Choosing A Powerchair
Choosing a powerchair can initially seem an intimidating task, as there are a number of different types of powerchair available, which appear to offer a bewildering selection of features. However, we have written this guide to help make the process as simple as possible.
The key thing to bear in mind is that a powerchair should suit your requirements. For some, this may be a basic affordable “boxed product” to get them out and about, whereas others with more complex medical conditions will need an advanced product that can be customised to their clinical needs.
The first thing to consider when hiring or purchasing a powerchair is where it will be used. Electric wheelchairs are designed either to be used indoors only, both inside and outside, or occasionally outside only.
For indoor use, the key thing to look for is manoeuvrability. If the wheelchair may have to negotiate tight spaces or turns, then it is vital that it has a small turning circle. Mid-wheel drive powerchairs can turn on the spot, so are particularly good at this. Look also at the overall width of the powerchair if you have narrow doors, as you will need to ensure it can comfortably fit through. Bear in mind that with configurable chairs, a wider seat may increase the overall width. Powerchairs designed solely for indoor use will often be more manoeuvrable inside than ones designed for use outdoors too.
Not all powerchairs are designed to be used outside – you will need one specifically designed for outdoor use to manage that (though many can be used both indoors and out). Think about what kind of ground you are going over - any outdoor capable powerchair can manage flat pavements, but they will have varying level of performance over rougher ground, kerbs and steeper slopes and ramps.
Important features to consider are which wheel drive the powerchair is (discussed in more detail in the next section). While dropped kerbs are usually available, kerb climbing abilities will be important on occasions when they aren’t - rear-wheel drive chairs will need a kerb climber fitted to manage this, while only more advanced mid-wheel drive chairs will be able to climb kerbs.
Performance will be affected by the power of the chair, the size of its wheels, and also the level of suspension it has. Most powered wheelchairs are Class 2 products with a top speed of 4 mph and are limited to pavement use. Higher end Class 3 powerchairs will have a top speed of 6 or 8 mph, and can be driven on roads too.
While manufacturers do advertise ranges for their products, 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. However, battery size is a key indicator of range, and should be looked at when working out if a product will go the distance that you need.
Which Wheel Drive?
Powerchairs have traditionally had rear-wheel drive, like most motor vehicles. However, front-wheel drive powerchairs are also available, as well as mid-wheel drive ones that come with six wheels. Each has advantages and disadvantages - while rear-wheel drive powerchairs are most common, it is often a matter of personal preference as to which you should go for.
- Rear-Wheel Drive
Rear wheel drive is the most common drive found on wheelchairs - they are "intuitive" to drive, working the same way as cars, and are also stable - offering good outdoors performance. However, they have the biggest footprint and are the least manoeuvrable - while compact indoor RWD powerchairs can be great inside, larger indoor/outdoor ones sometimes struggle with tight spaces indoors. Additionally, a 90° knee angle can be difficult due to the spacing required for the castor wheels. Rear wheel drive chairs are generally cheaper, making them ideal for those after a basic, simple to use, and affordable powerchair. They are also a good option if only use your powered wheelchair outdoors as most of their compromises are with indoor performance.
- Front-Wheel Drive
Front wheel drive powerchairs are less common, as they are less intuitive to drive - they move in the opposite direction to the joystick. However, they are popular with some people as they offer a short footprint and a small turning circle. Additionally, front-wheel drive allows the wheelchair user to get close to desks and objects, as well as having a 90° knee angle possible. Front-wheel drive is often used for bariatric powerchairs.
- Mid-Wheel Drive
Mid-wheel drive is a more modern development, which offers the best indoor performance as it allows the wheelchair to literally turn on the spot. They remain intuitive to drive, and are fairly compact with a 90° knee angle possible. However, basic MWD chairs can struggle on bumpy surfaces and ramps as the middle wheels lose traction. Top of the range mid-wheel drive wheelchairs, such as the ones Sunrise Medical offers, come with all-wheel independent suspension which allows them to negotiate bumpy surfaces with ease and also gives them a smoother ride compared to front or rear-wheel drive. Mid-wheel drive is the best option if you are looking to use your wheelchair both inside and out.
Comfort, Support and Posture
If you are spending an extended amount of time in a wheelchair or have advanced postural needs, then your comfort is paramount. For those with basic needs, a standard padded canvas back or high-back captain’s style seat will offer sufficient comfort. Basic powerchairs will come in a set seat size, so be aware that they may not have a “perfect fit”.
