Benefits and drawbacks of an electric wheelchair
What makes an electric wheelchair better than a manual wheelchair? There are several reasons why a powered wheelchair can be better for mobility.
First, don’t underestimate the power of an electric motor. Being able to get around without relying on your upper body strength is a huge advantage of electric wheelchairs. Even if you have the strength to push a manual wheelchair for several hours, it can be exhausting over a full day of moving around.
Another benefit of electric wheelchairs is that they can often go places manual wheelchairs cannot. Many electric wheelchairs have tight turning radii – for example, our Editor’s Choice power wheelchair from Titan has a turning radius of just 20 inches. That means you can more easily navigate through tight doorways and indoor spaces.
Electric wheelchairs also come in handy if you need to go uphill. Pushing a manual wheelchair up even a small grade can be exhausting or impossible. Electric wheelchairs like the Sentire Med Forza model can climb grades up to 15 degrees with ease.
Of course, there are some downsides to electric wheelchairs. They’re almost always larger and heavier than manual wheelchairs, which can make them difficult to transfer by car or to take on a plane. Electric wheelchairs can also be expensive, especially for high-end models. The price is a major factor that discourages people from making the switch to electric powered mobility.
Features to consider before you buy an electric wheelchair
There are dozens of different features to consider when buying an electric wheelchair. Which ones you will matter most to you depend on how you plan to use your wheelchair most of the time. To help you decide what’s important, we’ll cover the key features you should look for when choosing a powered wheelchair.
Indoor or outdoor use
You might not know it just from looking at a set of electric wheelchairs, but some models are better suited for either indoor or outdoor use. Much of this comes down to the type of electric motor drive.
Front-drive wheelchairs like the Pride Mobility model are highly stable and offer relatively tight turning radii, factors that makes them suitable for both indoor and outdoor environments. Mid-drive motors, on the other hand, offer even tighter turns that make them perfect for indoor spaces. Rear-drive wheelchairs like the Drive Medical or LITERIDER wheelchairs have larger turning radii, so they can be difficult to maneuver indoors. On the other hand, rear-drive systems are highly stable on rough terrain, making them perfect for outdoor use.
Of course, you should never plan to leave any electric wheelchair outdoors. The materials and motor housing are typically water resistant, but they won’t hold up for long if they are left out in the rain.
Electric wheelchairs have three different drive types: front-drive, mid-drive, and rear-drive.
Front-drive wheelchairs like the Pride Mobility Jazzy Sport 2 have reasonable turning radii and maneuver easily over small obstacles. They are highly stable, but beware that they can fishtail at higher speeds – so most front-drive wheelchairs have a low maximum speed.
Mid-drive wheelchairs like the Titan AXS and CTM Mobility Scooter offer incredibly tight turning. They can virtually spin on the spot compared to most other types of wheelchairs. The downside is that mid-drive systems aren’t all that powerful, so they can struggle going up inclined grades.
The majority of powered wheelchairs we reviewed are rear-drive models. Rear-drive wheelchairs can power over any type of terrain, and some models like the Sentire Med Forza have excellent climbing abilities. However, most have turning radii over 30 inches, so they can be hard to maneuver in tight indoor spaces.
You’re probably going to spend several hours a day or more sitting in your electric wheelchair. So, it’s important to look for a seat that’s comfortable and provides support for your lower back.
Every wheelchair manufacturer approaches seat comfort differently. The Titan AXS features a contoured seat that is designed to help you sink into the chair, as well as includes a headrest so you can lean back. The Innuovo Intelligent wheelchair includes a shaped seatback with lumbar support, but leaves out the headrest. Keep in mind that if the seat is rectangular, as on the Drive Medical and Porto Mobility Ranger wheelchairs, it is easier to add your own after-market cushion.
Be sure to check the seat width as well, especially if you are heavyset. Most of the chairs we reviewed have seat widths between 18 and 19 inches, but models like the Forcemech Voyager R2 can have seats as narrow as 17 inches.
