- Lower top speed
Rear Wheel Drive
RWD power wheelchairs are usually more powerful with the drive system at the rear and casters located in the front. Rear wheel drive wheelchairs are better than FWDs when maneuvering at high speeds, but they have a larger turning-radius, which requires more space to take turns. Directional stability is another advantage of RWDs as they are better able to track straight and less prone to oversteering. RWDs are suitable for people who need stability and better maneuverability outdoors/over rough surfaces.
- Better maneuverability at high speeds
- Directional stability, tracks straight
- Less prone to oversteering
- Good maneuverability outdoors/over rough areas
- Suitable for outdoor
- Provide more power
- Highest top speeds
- Suitable for people who love outdoors and have to cover a lot of ground
- Large turning radius, more space needed to take turns
- Larger footprint
Mid Wheel Drive
MWD power wheelchairs are suitable for people who want a reliable wheelchair for use in malls, apartments and other areas where space is limited (and a tight turning radius is required). However, mid wheel wheelchairs are not particularly suitable for outdoors or rough terrains such as hilly areas. The drive system is located below the seat and at the center. MWDs are also less portable than the other two options and a vehicle life may be needed to transport them.
- Small turning radius, can almost spin in place
- Highly maneuverable (indoors)
- Feels more natural to operate
- Suitable for tight spaces
- Stable on inclines
- Can become unstable on rough surfaces
- Users can face difficulty climbing obstacles
- Not easily transportable
Other Factors to Consider When Buying a Power Wheelchair
The Living Environment: Indoor or outdoor use, doorway opening size, bathroom spacing, porch lift
Seating and positioning: support for custom backrests, seat cushioning options for additional support, tilt-in-space for relieving pressure (adjust chair orientation without having to change lower body angle), recline adjustment when elevating the legs
Controller types: head control, foot control, sip and puff (inhaling/exhaling into a tube), chin control, speech control
Choosing the best power wheelchair configuration can be a bit tricky in the beginning. But accurate assessment of clinical needs, individual lifestyle and environment makes the choice easier. Buying a motorized wheelchair is a costly affair and there isn’t a single power wheelchair that can cover all the needs of everyone. That’s why it’s important to not only consider the current requirements, but also anticipate future needs so you don’t have to spend huge sums of money again.
Things such as size of the doorway opening and bathroom spacing are important to consider, while the user should also be able to easily make 90-degree turns into rooms and navigate through hallways. These factors along with pros and cons of drive systems can help users make a more informed buying decision, which ultimately results in more comfort and mobility.