If you have more advanced needs, for example for additional postural support or pressure relief, you will need to go for a more advanced powerchair. Higher-end configurable powerchairs 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. Look out for ones that can have Sunrise Medical’s JAY seating range or Invacare’s Matrx range fitted to them. Powered positioning options such as a seat riser, tilt, recline and elevating legrests are available on most of these.
Standing wheelchairs are also available for those that wish to enjoy the health benefits associated with standing. Stand functions are only found on a few top-end powered wheelchairs designed specifically for this purpose.
Powerchairs also 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.
The nature of powered wheelchairs makes them heavy, tricky (or impossible) to dismantle, and thus hard to transport. If you need to transport your powerchair in a vehicle, this will have a big impact on the type of wheelchair you choose.
Most basic indoor powerchairs can be transported easily - they can be dismantled in a similar fashion to boot scooters. This is not generally possible for outdoor capable wheelchairs - while some are advertised as “folding”, dismantling them takes a long time, and the weight of the frame (which includes the wheels and motors) will require at least two able bodied people to lift. The one exception is the Invacare Esprit Action4 NG, which uniquely has the motors in the wheels, and is much more simple to dismantle and lift.
The alternative is to get a wheelchair adapted vehicle that can accommodate a powered wheelchair without you having to lift it. While hoists are an option, they require extensive modification to the powerchair to enable lifting, and are best avoided when possible. Adapted vehicles with ramps are the ideal solution.
If you are using the wheelchairs as a seat in a car, it will need to be Crash-tested. Crash-tested powerchairs 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 powerchair on public transport, you will need to check with your bus or train company first to see if they have any size restrictions. Compact powerchairs are at an advantage as they will better be able to manoeuvre into dedicated wheelchair spaces, while mid-wheel drive also assists with this.
Storing a powerchair 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 that you have somewhere indoors to store and charge the powerchair, and that it is able to get into your property.
For most people, controls will not be be a concern - powerchairs 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 powerchairs - 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.
If you are looking for a wheelchair that a child can use, then safety and ease of use are vital. Our range of paediatric wheelchairs includes ones that can have the seating adjusted as the child grows, making them an ideal long-term solution.
As with anything in life, cost is always a concern. We offer a range of wheelchairs within each class, from basic entry level powerchairs through to more advanced ones with specialist features.
If you are purchase a powerchair or hire one on a long-term basis, we can offer a significant number of customisation options for some of our wheelchairs. As discussed in the Comfort section, higher-end powerchairs offer more configurable options allowing the wheelchair to be set up to your needs. This applies not just to comfort features, but also to others such as performance - speed, battery size, wheel size; convenience add-ons - mobile phone holders, PC controls; and appearance - different styling and colours.
Should your medical needs be likely to change in the future, it is worth looking for a customisable powerchair that is modular and can be altered when necessary. This saves having to get an entire new wheelchair should your prognosis change. This applies not just to seating options but also to controls - more advanced control systems such as R-Net are “plug and play” allowing new seating options to be easily fitted.
We offer powerchairs from a range of manufacturers. Roma, who also supply the Shoprider range, and Pride’s Jazzy range cater to more basic needs with a selection of affordable powerchairs. Sunrise Medical and Invacare, as well as Pride’s Quantum range, are higher-end products that can be configured to your requirements. Sunrise Medical and Invacare in particular are well-established as manufacturers of high-end mobility aids, with prescriptive seating systems such as JAY and Matrx, and are key suppliers to the NHS.
Our full range of powerchairs can be viewed on our Products page, and the individual product listings contain in-depth descriptions of the features, as well as detailing product specifications and a number of pictures.
If after reading this guide, you need further assistance in choosing a powerchair, please don’t hesitate to contact our customer services team who will be able discuss your options with you. We can book an appointment for you to see a product specialist, who will be able to talk you over the various products available, and advise on which would be most suitable. They can then demonstrate our range of products to you, giving you the opportunity to try out a powerchair. This will allow you to experience our wheelchairs first-hand, an invaluable experience when making up your mind which to get. As well as this, our Try Before You Buy scheme allows a unique opportunity to try out many of our powerchairs on a short-term basis, allowing you to see how they benefit your daily routine before committing to a purchase.