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During dinner with a wheelchair technician recently, we discussed the most common issues he encounters with powerchairs at his providership.  "It's almost always the batteries," he said.  "Everyone always wants to over think reduced range or weird charging, believing it's the electrical system or charger that's bad.  But, the minute I check and swap batteries, the problem is solved.  ...Trust me, it's always the batteries."

Certainly, a lot of other issues can arise with powerchairs, where the interconnected joystick, controller, motors, brakes, charger, power seating, and harnessing makes for a very complex system.  However, in everyday practice, the technician made a meaningful point, where by far among the most common issues with power mobility products over the long term are often traced to deteriorating batteries.  After all, batteries are a "living" component that ages, and when they go bad, performance issues arise. Yet, if you recognize the signs of a potential battery issue, it can often be address it early on, enabling you to seek relatively simple service instead of stressing over seemingly baffling reduced performance.

The Simplest Signs Say It All
The number one symptom and effect of deteriorating batteries is reduced range.  Reduced range manifests itself in two forms via a powerchair's battery gauge:  A consistently quick diminishing of the meter (that is, it drops faster than normal overall), or an immediate loss of the first 20-percent of the charge upon use.  In either case, if your powerchair charges normally to completion, but simply doesn't have the range that it used to - going dead earlier in the day - the batteries should immediately be suspected as an issue.  

Sometimes users experiencing reduced range are quick to note that their batteries are relatively new, so they rule out the batteries as a possible cause, instead thinking that there's another issue, from the electronics to wheel bearings.  However, "bad batteries" can occur at any age, including when first installed. Powerchair batteries function via chemical process, which can rapidly deteriorate if not properly maintained with routine charging.  Additionally, batteries are manufactured by many different companies, with different levels of quality, so brand X may not have the same performance, initial quality, or life span as brand Y.   And, batteries can deteriorate if sitting new on a shelf for too long before installation in a powerchair.  All of these factors can result in batteries that show signs of reduced powerchair performance in as little time as from the day of installation, to days, weeks, or months of use.  Put simply, battery age - even if "brand new" - should not rule out first checking the batteries as suspect if decreased range is experienced.

Checking The Batteries With The Charger
The second sign of deteriorating batteries is a notably abnormal charge cycle, especially if the charger's ammeter doesn't drop from its peak amp reading, or the charger doesn't seem to turn off in a timely manner.  These symptoms often occurs in conjunction with reduced range, and while it's logical to equate abnormal charger operation with reduced range, the charger's operation can be a factor of deteriorated batteries not properly accepting the charge, rather than a malfunctioning charger.   A charger's function directly correlates to the condition of the batteries, so deteriorating batteries will often disrupt a charger's cycle, so it's wise not to dismiss the possible influence of deteriorated batteries if a charger's cycle is abnormal.

If It Quacks Like A Ducků
Powerchairs are complex electrical systems, and many issues arise beyond deteriorating batteries - and any issue should be fully explored by a provider.  Nevertheless, as technicians are trained, it's important not to overlook the clearest symptoms, checking the obvious causes of an issue first, before jumping to complex conclusions.  The next time your powerchair has notably reduced range or abnormal charging characteristics, bring it to your provider's attention, testing the batteries in line with other possible causes.  The saying goes, if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck.   If batteries dictate your powerchair's range, and range is suddenly reduced, check the batteries!

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Battery Rules To Live By

Published 6/07, Copyright 2007, WheelchairJunkie.com