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Manual Wheelchair Maintenance

by Alicia M. Koontz, MS, ATP
Maintaining your wheelchair is just as important as maintaining your car. Learning how to care for your chair can give you peace of mind.

Wheelchairs are a little like cars -- if they have tune-ups at regular intervals, you can extend the life of your wheelchair while reducing overall repair costs. Oftentimes, you will be the first to notice any problems or changes in the functionality of your wheelchair.
That's why you should be responsible for the maintenance of your wheelchair.

Fortunately, it is not complicated for you to service many parts on your manual wheelchair. To help yourself in the long run, develop a regular preventative maintenance routine, which involves cleaning, inspecting and adjusting all critical components of your wheelchair and seating system. Start by wiping down your wheelchair with a clean, damp rag on a regular basis. Applying car wax to the wheelchair frame can make it easier to perform routine cleanings.

If you are a child or young adult, you can learn to do some things such as clean the wheelchair and make sure that your bolts are tight. A rider who has limited upper arm strength should ask for help from a family member or other caregiver.

Check no less than once a month for loose nuts and bolts

The owner's manual is a critical resource that holds important information regarding which parts of your wheelchair are warranted and for how long, how to take care of your wheelchair, and which tools are necessary to maintain your the wheelchair. When you receive your new chair, make sure you keep your owner's manual in a safe place for future reference!

Tools are a worthwhile investment that can save a lot of money in the long run. A few must haves include: Allen wrench set (English and/or metric if your wheelchair contains European components), adjustable wrench, flat and Phillips head screwdrivers, spoke wrench, and a tire repair kit. Along with the tools, a pouch, bag or container should be purchased that can be used to carry them on the wheelchair in case of an emergency.

Performing routine wheelchair maintenance may give you a sense of confidence in its performance, safety and reliability. Here are suggested maintenance tasks that every wheelchair owner should follow:

  • Nuts & Bolts: Check no less than once a month for loose nuts and bolts. Do not substitute damaged nuts and bolts with those of alternative grades and configurations. For example, a number label on the head of the bolt signifies how strong it is - the higher the number the stronger the bolt. Only replace bolts with those of the same grade or strength rating. Also, do not replace a lag bolt (partly solid/partly threaded) with an all-threaded bolt (screw).

  • Check that legrests, footrests, armrests, and backrests can be released (if originally designed to do so!) and put back into place with ease.

  • If you have a folding wheelchair, ensure that it opens and folds easily. The folding mechanism requires lubrication (consult with the owner's manual for the type of lubricant to use) at least one a year -- more if you live in a humid or wet climate.

  • All pivot points on the chair need to be lubricated, such as where the front casters turn.

  • Ball bearings will also need lubrication. However, most manual wheelchairs have sealed bearings or wipers to discourage water and dirt from damaging them. Bearings require special care and should be serviced by a trained specialist. Contact your wheelchair manufacturer for the closest specialist in your area.

  • The wheelchair frame should be inspected for cracks, especially in areas that sustain significant stress, such as the cross-brace of a folding wheelchair and the caster housing. A crack can be a serious threat to safety and should be tended to immediately. The degree of repair depends on the location of the crack. A crack occurring at a junction point in the frame may be repaired via a simple welding procedure. On the other hand, the entire frame may need to be replaced. Consult with the owner's manual to find out which parts of the wheelchair are covered by the manufacturer, how long the warranty is good for, and about the service policy.

  • Purchase a tube of "touch-up" paint from the manufacturer to cover up scratches and chipped paint.

Axles, Wheels and Tires

What you roll on is just as important as rest of your chair. Carefully check your axles, wheels, casters and tires.

  • Quick-release axles allow quick removal of your wheels. These axles should slide through the axle housing smoothly and "click" into place, or if threaded (like a screw), should thread easily and latch properly. No squeaking, binding or excessive side-to-side motion should be present when rolling.

  • Keeping the axle housing clean of debris can help ensure that it functions properly. This area is highly susceptible to dirt and mud build-up and should be cleaned once a week for the active user or on a monthly basis otherwise. Remove wheels and wipe off the axles with a clean cloth that contains just a few drops of oil on it. Also, try and clean the axle housings and around the bearings.

