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Caring for Manual Wheelchairs

The lifespan of a manual wheelchair depends on the chair material as well as how you use and abuse your chair.

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There are many different makes and models of manual wheelchairs on the market. Just like a car or bicycle, some are made with better parts than others and will last longer. Even so, it is sometimes difficult for you to determine exactly how long a wheelchair will las; the lifespan of a manual wheelchair depends on the chair materials, as well as your lifestyle in the chair.

The good news is that there are ways to help you determine the lifespan of your manual chair. Though there are many components on manual chairs which can fail or might need to be replaced, some can be repaired by you without much difficulty.

One of the most significant factors in determining the lifespan of a wheelchair is the material that it is made of. Today, there are many different types of materials available. Steel and aluminum are two of the most common types.

If a wheelchair is made out of high-quality steel, then the frame should be very rugged and heavy. Many low-priced wheelchairs are often made of low-grade steel. This includes depot and lightweight wheelchairs found in many nursing homes and hospitals.

Aluminum is much lighter than steel; reducing the overall weight of the chair. However, aluminum is weaker than most steels.

Titanium chairs feature the strength of steel frames with the light weight of aluminum chairs. Combining strengths of steel and aluminum, titanium chairs are higher end.

Carbon composite chairs are similar to titanium chairs in that they can produce high-strength frames with low weight.

Accessories and components can have a significant effect on the life of a wheelchair; from wheel types to casters and suspension systems.

The life of a manual wheelchair also depends heavily on your lifestyle. If you are very active and spend time outdoors, you will tend to put higher stress on your chair than someone who stays indoors. Going over curbs and other obstacles can product high stress on your chair. Wheelchairs that are dropped or banged while getting in and out of a car can also develop failures more quickly. It is important for active users to maintain their wheelchairs on a regular basis.

There are three common frame failure points on a manual wheelchair:

  1. The cross-brace(s)
  2. The caster connections
  3. The seat and backrest interface

A good wheelchair maintenance plan for your chair will help you spot any of the below problems early on.

The Cross-Brace(s):

If you own a folding wheelchair, the cross-brace is a prime site for failure. Many wheelchairs have two circular or square cross-braces connected by a bolt. Fatigue cracks can form near the bolt’s hole on either cross-brace, ultimately causing the brace to fail. Cracks can also start at the welds that connect the cross-braces to the horizontal seat tubes; rendering the wheelchair inoperable and the entire cross-brace must be replaced. Depending on the chair, you can purchase a new cross-brace and replace it yourself.

The Caster Connections:

Another common failure point is where the casters connect to the frame at the front of the wheelchair; connected to the frame by bolts or welds. Again, the bold holes are areas of high stress and can often crack. Generated by everyday use, the forces and pressure on the casters are transmitted directly to the connecting bolts, placing a high amount of stress on the frame. Failure at or around the welds is also common. A weld failure leaves the wheelchair useless and a new frame must be purchased.

The Seat and Back Interface:

The tubing that holds the wheelchair seat connects to the tubing that holds the backrest. This design is most often accomplished through welding or brazing, in which filler material is used to join two base materials. During propulsion, the repetitive force exerted on the backrest is transmitted to the connecting joint. When you propel your chair, you rock back and forth against the backrest with each stroke. Because of this, high stress concentrations can develop at the weld and lead to failure. If this occurs, the wheelchair is inoperable and a new frame is required.

Most frame failures occur in the areas mention above. However, frame failures can occur at other locations as well. Any part of the frame which has a bolt hole or a weld joining two pieces is susceptible to failure. It is a good idea for you to inspect your wheelchair at these areas and look for nicks or small cracks. Catastrophic frame failures often take time to develop and start commonly as small nicks or cracks and then propagate until the entire component fails.