Around the House: From the Ground Up

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News December 2015

If you use a wheelchair, the floor surface you travel on is just as critical as the road is for an automobile

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Floor products, as well as structural and spatial design, can provide or hinder optimum mobility for wheelchair use. Besides having a surface that allows for easy movement, you also want a floor that’s able to withstand the rigors of wheelchair use. Having a good quality floor to roll on in your home quite literally starts from the ground up.


One of the main concerns when looking at flooring for a wheelchair user’s home is friction. You certainly don’t want too little and too much can also be a problem. Too much resistance can actually trip up a walker because of too much surface drag. The coefficient of friction basically measures the slipperiness of a flooring material. Values range from 0 to 1 with the lower the value meaning a floor is more slippery.
Floor surfaces should always be maintained, cleaned and periodically deep cleaned in order to maintain friction. However, the Tile Council of North America (TCNA) states that friction of tile floor surfaces will change over time and they should be checked periodically to verify they’re still functioning as designed. If a tile floor loses friction, it can be enhanced with microetching treatments.


Other virtues of functional floors that accommodate wheelchair use include: durability, low maintenance, matte finish to minimize glare and flooring resilience. Resilience is the ability of a floor to retain its original form and will provide a bit of surface give or flex thus retaining its finish without developing indentations.
Strong resilience will also minimize injury or breakage from drops or falls. It’s recommended to have a sound isolation mat under the finish surface, especially if it’s a wood- framed floor.
Color contrasting the floor where it meets the wall is also something to consider. Contrasting the color of the floor and walls can act as a visual cue and protect your walls from your foot-rest, as you’ll see walls more readily.


Even if you have a good, strong, resilient floor surface, keep in mind that different floor types will have different subfloors and depths of construction. You want a flush floor throughout without any “speed bumps.”
The maximum vertical difference should be no more than ¼ inch. A ½-inch vertical transition is permissible, but it’s best to only have those at the exterior doors. If there is a ½-inch change inside, make sure there’s a beveled transition strip between products. Despite any potential “hurdles,” varying floor materials can be attractive and also delineate “room areas” within an open floor plan. I often use a combination of varying floors and ceiling types and heights to define different, yet connected areas.
I also detail a tile base or other material high enough up the side wall to protect from wheelchair damage, without being too high and obtrusive. One way to give the appearance of different materials, but to use the same product brand and keep the subfloor the same height, is to use laminate. Laminates take on the look of many finishes, but have the same core that is typically High Density Fiber (HDF) and some have an integral sound underlayment underneath the HDF.
The top is a photographic layer that should appear identical to its mimicked wood-, tile- or stone-looking material. This composite laminate product is typically 38-inch thick.
A quality standard used for laminate floors is called an abrasion class (AC) rating. This is a European standard and ranges from AC1 to AC5. A laminate floor rated as AC5 should resist 1,300 pounds per square inch (PSI), but do your homework and check the warranties for wheelchair use. A high PSI load is another reason to always use commercial products for floors.


Hardwood floors’ strength is tested by what’s called the Janka Hardness Rating. This measures the hardness of real hardwood. The test looks at the floor’s resistance to a small metal ball impressed into the wood. The harder the wood is, the higher the figure and the stronger the wood.
Janka Hardness Ratings of some typical hardwood flooring material include:

Balsa - 100
Douglas Fir - 660
Natural Bamboo - 1,380
True Pine - 1,570
Hickory - 1,820
Mesquite - 2,345
Brazilian Tiger Mahogany - 3,840


However, real hardwood may eventually show wear and tear from wheelchair use. Whatever types you choose, make sure they’re commercial grade and always ask about the warranties.
I’ve launched my new blog at I appreciate views and comments from PN readers, so join the discussions with new weekly topics.


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Around the House: From the Ground Up


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