How to Repair a Broken Power Wheelchair at Home

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If you or a loved one uses a power wheelchair, you probably worry about it breaking down and leaving you stranded while waiting for your durable medical equipment provider to fix it. Thankfully, that nightmare scenario can often be prevented or easily resolved. This easy repair guide can help you fix common problems with your power wheelchair and get rolling again. We'll also teach you how to prevent wheelchair damage and ensure you have a backup plan if something goes seriously wrong.

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About This Wheelchair Repair Guide

This guide is written for people with disabilities and our loved ones by Karin Willison, a lifelong wheelchair user, in consultation with other peer experts in our Ability Toolbox community. It will help you prevent and fix simple problems but is not a substitute for professional wheelchair repair and service.

Easy Electric Wheelchair Repair: Things to Check First

If you're here because something is wrong with your electric wheelchair, don't panic. You might be able to fix it! Many wheelchair repairs are simple. Here's what to try first.

Turn it off and on again.

Yes, really! Modern electric wheelchairs are computers, so resetting them can help. If turning the wheelchair on and off from the joystick doesn’t solve the problem, you should also try the master power or circuit breaker switch. The location of this switch varies by wheelchair model, but you can find it by consulting your chair's manual or searching for it online. Turn the master power off for 30 seconds to a minute, then switch it back on and see if the problem is resolved.

Make sure the motors are engaged.

All power wheelchairs have a switch or lever to engage the motors or put the chair into free-wheel mode so it can be pushed. Usually, this lever is in a hard-to-reach location, but sometimes it can still accidentally get bumped and deactivated. Try disengaging and re-engaging the motors to see if it fixes the problem. 

Check for loose cables.

If your electric wheelchair isn’t turning on or you’re getting a strange error, try checking for loose cables and connectors. Check the connection between the joystick and the main electronics to make sure it is secure. Look for any mysterious new wires hanging out that you haven’t seen before and reconnect them if needed.

If your joystick is showing an error code, find out what it means.

Modern power chairs display error codes on the joystick screen when there's a problem. If you look up the code number online, you can determine which part of the chair is malfunctioning and check for quick solutions such as a loose cable.

 

 

Identify the source of strange sounds or impaired movements.

If your wheelchair is making a thumping or crunching sound, check for sticks or debris in the wheels and undercarriage. Examine the plastic cover over your electronics and batteries to make sure it isn't partially detached or broken and rubbing against a wheel.

If wheels are not turning freely, check for hair and debris and clean them.

Duct tape and WD-40 are your friends.

In a pinch, the engineering flowchart works on wheelchairs too!

RTFM.

That stands for Read The F-in Manual. All electric wheelchairs come with a manual. Did you read yours? Me neither. But now is the time to do so, as you may find the solution you seek.

If you lost the instructions for your chair, don't worry — they're all online. You can even find technical specifications and repair guides if you want or need to DIY.

More Electric Wheelchair Adjustment and Repair Tips

If you're ready to go further, try these power wheelchair repair tips.

Learn to do simple power wheelchair repairs yourself.

Most power chairs come with their own tools (typically a set of Allen keys) so you can make simple adjustments with the help of anyone with basic handyperson skills. You can learn to adjust footrest height, armrest height, joystick position, headrest angle, and so much more.

Google and YouTube are your friends when it comes to wheelchair repairs. Even if you can’t fix your chair yourself, you can usually search online to figure out what’s wrong and determine whether the repair will be easy or complicated.

Know your limitations and when repairs are beyond your capability.

You'll notice there are no wiring schematics or instructions for fixing motors in this article. Unless you are properly trained, you should not be messing with the internal components of your device. It could be dangerous, and you could also invalidate your wheelchair's warranty. As an everyday wheelchair user, you just need to fix minor problems and reattach things that fall off, not become an engineer. Unless you want to, of course — the medical device industry needs more disabled people designing products for us!

Take action immediately if your electric wheelchair may need repairs.

If you encounter a problem you can't quickly fix, contact your DME provider right away. Don’t wait for it to become something that stops you in your tracks.

Request that your DME provider make your wheelchair as usable as possible while waiting for repairs.

Even if your wheelchair needs repairs, it may be partially operational. Your DME provider may be able to temporarily make it usable to keep you from being stranded at home.

Wheelchairs with power seating functions such as tilt and elevating footrests use actuators that control the movement of those parts. Sometimes, the actuators can go bad and it will trigger an error. If this happens, you should contact your DME provider right away, but it’s generally safe to keep using the wheelchair and just avoid that function. If the chair is stuck in an uncomfortable position or a reduced speed mode, the provider should be able to manually shift it back to a standard position so you’re not miserable while waiting for parts and repairs.

Maintaining Your Electric Wheelchair to Avoid Breakdowns

Just like bicycles and cars, wheelchairs require maintenance. If you care for your wheelchair and its components properly, it will be far less likely to need repairs. These simple tips can prevent a lot of common issues.

Clean your wheelchair regularly.

Wipe the exterior parts of your chair with a damp cloth or disinfecting wipes. Be careful not to spray cleaner directly onto or near motors or electronics.

