How Electric Wheelchairs Work: The Complete Guide


While getting a wheelchair isn’t exactly something to look forward to, it can be the solution to all the mobility problems you or a loved one is facing. Whether you are getting your first wheelchair for yourself or for a friend or loved one, there is a lot to know about how electric wheelchairs work before making the big purchase and the substantial investment.

So, how do electric wheelchairs work? Electric wheelchairs are controlled by the person seated in the chair. Instead of being pushed by someone behind the chair or powered by the user’s arms, electric wheelchairs are powered by an electric battery. The user has access to a control panel or other control mechanism that operates the wheelchair depending on the person’s ability.

A lot goes into the decision of getting an electric wheelchair, but the increase in mobility can be life changing in all the best ways. Electric wheelchairs grant freedom, comfort, and safety to the people who use them. This complete guide will go over everything you need to know about electric wheelchairs and how to use one.

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The Basic Parts of an Electric Wheelchair

The electric wheelchair was first developed in the early 1900s then became more in demand after World War II.  Every electric wheelchair has several basic parts: 

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  • Motor – Depending on the amount of power needed for the electric wheelchair, it will have either a 2-pole motor or a 4-pole motor. Lightweight power wheelchairs contain the 2-pole motor, and heavy duty wheelchairs contain the 4-pole motor. Heavy duty wheelchairs are also built with extra strength in the frame, suspension, wheels, and battery. 
  • Wheels – At the bottom of the wheelchair, there are wheels on the power base, which can be located in the front, middle, or back of the wheelchair. The wheels on an electric wheelchair are fixed on a single plane. Since electric wheelchairs are usually four-wheeled or six-wheeled, the additional sets of wheels are found in either the front, back, or both to help with balance and guiding the wheelchair. The wheels often have suspensions on them to allow them to remain touching the ground on uneven terrain. 
  • Power Base – Along with the wheels, the power base holds the motor, battery, wiring harnesses, and brakes. The power base and its parts are covered for protection and connected to the wiring system that runs to the control panel, usually located on the armrest.
  • Seat – The seating system is added on top of the power base. Seating systems can have a variety of adjustment options to make the chair comfortable for the driver. Some options include power tilt, power recline, elevating leg rests, adjustable seat height, standing position, and adjustable high or medium back. Depending on the needs of the owner, some chairs will have these options while others will have static, or unchanging, chair seats. 
  • Battery – The battery used in an electric wheelchair is a sealed lead acid battery. The wheelchair can either contain a wet cell battery, which contains liquid electrolytes, or a dry cell battery where no liquid is present. For a dry cell battery, 24-volts of power are usually needed to power an electric wheelchair. 

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Whether it is a wet cell battery or dry cell, the battery will produce about 4 to 5 amps and is charged by plugging the chair into a wall outlet. Wheelchair owners should keep in mind that wet cell batteries require special attention when traveling by aircraft. They must be removed from the chair and secured before travel. 

  • Drive System – Electric wheelchairs can have four different drive systems. The wheels that are producing the power are larger than the remaining wheels on the chair. Some chair brands also contain a power lifting device that can help the chair climb over small curbs that are 10cm or less. Here are the four drive systems:
  1. Front Wheel Drive – outdoor use or rough terrain
  2. Center Wheel Drive (six-wheel layout) – indoor use or flat terrain
  3. Rear Wheel Drive – indoor use or flat terrain
  4. All-Wheel Drive – outdoor use or rough terrain
  • Controller – The controls of an electric wheelchair are typically located on the armrest of the chair. They are used to operate the various functions of the wheelchair, such as the tilt, chair height, back support, leg rests, speed, and direction. The joystick on the control panel controls the directional movement. For drivers who cannot use their arms, there are chairs that have foot, head, or voice controls. 
Courtesy of Quick N Mobile Mobility

The Design of the Electric Wheelchair

Individuals who use an electric wheelchair need to be able to easily navigate it everywhere they go. Electric wheelchairs are designed for either indoor use, outdoor use, or both indoor and outdoor use. 