  • Check your wheel alignment monthly. If your wheelchair tends to veer to one side while coasting, it could very well be that your wheels are out of alignment or that your spokes have become loose or damaged.

  • Inspect your wheels weekly to ensure that spokes from the axle to the rim are intact, that rims are not bent and that your wheels are parallel to one another. A properly adjusted wheel may require the equipment and expertise of a specialist. A bike shop should be able to assist in repairing and making adjustment to your wheels.

  • The front casters should be inspected and repaired in the same manner as the rear wheels. There should be no wobbling of the caster wheel, no excessive play in the caster spindle, and the caster housing should be aligned vertically.

  • A common mechanical problem encountered with manual wheelchairs is the flat tire. Tires with pneumatic rubber tubes -- as opposed to airless foam or solid inserts -- require more maintenance. That's why you should learn how to change or repair a tube.

  • If you are an active person who has frequent flats, patch it using a "patch kit" purchased from any local bike shop. This is an economical alternative to buying a new tube all the time. The kits include several rubber circular patches that are either glued over the hole or are self-adhering (the easiest ones to use).

  • Be sure you have the right pressure in your tube as indicated on the side of the tire. Inflate the tube using a hand-pump (can be useful if away from home) or electric or regular bicycle pump.

  • Check tire pressure once a week. A quick check method is to pinch the outer walls of the tire. It should be firm. Under-inflated tires can make it more difficult to push and maneuver the chair, cause the tires to wear faster, and prevent the wheel locks from seating properly against the wheel.

  • Replace tires when the tread becomes worn, cracked, loose or when the side walls begin to bulge out when pumped with air. Check that wheel locks (brakes) are secured tightly to the frame and that they hold tires firmly in place and are easily activated. Make adjustments if they interfere with the tire while rolling as this can cause undue wear and tear.

Depending on how much you demand of your wheelchair will determine how often your maintenance routine should be performed. Climate, environment, and wheelchair type will also dictate how often a wheelchair needs serviced. It is recommended that while many maintenance tasks can be performed at home, the wheelchair should still be taken periodically to an authorized service center, as described in the owner's manual, for a routine check-up.

Suggested Manual Wheelchair Maintenance Guide

Day 1

  • Store your owner's manual in a safe place for future reference.

  • Use a car wax on the chair frame to make future cleaning easierStore tools in a pouch, bag or container on your chair for use in a maintenance emergency.

  • Purchase a tube of "touch-up" paint to cover scratches and chipped paint.

  • Learn how to change your tires.

  • Purchase a tire "patch" kit and carry it with you.

  • Purchase a hand-pump to inflate tires and carry it with you.

Daily
  • Wipe chair down with clean damp rag.

Weekly

  • Inspect wheels to ensure spokes from the axle to the rim are intact, and that rims are not bent.

  • Inspect front casters for wobbling, excessive play and alignment.

  • Clean axle housings of any debris.

  • Check tire pressure.

  • Check that wheel locks/brakes are secured tightly to the frame and are easily activated.

Monthly

  • After a thorough cleaning, use a car wax on the frame to make the next cleaning easier.

  • Check for loose nuts and bolts.

  • Check your wheel alignment.

  • Check for easy release and replacement of removable legrests, footrests, armrests and backrests.

  • Inspect chair frame for cracks.

  • Check that quick-release axles remove quickly.

Annually

  • Check that folding chairs open and fold easily. Lubricate folding mechanism.

  • Lubricate all pivot points.

  • Lubricate ball bearings.

References

Bergen, AF: Keep-em rollin': wheelchair maintenance. Exceptional Parent 1997; 27(4): 33-38.

Cooper, RA: Wheelchair selection and configuration. New York, New York: Demos Medical Publishing, Inc. 1998: 371-396.

Rowan, EJ: Wheelchair preventative maintenance. 25 Aug. 1999, Eastern Paralyzed Veterans of America.

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