Choosing a Powered Wheelchair

Choosing a powerchair can initially seem an intimidating task, as there are a number of different types 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.

Usage

The first thing to consider when hiring or purchasing a powerchair is where it will be used. Most electric wheelchairs can be used both inside and outdoors, but some specialise exclusively in one.

Indoors

For indoor use, the key thing to look for is manoeuvrability. Powerchairs designed solely for indoor use will often be more manoeuvrable inside than ones designed for use outdoors too. 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.

Outdoors

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. While superficially there is little difference in what a Quickie Q500 M and Q700 M offer, the Q700 features much more advanced Spider-Trac 2.0 suspension that provides a much smoother ride.

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. Therefore, we recommend battery size as a key indicator of range, and this 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, front and mid-wheel drives

Rear-Wheel Drive

Rear wheel drive was once the most common drive found on wheelchairs - they are "intuitive" to drive, working the same way as cars, and are also stable - offering the best outdoors performance. However, they have the biggest footprint and are the least manoeuvrable, with a large turning circle. Additionally, a 90° knee angle can be difficult due to the spacing required for the castor wheels. Many basic powered wheelchairs are made with rear wheel drive as it is what people are most familiar with - meaning they are often a cost-effective solution. 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 not so intuitive to drive. However, once mastered they offer a "best of both worlds" with great indoor and outdoor performance. With a short footprint and a small turning circle they turn well in compact indoor locations, and allow you to get close to desks and objects without having castors in the way. Outdoors, they offer better traction than mid wheel drive, and smoother kerb climbing. Front-wheel drive is often used for bariatric powerchairs, and is also seen on Permobil's flagship models.

Mid-Wheel Drive

Mid-wheel drive 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 mid wheel drive chairs can struggle on bumpy surfaces and ramps as the middle wheels lose traction. Top of the range mid-wheel drive wheelchairs come advanced suspension that overcomes this limitation, giving excellent outdoor performance. We have found mid wheel drive 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 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. Powered positioning options such as a seat riser, tilt, recline and elevating legrests are available on most of these - we detail these on our powered positioning page.

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 and our profiled here.

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.

Transportability

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 powerchairs tend to weigh in excess of 80 kg (and often double that) meaning they cannot be lifted into a car.

Folding Powerchairs

Our range of light folding powered wheelchairs are ideal for lifting into the back of your car, and are also ideal for storage if you lack space.

The alternative is to get a wheelchair adapted vehicle that can accommodate a powered 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, 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.

Storage

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.

Controls

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.

Children

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.

Paediatric Powerchairs

Our children's powered wheelchairs are compact and safe for younger users, and feature adjustable seating that can grow with your child.

Cost

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.

Customisation

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 and LiNX are “plug and play” allowing new seating options to be easily fitted.

Manufacturer

We offer powerchairs from a range of manufacturers. Pride’s Jazzy range caters to more basic needs with a selection of affordable powerchairs. Pride and Motion Healthcare offer a great selection of light folding powered models too. Sunrise Medical, Permobil and Invacare, as well as Pride’s Quantum range, are higher-end products that can be configured to your requirements. Sunrise Medical, Permobil and Invacare in particular are well-established as manufacturers of high-end mobility aids, with prescriptive seating systems such as JAY, Roho and Matrx.

A selection of our powered wheelchairs on display in our Chessington showroom

Where Next?

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, either at our Chessington showroom or a home demonstration, 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.