The Basics of Manual Wheelchair Maintenance
A clean, well-functioning chair reflects well on its user and helps to present a positive and professional image.
Wheelchair maintenance is essential to getting the most from a wheelchair and to extending its useful life. Users can conduct or direct the routine maintenance of a manual wheelchair, which will make the chair roll smoother and perform better. This will make the wheelchair easier to propel, reducing the strain on the arms, especially the wrists and shoulders.
Proper and frequent wheelchair maintenance can also make the wheelchair safer. In fact, a recent study showed that most wheelchair users experience a failure of some aspect of their chair within the first six months of getting a new chair — and often injury results.
Cleaning and Inspection
Keeping the wheelchair clean and dry is one of the simplest and most important tasks a user can perform to extend the chair’s life and performance.
The wheelchair should be cleaned as needed — at least once per month. Paper towels and simple household cleansers are sufficient for cleaning most components of the chair. The tires and casters can be cleaned with Armor All or a similar product. While cleaning the chair, it is the perfect opportunity to inspect it for damage to the frame or components (e.g., cracks, deep scratches, bent pieces, dents) and to check for loose fasteners (e.g., nuts, bolts, screws).
For those who want to take wheelchair maintenance a step further, the Wheelchair Assessment Checklist serves as a guide.
If damage is detected or there are loose fasteners, the chair should be taken to a reputable wheelchair supplier. (See www.resna.org for a supplier who is an Assistive Technology Professional [ATP] in your area.) In any case, every wheelchair should be thoroughly inspected by a professional supplier semi-annually.
Wheels and Tires
The place to start is literally where the rubber meets the road. Pneumatic (air-filled) tires are lighter and roll with less resistance than those that are solid or foam-filled. However, pneumatic tires must remain properly inflated. Tire pressure should be checked weekly and filled to keep within the rated range, which is typically printed on the side of the tire.
Under-inflated tires increase rolling resistance, amplify the risk of getting a flat tire, and reduce the life of the tire by breaking down the sidewalls and delaminating the tread. A simple bicycle pump with an air pressure gauge is all that is needed to keep tires properly inflated.
Tires should be replaced when the tread is worn to about half its original thickness.
Spoke wheels are lighter and often stronger for ultralight wheelchairs. Fortunately, spokes require little maintenance; nevertheless, they should be checked weekly for broken or loose spokes. This can be done by simply looking at the spokes and by plucking them like a guitar string. If a spoke is loose or broken, take the wheel to a wheelchair supplier or bicycle shop for maintenance or repair.
Quality wheelchairs use sealed bearings, but on occasion, hair, carpet fibers or other fine strands can get into the bearings. Tweezers can be used to remove them and free up the bearings.
On quick-release chairs, oil, grease, and grime can cover the axles. At least every two weeks, the axles and inserts should be cleaned with a dry or lightly oiled paper towel or rag. This is a good time to check whether the axle comes off easily and if the ball-locks engage easily and fully. To check the ball-locks, put the wheel back on the chair and pull on the hub by grasping it like a bowling ball.
Casters are typically nearly maintenance free. The key components to check are the caster tires, by inspecting for chips or cuts; if discovered, the caster should be replaced.
Caster wheel bearings are susceptible to picking up hair, carpet fibers and other fibers. If visible, the fibers should be excised with tweezers by removing the casters, cleaning the axles, and replacing the caster. For people who live or travel to areas where there is snow or where they push through puddles, the caster bearings may lose their lubrication, corrode and become pitted. When the caster bearings and wheels are cleaned, the front end of the chair can be lifted and the caster spun with a hand or finger. If the wheel makes a clicking noise or does not coast easily, the casters should be replaced. For people who live in areas with winter or frequent inclement weather, replacing the casters and bearings each spring is a good rule-of-thumb to follow.
Seat and Backrest
The seat and backrest must support body posture while being comfortable. Damaged, worn, or over-stretched upholstery can lead to bad posture, poor performance, pain, and injury. Upholstery must be kept clean and free from rips, tears, holes, or other damage that could lead to failure. Mild soap and water can be used to clean upholstery, which should be done about once per month.
For adjustable-tension upholstery, it is important to make sure the straps have not shifted or slipped. Use a crayon to mark the straps to ensure they stay in place.
Wheelchairs make a statement about their users, and it is important to creating an impression of the user by others and to one's self-perception. A clean, well-functioning chair reflects well on its user and helps to present a positive and professional image. It is astonishing how many people dress well, yet push around in a dirty and poorly maintained chair, especially given the consequences of the wheelchair failing, which may result in lost time at work/school, missing activities with family/friends, or losing out on other opportunities.
A clean and well-maintained chair can provide several years of active mobility.