  • An indoor chair will be required to fit around tight corners, navigate through narrow hallways, and fit easily through doorways. To allow for this, the design is narrow and smaller than an outdoor wheelchair’s design. The controls are simplified due to the basic indoor navigation.
  • An outdoor chair will have a larger build with a more complex control panel. It will also have larger wheels to allow for better movement on outdoor terrain and a longer battery life. Occasionally an outdoor chair can be taken inside, but it would be challenging to navigate it around a standard home. 
  • The indoor and outdoor wheelchair will have a smaller design, similar to the indoor chair, but build large enough to function well outside. The battery life will be built with a reasonable range to allow for extended time outside. The tires will have more grip than indoor tires but are not as large and knobby as an outdoor wheelchair’s tires. These chairs sometimes have a curb-climber built into the chair to allow it to climb small curbs.

Tips When Using an Electric Wheelchair

When it comes to using an electric wheelchair, most of the information you need will be found in the wheelchair’s owner manual or can be discussed with a health care provider. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when using an electric wheelchair:

  • Power Button – Turn the power to the wheelchair off when it is not in use. This will prevent the battery from draining. It is also important to make sure the power is off while the wheelchair is charging and while the driver is climbing in and out. 
  • Seat Belt – Wear a seat belt at all times while using an electric wheelchair. It will help protect you in the event of an accidental fall.
  • Battery – Keep the battery charged at all times, so you are never caught somewhere with a dead battery. Plug the chair in overnight or whenever it is not being used for long periods of time. 
Courtesy of Spinal Cord Injury BC

How to Unlock an Electric Wheelchair?

Many electric wheelchairs are built with a joystick locking feature that will render the joystick useless until unlocked. Depending on the brand of chair you own there are different methods for unlocking the joystick, listed below are a few you can try:

  • Make sure the joystick is powered on and press it forward, holding that position until a beep is made. Next, press reverse on the joystick, holding it until a beep is made. Recenter the joystick, and remove your hand. A loud beep should sound unlocking the joystick.
  • Have the joystick powered on, then press and hold down the power button for two seconds until a beep is made. Next, press the joystick forward, holding that position until a beep is made. Next, press reverse on the joystick, holding it until a beep is made. Recenter the joystick, and remove your hand. A loud beep should sound unlocking the joystick.
  • Press the horn key twice during the 10 second period that the LED lights are scrolling. 

If none of these methods work for unlocking the joystick on your electric wheelchair, try to find the manual for the chair or reach out to the health care representative or manufacturer that provided you the chair.  

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Can You Drive an Electric Wheelchair in the Rain?

Electric wheelchairs are not designed to get wet. Water and moisture exposure to an electric wheelchair can cause the chair to malfunction mechanically or electronically. 

When it comes to cleaning your electric wheelchair, it is recommended that you use a damp cloth and a mild cleaner. To avoid damage, you do not want to hose down or soak parts of the chair in water. 

If your wheelchair is exposed to excessive amounts of water here are a few steps you can take to prevent damage: 

  • Use a towel to dry the wheelchair thoroughly.
  • Check various parts, such as the breaks or joystick, before operating the chair to make sure everything is functioning properly. 
Courtesy of Ron Piggott

Can You Push an Electric Wheelchair?

Although you have purchased an electric wheelchair that self propels, if you run out of battery, the battery needs replacing, or the chair otherwise malfunctions, you might need to push it. In this case, most electric wheelchairs have a lever or button that allows you to switch the chair into a manual mode. When in manual, you or another person should be able to maneuver the chair more easily.

How Long Does an Electric Wheelchair Last? 

Electric wheelchairs are built to be durable and long lasting. The length of life for the chair will depend on how much it is used and how well it is taken care of by its owner. It is important to have the chair regularly maintained and repaired as needed in order to prolong its life. A well taken care of an electric wheelchair can last up to five years or more. 

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How to Prolong the Life of an Electric Wheelchair

For those that depend on their electric wheelchair for mobility, having a fully functioning chair is essential to their quality of life. Prolonging the life of an electric wheelchair is more than just taking care of a financial investment, but an investment in their life.

Here are a few things to keep maintained in order to lengthen the life of your wheelchair:

  • Battery
  • Electrical Parts
  • Tires
  • Chair Cleanliness

Let’s take a closer look at each of these components.

