An important thing you need to consider when configuring your wheelchair, whether manual or power, is what types of wheels will meet your needs. The type you choose depends on your primary use, be it indoor or outdoor, plus the terrain and the activity involved. Wheelchair wheels and tires have a significant impact on the wheelchair user’s life. The smoothness of the ride, speed, maneuverability, and control are all related to the wheelchair wheels, tires and casters. Choosing these components is not a straightforward task. It is wise to get an expert, such a therapist or healthcare professional to help you select the combination that will meet your lifestyle, performance, maintenance and affordability needs.
1. Wheelchair wheels components and considerations
Manual wheelchairs usually have two sets of wheels; a pair in front (called caster or steering wheels) and a pair in the back (called drive wheels). Power wheelchairs may have up to three pairs (one drive and two caster). Wheelchair wheels are made up of a tire, rim (and hand rim on manual chairs), spokes (or mags), and a hub. The hub is the centre of the wheel, the spokes (or mags) connect the rim to the hub and the rim is where the tire is mounted. Hand rims are used for pushing the wheelchair.
Spoke wheels look like bicycle wheels and are made of metal. They usually have more than thirty spokes. Mag wheels are made of synthetic materials and usually have less than ten spokes.
Important factors to consider when selecting the appropriate type of wheels for you, is the weight of them and the environment you will be using them in. Spoke wheels are usually lighter than mag wheels but they require more maintenance. They are less suitable for moist environments. Mag wheels are almost maintenance free but they may be affected by extreme temperatures.
2. Wheel sizes in regard to wheelchair sizes
Wheelchair wheels come in various sizes, as wheelchair sizes. A standard manual adult wheelchair drive wheel size is 24” (~61cm) and a standard power wheelchair drive wheel size is 18” (~45,7cm). Caster wheels start from 3” (~7,6cm). The wheel size affects comfort and required effort to move the wheelchair. Therefore you should select a drive wheel that will allow you to sit comfortably in the chair and at the same time requires a minimum amount of effort to propel it.
Electric wheelchair wheels are smaller and made of a harder material. You can learn more about Invacare electric wheelchairs in this page.
Alignment and truing
The alignment of the wheels is very important. It affects how the wheelchair rides, its stability, the wear on the tires and the effort required to propel it.You need to consider the following three aspects:
- Camber is the inward or outward tilting of a wheel in its vertical plane. It is used to make propelling the wheelchair easier. It mostly applies to people who are self-propelling, and provides better lateral stability.
- A critical alignment issue is toe-in and toe-out (the off-parallel relationship between the two rear wheels). You should avoid these misalignments, as they will dramatically increase rolling resistance and the wear of the tyres.
- Truing (aligning) a wheel is required when a wheel wobbles when spinning on its axis. Mag wheels are trued upon fabrication and remain true unless they are exposed to extreme conditions. Spoke wheels are more vulnerable because various conditions get the spokes distorted. Such problems have to be repaired by a qualified wheel-repair technician.
3. What about tires?
Wheelchair tires can be pneumatic (air filled), solid and flat free (foam, urethane or rubber filled). Depending on the desired terrain use, they may be knobbly or smooth. As a rule of thumb, you need to know that tires affect how easily the wheelchair will roll over specific terrains. The harder the tire, the easier it will be to propel the wheelchair, the softer the tire, the harder it will be to propel it. Here are your choices:
- Pneumatic tires will go flat if punctured and will go soft even without any damage but provide soft rides.
- Solid tires are almost maintenance free and they are unlikely to wear out in the life of the wheelchair, but you’ll be in for bumpier rides.
- Flat free tires are pneumatic tires that are filled with a semi-solid material. They are not subject to flat tires and give a softer ride than a solid tire.
I’m a powered wheelchair user myself, and opted for aesthetics. I chose solid black wheels for my chair. My chair definitely looks super cool, but the downside is bumpier rides and a squeaky sound when on wooden or marble floors!
There are pros and cons to each type of wheelchair wheel. An average user will probably not notice these differences, but a very active user will. You may need to consider having more than one type depending on the use. Wheelchair sizes will also be an important factor in the choice. You may find this resource helpful. Or you may find that you need high performance wheels which are not meant for the average wheelchair user. The sky’s your limit, and the cost of course!