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For anyone with impaired mobility, a wheelchair can bring a range of benefits including increased mobility and independence. It also provides the user with a better quality of life, giving them greater freedom to perform outdoor activities and socialize with their friends and family.
If your wheelchair breaks down however, it can mean that you may temporarily lose your mobility and freedom, and it can also result in injuries. In a study, participants were asked if they had suffered a wheelchair-related injury over a 3-year period. 54.7% reported they had suffered at least 1 accident, while 16.8% reported they had suffered 2 more injuries within this period. It was found that those who failed to regularly maintain their wheelchair and used a wheelchair not prescribed by a health-care professional were at a greater risk of suffering an accident.
Regular maintenance of your wheelchair is essential. Not only can it help to extend the life of it, it will also reduce costly repair bills. Importantly, it will keep you safe and prevent unnecessary injuries.
In this article, we have created an easy to follow checklist on how to properly maintain a manual and powered wheelchair in order to keep it in good working order. The checklist covers key maintenance that you should carry out as well as common problems that may occur with your wheelchair, and how to fix these.
Useful Equipment for Basic Wheelchair Maintenance
To carry out basic wheelchair maintenance we would recommend that you have the following tools at your disposal:
- Silicon spray lubricant
- Tire pump with pressure gauge
- Microfiber towel
- Compressed air spray
- Mild detergent
- Small cleaning brush
- Phillips screwdriver
- Flat-head screwdriver
- Allen wrench
- Combination wrench
- Crescent wrench
- Tire repair kit
Even if you carry out regular maintenance on your wheelchair, it is still recommended that you get your wheelchair serviced by an authorized wheelchair supplier at least every 12 months.
Wheelchair Maintenance Checklist
1. Monitor Tire Pressure Regularly
It is important to check on a weekly basis that your tires have the right pressure if you have a wheelchair with pneumatic tires. Tires that are underinflated or overinflated can make your wheelchair difficult to propel and manoeuvre. It can also increase the wear on the wheels and thus reduce their lifespan.
To ensure that your tires are inflated to the correct pressure level, refer to the guidelines printed on the side of the tire. When inflating, use a bike pump with a built-in pressure gauge. Alternatively, use a compressor that allows you to set a pre-set pressure level that will automatically shut off once it is reached, ensuring that you always have the optimal tire pressure.
2. Check the Tire Tread
Just like with a car or bicycle tires, wheelchair tires can wear out over time. Worn-out tires, can make the wheelchair harder to propel and it can also reduce the level of traction making it less safe to operate on rough terrain as well as over icy/snowy and wet surfaces.
A worn out tire tread can also increase the risk of a puncture as well as impacting the wheelchair’s ride, thus reducing the comfort level for the user.
In order to ascertain whether your wheelchair tires need replacing or not, check the following:
- Is the tread pattern still visible or has it worn down?
- Check for any obvious signs of tire damage such as cracks, tears or bulges.
If the tire has lost its tread and it’s entirely smooth or you see any significant signs of damage, it is important that you get the tire/s replaced immediately.
3. Inspect the Condition of the Seat & Backrest
Over time, your wheelchair’s seat and backrest may show signs of wear and tear. If your seat has become damaged or it has developed any wrinkles or creases, it can not only prove uncomfortable to sit on but it can also increase the risk of friction and pressure related injuries which can lead to pressure sores.
The backrest may also begin to lose its shape. If this happens, it may not provide adequate back support which can cause the user to adopt a poor seating position leading to backache and other related back injuries.
If you notice that your seat or backrest is showing signs of wear and it is not as comfortable as it once was, then you should consider replacing it. Changing a seat or backrest is normally a simple process.
Ensure that you also clean your seat and backrest at least every month. Use soapy water on the upholstery and avoid using any harsh abrasive detergents as this may damage it.
4. Check Pressure Relief Cushion
The use of a wheelchair pressure relief cushion is often recommended for anyone that uses a wheelchair for extended periods. Not only can it improve comfort for the user, but it can also reduce the occurrence of pressure sores.
If you use a pressure relief cushion for your wheelchair, ensure that the cushion is still providing you with adequate pressure relief. If you notice the cushion has started to bottom out when you sit on it or it’s starting to leak gel in the case of a gel cushion, it is time to replace it.