You can use a cordless duster to blow dirt from the nooks and crannies of your joystick and elsewhere on the device. We do not recommend canned air as it leaves a bad-tasting residue on everything.

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Maintain and periodically replace key parts on your electric wheelchair.

Check cables and connections to make sure nothing is loose or frayed. Replace tires when they lose most of their tread. Lubricate the non-motorized wheels (casters) and remove built-up hair and dirt from axles and forks.

Monitor the capacity and performance of your batteries.

Wheelchair batteries cost around $300 per set and typically need to be replaced every couple of years. As soon as you notice reduced capacity, start the process to get new batteries via insurance so you don't get stranded or limited by failing batteries.

How to Prevent Electric Wheelchair Damage and Expensive Repairs

Modern power wheelchairs are fairly durable when used in ordinary conditions. However, there are a few situations where your wheelchair is far more likely to be damaged. Here’s how to avoid damage or minimize the risk.

Protect your power wheelchair from rain and water damage.

Electric wheelchairs are not fully waterproof, but a little drizzle won't ruin them either. You can go out in the rain, but if you’re doing more than zooming from the parking lot to the door, you should cover your joystick with a plastic bag (the dog poo bags that come in a roll work great), or a specialized cover if you want to be fancy. You can also wear a rain poncho over your body and cover your arm and hand over the joystick. This will keep water out of the critical electronics.

It’s OK to roll through small puddles, but stay away from flooded areas where deeper water could get into the motors and batteries.

If your power wheelchair gets soaking wet and stops working, do not attempt to use it. Like other electronic devices, it may start to work again as long as you give it enough time to dry. This could take 24 to 48 hours or longer. We recommend contacting your DME provider right away if this happens as they can provide more specific instructions. They may need to inspect your chair to ensure that the batteries have not been compromised.

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Take proper care of your batteries.

Most power wheelchairs use deep cycle batteries that are similar to the type used on boats and for powering devices in campers and RVs. They are very different from the batteries used to start a car. They are sealed and don’t require any internal maintenance, but they do need your respect and care to maximize their health and longevity.

Power wheelchair batteries should be used and recharged regularly. They take a long time to charge; they’re not like the batteries on your phone or laptop. If you’re active, you should recharge for 6 to 8 hours every night. If you’re not leaving the house much, you could charge every two or three days depending on how fast your batteries are draining.

Do not let the wheelchair sit unused for long periods of time without using or charging it. If you’re not using it due to illness or hospitalization, make sure somebody is charging it at least once a week, or your batteries could get ruined.

Like all batteries, electric wheelchair batteries do not perform as well in cold weather. It’s OK to go out and live your life, but be aware that you’ll need to charge more frequently.

Do not store your power wheelchair outdoors under any circumstances as extreme heat or cold will destroy your batteries.

Avoid traveling by air with a high-end power wheelchair.

If you have a Group 3 or complex rehabilitation power wheelchair with features such as tilt and recline, we don't recommend taking it on an airplane due to the risk of catastrophic damage. Airlines break over 30 wheelchairs per day, and it can take months to get compensation, if you get it at all. People have died due to medical complications from going months without a specialized electric wheelchair after an airline broke it.

If you're flying, take a portable power wheelchair instead. If you absolutely must use a complex rehab chair, take your spare and leave your good chair at home.

How to Be Prepared for Power Wheelchair Repairs

Despite everyone's best efforts, motorized wheelchairs sometimes need repairs. These tips can help you stay mobile while waiting for parts and service.

Keep a spare wheelchair.

We can’t emphasize this enough. If you have an old power wheelchair, don’t get rid of it. Charge it at least once a week so the batteries don’t go bad, and have it ready in case your main wheelchair breaks down. If you don’t have a spare power chair, at least keep a manual wheelchair so you won’t be trapped in bed.

Make sure you can get a loaner wheelchair from your DME provider if needed.

You have the same right to mobility as any other person. DME companies are supposed to provide loaner wheelchairs to keep you moving while your chair is in the shop or waiting for parts. When choosing a DME company, be especially alert to negative reviews saying they don’t provide loaner chairs or that they are slow with repairs. Even if you have a spare wheelchair, you need a backup plan.

Set up an emergency savings fund to pay for repairs.

If you can pay out-of-pocket for repairs, they will get done a lot faster. You can use an ABLE account to save a little bit each month to cover repairs. It’s difficult to estimate the exact amount you might need, but $2000 should be enough, and any amount will help. You could also get a credit card for emergencies, but be careful not to get into debt from interest.

More Resources

We highly recommend the YouTube channel Totally Normal for tons of useful electric wheelchair repair and maintenance tips!

Do you have electric wheelchair repair tips?

Share them with our community in the comments below.

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Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Ability Toolbox. I received my BA in English from Stanford University and MA in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University Los Angeles, and have worked in entertainment and health media for over 20 years. I also blog about traveling with a disability. As a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, I am deeply committed to amplifying the voices of the disability community through writing and advocacy.

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