Heavyset individuals will want to pay close attention to the weight limit for which any electric wheelchair is rated. Most models we reviewed are rated for either 265 or 300 pounds. However, you can also find heavy-duty wheelchairs like the Porto Mobility Ranger that hold up to nearly 400 pounds.
Battery life and charging time
There’s nothing worse than worrying about your electric wheelchair running out of battery. Since powered wheelchairs are so heavy, they can be very difficult to move on your own without the electric motor.
Battery life is typically rated in terms of the average distance you can travel on a single charge. Some models like the Rubicon Extreme can travel 10 miles per charge, while chairs like the Karman Xo202 can travel up to 25 miles. Most wheelchairs we reviewed fall somewhere in between.
Consider how far you will typically travel in a day and whether there are places to recharge along the way.
Electric wheelchairs aren’t designed to go fast, but that doesn’t mean they have to be slow. Nearly all of the models we reviewed offer maximum speeds between 3 and 5 miles per hour. If you plan to use your wheelchair outside and cover longer distances, having a higher maximum speed can save you a significant amount of time getting around.
The turning radius of an electric wheelchair is typically determined by the type of drive it has. Mid-drive motors offer extremely tight turning radii, followed by front-drive motors and then rear-drive motors.
Turning radius matters because the simple fact is that most indoor spaces aren’t designed to make things easy for wheelchair users. If your wheelchair requires a large turning radius, you might not be able to turn around in a narrow hallway or room.
It’s a good idea to measure the spaces in your house to get an idea of how much space you’ll need to turn. Of course, if you’re primarily using your wheelchair outside, turning radius isn’t as much of a concern.
With that in mind, the electric wheelchairs we reviewed differ widely in their turning capabilities. The Titan AXS has a turning radius of just 20 inches, while the Innuovo Intelligent wheelchair has a radius of nearly three feet.
Wheels and ground clearance
Another thing to consider is the quality of the wheels your wheelchair is built with. Most wheelchairs we reviewed feature robust never-flat rubber wheels that can easily handle both indoor and outdoor surfaces. Many models, though, have smaller front or rear wheels that might not roll smoothly over grass or other soft surfaces.
Think about where you plan to travel with your powered wheelchair and look for wheels that suit the surface.
You’ll also want to think about the ground clearance of your wheelchair. Doorframes, rocks, and other objects can make it difficult for your wheelchair to move, and lifting a chair to get it over an obstacle can be difficult. Most wheelchairs only offer 2 to 3 inches of ground clearance, but models like the Sentire Med Forza FCX Deluxe have up to 5 inches of clearance.
The maximum grade your powered wheelchair can climb is another concern if you plan to use your wheelchair outside. ADA-accessible ramps are less than 5 degrees, but small hills and sidewalk grades can be up to 8 degrees or more. Of the wheelchairs we reviewed, the Rubicon Extreme and Sentire Med Forza offer the best climbing capabilities.
Dimensions and weight
One of the major drawbacks to electric wheelchairs is that they are large and heavy. Many of the wheelchairs we reviewed weigh in at over 150 pounds. However, you can find lightweight wheelchairs like the Innuovo Intelligent that weigh just 50 pounds. These lightweight models are much easier to lift into and out of a vehicle, and some like the Forcemech Voyager R2 are even foldable for travel.
An electric wheelchair is a significant investment, so it’s important to check the warranty policy. Most wheelchairs we reviewed come with five-year warranties on the frames but only one-year warranties on the battery, motor, and other electronic components.
Unfortunately, electric wheelchairs aren’t cheap. Our Editor’s Choice pick from Titan costs over $2,300, while a more affordable model like the Rubicon Extreme costs $1,700.
Keep an eye out for extra features that can vary from wheelchair to wheelchair. For example, some wheelchairs offer specific speed settings to help you control your motion. Others have retractable footrests and armrests that can increase portability and comfort. Think about what features are important to you based on how you plan to use your wheelchair.