5. Tighten Any Loose Nuts, Bolts and Screws
With continued use, nuts, bolts and screws can become loose on your wheelchair especially if you regularly traverse over rough terrain or bumpy surfaces.
Every couple of weeks check that any moving parts on your wheelchair have not become loose.
Items you may want to check include:
- Caster wheels
- Leg rest hangers
- Seat canvas
If any loose nuts, bolts or screws need to be tightened, ensure that you use an appropriate screwdriver or Allen Wrench as required.
6. Check the Condition of the Frame
A stress fracture or break that appears in the wheelchair’s frame can be particularly dangerous. Over time, a fracture however small, can cause the wheelchair to give-way if left unrepaired.
Regularly check the condition of the frame to ensure that there are no visible signs of damage. If you spot a crack/break, get it repaired immediately. If the damage is only minor, it can usually be fixed by having it welded by your wheelchair dealer.
If you use a foldable frame wheelchair, you should check the condition of the cross-brace folding mechanism as well. Verify that the frame folds and opens easily. If you notice that it sticks or it doesn’t seem to open or close as easily as it once did, spray a silicone lubricant on the frame connections.
Rust can also be a problem as it can weaken the frame. If your wheelchair gets wet, ensure that you dry it before storing it away. If you store your wheelchair outside when not in use, consider using a waterproof cover which will help to protect it from the elements.
7. Keep the Battery Charged-Up
Batteries on a powered wheelchair can last anywhere between 12-24 months depending on the type of battery and usage. In order to extend the lifespan of your batteries, ensure that you regularly keep them charged up even if you don’t use your wheelchair that frequently.
Avoid letting the batteries run completely flat. Instead recharge them before they get to below 50 per cent. Recharge your wheelchair overnight while you’re asleep. This way, you’ll always have a fully charged-up wheelchair when you wake up and you will never be caught out with a flat battery when you’re out and about.
If you notice that your batteries are not holding onto their charge for as long as they used to, it may indicate that they may need replacing.
8. Check the Brakes/Wheel Locks
Checking that your brakes are in good working order on a weekly basis is vital. Not only do they keep your wheelchair stationary when applied, but they also allow you to transfer safely when getting into and out of your wheelchair.
In order to test your brakes, apply them and confirm that your wheelchair remains stationary and the wheels do not turn.
If your brakes are not working as expected, check that your tires are not underinflated. If this is not the case, check that they are not loose. If they are loose, tighten the screws or bolts as appropriate and avoid over-tightening them.
Release the brakes and confirm the brakes do not rub against the tires as the wheelchair moves, otherwise this may cause excessive wear and tear on your tires.
9. Check the Casters
The casters on your wheelchair help with steering and manoeuvrability, they are just as important as your tires. If your casters are damaged or they have worn out, the manoeuvrability of your wheelchair may be impacted.
Check the condition of your casters on a monthly basis to ensure that they are in good working order. To do this, lift your wheelchair slightly off the ground and rotate both casters.
Ensure that they spin freely and smoothly. If this is not the case, check that the casters have not picked up any dirt or debris. It is not uncommon for lint or hair to get caught in the axle of the caster. If this is the case, remove any debris. You may need to remove the casters to properly clean them which can be done using an Allen wrench and a can of compressed air.
If you notice that a caster wobbles back and forth (“flutter”), this usually indicates that either the nut or washer that secures the castor fork to the frame has become loose and needs tightening.
You should also check your casters for any visible signs of wear and tear. Do they have any cracks, tears or bulges for example? If they are worn out, you should replace them immediately.
When replacing casters ensure you choose the right size and style that is appropriate for your particular wheelchair. Casters come in a range of sizes ranging anywhere from 4″ to 8″ for most standard wheelchairs.
10. Check Wheel Alignment
If you start to notice that your wheelchair veers when coasting, a wheel alignment issue could be the cause of the problem.
Over time, knocks and bumps can cause your wheels to come out of alignment and the spokes may become loose or damaged which will cause your wheelchair to sometimes veer to either side. This will often make your wheelchair more difficult to manoeuvre and it may take greater effort to control.