The Battery

If you are worried that your wheelchair isn’t running properly or seems like it might be on its last leg, try replacing the battery. Without a good working battery, an electric wheelchair will not function properly. 

Here are some tips to prolong the life of the battery: 

  • Only use the charger that is designed specifically for your wheelchair’s battery.
  • If the battery is depleted, more than 80% go ahead and charge it.
  • Charge the battery every night to keep it fully charged as much as possible. 
  • When you first purchase your chair, only use 30% of the battery power during the first 10 days 
Courtesy of High-Tech Battery Solutions, Inc

Electrical Parts

An electric wheelchair is built with several electrical components that need to be maintained in order for the chair to function properly. One of the best ways to take care of these parts is to make sure they do not get wet. Avoid puddles and taking the wheelchair out in the rain when possible. If the wheelchair is exposed to water, dry the chair immediately with towels or by leaving it outside on a warm sunny day. If you know of any electrical part of the chair that has been damaged, get it repaired immediately to avoid further damages.  

Tires

Tires are another important part of an electric wheelchair. Make sure that the air pressure in each tire is where it needs to be at all times in order to avoid uneven distribution of weight. If one tire has lower pressure, weight in the chair can shift and put pressure on areas of the chair that aren’t designed to hold it. Wheelchair owners will also want to replace the tires as soon as they begin to wear. Excessive wear on a tire won’t allow them to function as well and can cause long term damage.

Cleanliness

The last thing to keep maintained is the cleanliness of the chair. Keeping the chair free of dust, dirt, and grime will prevent the fabric or other parts of the chair from wearing out faster. Pay attention to gradual sights of wear and tear to avoid long lasting damage to your chair. If needed, keep notes of repairs you have done and set reminders to have a routine maintenance check as often as you feel necessary. Doing these things will help lengthen the life of your wheelchair. 

What Are the Different Types of Electric Wheelchairs? 

Manufacturers have built electric wheelchairs with all different shapes, sizes, and styles to meet the different needs of each owner. Electric wheelchairs can be organized into four main categories:

  • Heavy Duty Electric Wheelchair – Heavy duty electric wheelchairs are built to hold a significant amount of weight and last a long time.
  • Full Size Electric Wheelchair – The full size electric wheelchair is built larger and more durable than previous models in order to hold more weight. 
  • Travel Electric Wheelchair – Travel electric wheelchairs are lightweight, making it easy to take them with you when traveling. They are built to be durable and provide convenience. 
  • Folding Electric Wheelchair – Folding electric wheelchairs fold easily, are lightweight, and can be easily moved around when not in use. 

Here’s What You Need to Know About Electric Wheelchairs 

Whether you are considering an electric wheelchair or already have one, here are a few important things to know about your chair: 

  • Electric wheelchairs are not easy to maneuver and control. First-time users will need time figuring out the controls and mobility of the chair. There is a learning curve.
  • They cannot be driven on an incline for an extended period of time. Driving an electric chair up a hill for an extended period of time can cause damage to the motor and shorten the life of the chair. 
  • Electric wheelchairs are not one size fits all. As mentioned previously, different types of electric wheelchairs are designed for different types of people. Make sure you pick a chair that is specific to the wants and needs of its owner. 
  • Electric wheelchairs cannot go up and down stairs. Although some wheelchairs have built-in curb-climbers, this does not mean that the chair can handle any number of stair steps. Do not attempt to take the wheelchair up or down stairs as it puts the driver of the chair at risk.
Courtesy of SpinalcoardinjuriesAU

Picking the Right Electric Wheelchair for Your Needs

For those who might need it, an electric wheelchair is a great opportunity to improve your independence and mobility. Due to the variety of wheelchairs that have been produced, it is important to do your research and make sure you select the best chair according to its owner’s needs. The list below will help you choose the right electric wheelchair:

  • Ask the future driver: what are your specific needs? Think about where the chair will be needed. Will the chair be driven outside, inside, or both? What type of terrain will the chair be driven on, and what of turns will it make? What size of space will the chair be navigating in? 
  • Where will the wheelchair be taken? Depending on where the driver of the chair wants to travel, you might need to select a chair that can fold, is lightweight, can be taken apart for transport or has off roading tires. 
  • Select what type of drive will be needed for the power base. The different drive options, such as rear wheel, front wheel, center wheel, or all wheel will impact how the wheelchair moves. Rear wheel drive will provide more speed and better accommodates longer lengths of travel. Center wheel drive can make tighter turns, which is good in small spaces. Front wheel drive goes slower but does better over uneven terrain.  It may be a good idea to test drive each type in order to find the one that is the most comfortable. 
  • Select a comfortable seat cushion. Wheelchair seats are built with various materials and can be padded in different ways. Some methods include air filled, foam, gel, or different combinations of these. Figure out what seat is most comfortable because chances are you will be spending a lot of time sitting there.
  • Choose a seat that performs the functions you want. When purchasing a wheelchair you can get a standard seat, that doesn’t move, or pick a seat that has several features that can include:
  1. Recline
  2. Tilt
  3. Power Leg Rests
  4. Standing Position
  5. Height Elevation
  6. Lumbar Adjustments
  • If needed, pick a chair that can be controlled without the joystick. Sometimes drivers might need to control the chair with something other than their hands. If this is the case, find a chair that will work for your needs. Some styles include head control, foot control, and voice control.
  • Discuss chair options with a professional. When picking out a wheelchair, speak with a healthcare professional, such as an occupational therapist or rehab technology supplier, and see what their recommendations are. They can help you know what to look for and suggest electric wheelchair brands that will meet your needs. 
  • Ask around. Talk with others who have experience with electrical chairs and see what their recommendations are. You can also read reviews online to get a feel for the quality of chairs you’ve considered purchasing. 
  • Factor in cost of the chair. Make sure you pick a chair that fits within your budget. Reach out to your health insurance provider to see if they can cover any cost of the chair. 
  • Battery Life. Pay attention to the battery life of the chair you want to purchase. Make sure it will last long enough for the rides you will be taking it on. Keep in mind the amount of weight placed in the chair will impact how long the battery lasts.
  • Find a chair that fits the driver. Some wheelchairs can hold up to 300 lbs while others can hold up to 650 lbs. Also, look at the width of the wheelchair to make sure you will fit in it comfortably. If the wheelchair is for a child, then find a chair that has room for the child to grow into it over the years. 
  • Consider a chair that can be modified. As the needs of the driver change, it might be beneficial to have a wheelchair that can be adjusted to meet those needs. Some chairs can have the seats changed, wheels adjusted to fit new tracks, or allow modification to the steering system. 
  • Safety. Choose a wheelchair that meets the safety recommendations and educate yourself on how to properly use it. Here are some safety tips:
  1. Wear your seatbelt at all times.
  2. Keep your limbs close to the frame of the chair to prevent it from tipping over.
  3. Keep the battery fully charged, so it doesn’t run out of power while you are out.  
  4. Avoid busy areas when traveling outside.
  5. Only allow the chair on terrain it was designed for.
  6. Make sure the power is off when climbing in and out of the chair.
  7. Pay attention to those around you, especially young children, who might attempt to play with the controllers on your chair.
  8. Avoid taking the chair outside at night or when the weather is poor. 

How Much Does an Electric Wheelchair Cost?

Prices for electric wheelchairs will vary depending on the size, functions, and design of the chair. When searching for an electric wheelchair, make sure you find one that will not only meet your needs but will also fit within your budget. As mentioned earlier, take the time to reach out to health care insurance providers to see if they can cover some or all of the cost for an electric wheelchair. Listed below are a few examples of what an electric wheelchair might cost: 

  • $1,500 to $15,000 – This is a lower range of what an electric wheelchair may cost. Front and rear wheel drive systems are typically lower in cost than mid wheel drive systems.
  • $15,000 – $30,000 – Power wheelchairs that have special functions such as recline, tilt, standing position, and adjustable leg rests can cost within this range.

In Conclusion

There is a lot to know about how an electric wheelchair works, ranging from the parts that are used to build them all the way to what functions electric wheelchairs can and can’t perform. This guide has provided you with the ins and outs of electric wheelchairs and how they work. 

Steven Abbey

Steven Abbey is a author for Senior Living Headquarters and owns a home in a retirement community. His wife owns a successful family business that has served tens of thousands of people. He also has a electrical technician degree.

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