To test whether you have any wheel alignment issues, roll your wheelchair on a flat level surface and let it coast for a bit and see if it travels in a straight line or whether it pulls to one side or another.
Perform this test every couple of weeks. If you notice that the wheelchair is not steering straight, you should take it to an approved wheelchair repairer so they can fix the problem for you.
11. Check for Loose and Damaged Armrests
Your wheelchair armrest pad may wear down over time or it may become damaged with rips and tears. If an armrest has any sharp or uneven edges, it can cause a range of injuries to the user especially if they have delicate skin. It is therefore important that an armrest is replaced as soon any damage is noted.
Changing an armrest is a relatively straightforward process, it simply involves unscrewing the existing armrest from the frame and replacing it with the new armrest.
Always refer to your owner manual for your wheelchair. It will provide you with tips and advice on the best ways to maintain your wheelchair as well as advising you on the best way to order replacement parts.
Vibrations can also cause the armrest to become loose. A loose armrest can prove particularly dangerous. If a user is transferring to and from the wheelchair and they are balancing on a unstable armrest it could result in a fall. Check your armrests every couple of weeks to ensure they are securely attached to the frame. If you notice they are loose, simply tighten them with a screwdriver.
12. Lubricate Any Moving Parts
It is important that you regularly lubricate any moving parts on your wheelchair to ensure that they move smoothly and do not seize up.
Use a silicone lubricant spray every 5-6 months on any parts that fold, pivot and swivel such as the casters, rear axle, crossbar, hinges etc.
13. Check the Rear Wheel Bearings
If you notice that your wheelchair is starting to make a squeaking or grinding noise or you’re finding it increasingly difficult to propel or manoeuvre the chair, it could indicate that the rear wheel bearings may need replacing.
Generally, bearings will need to be replaced every 12 months depending on usage.
To check whether you may need to replace your wheelchair bearings, lift the front of the wheelchair off the ground and spin both wheels. If the wheels do not run freely or smoothly or you feel the wheels grinding, this normally suggests the bearings need replacing. Perform this test every month. If the bearings need replacing always use an authorized wheelchair repairer.
14. Check for Loose Electrical Connections
If you use a powered wheelchair, knocks and vibrations can sometimes cause your electrical connections to become loose which can cause it to stop working.
Perform a weekly visual inspection to ensure that there are no loose connections or damaged cables. If a cable appears loose, reconnect to the correct connector. If you’re unsure where the cable goes, seek help from an approved wheelchair repairer as an incorrectly connected cable can cause damage to both your wheelchair and yourself.
Check the joystick, indicators, horn and other controls to ensure they are working as expected.
Ensure that cables are free from any dirt or debris. Corrosion can cause a range of electrical failures so it’s important that you prevent any cables or electrical connections from getting wet. If you need to use your powered wheelchair in wet conditions, use a joystick cover as shown below. The cover goes over the armrest and keeps the controls dry preventing any damage. If your wheelchair does get wet, ensure that you dry it as soon as possible.
15. Inspect the Condition of the Spokes
The spokes on your wheelchair can become loose, broken or bent. Perform a weekly visual inspection to ensure that none are broken or bent.
A good way to test that all spokes are uniformly tight is to either run your finger or a pencil over them as you spin the wheel. Listen to the sound that each one makes. If you notice any difference in tone, this would indicate that one of the spokes is loose and will need tightening.
Not repairing a broken or loose spoke can cause the wheel to buckle so it’s imperative that you get the issue resolved urgently. An authorized wheelchair repairer can fix a broken or loose spoke. Alternatively, a bicycle repair shop can also fix a loose spoke if your wheelchair has pneumatic tires.
16. Check the Footrest
A loose footrest can often be a common occurrence. A footrest can absorb a range of impacts which can cause the bolts to become loose over time.
Check that the footrest can be positioned correctly so that the user can comfortably rest their feet on them. Verify that any bolts that attach the footrest to the frame are not loose. If they are, tighten them with a screwdriver or Allen wrench as appropriate.
If the footrest has become dirty, clean it with soapy water and dry afterwards.
If you notice the footrest has become damaged or it doesn’t swing away and lock into place when raised, you should get them replaced.