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One of the most common questions in the consumer community is, “Which insurance-funded, everyday power wheelchair is best for off-road use?”

Sure, there are dedicated off-road power wheelchairs on the market, but they are often harder – if not impossible – to fund through insurance, and typically lean heavily toward outdoor use, being less practical for those needing a power wheelchair across the full spectrum of uses, from the office to small bathrooms.

Fortunately, there are easy – often cost-effective ways – to order a funding-friendly, everyday power wheelchair that's more suitable toward outdoor environments, all by focusing on just three component areas: Drive wheels, casters, and motor options. By picking the appropriate components in these areas, you can have an everyday power wheelchair that gets you a bit farther outdoors.

When Bigger Proves Better
Many users don't realize that the foremost factor that makes “off-road” power wheelchairs so capable is simply that they use exceptionally bigger tires than those used on everyday power wheelchairs. (On most “off-road” power wheelchairs, the electronics and motors are the same as those used on everyday power wheelchairs, but 6”-wide, low-PSI, mini-ATV drive wheels, for example, make all of the difference toward traction, climbing, and soft-surface flotation.) The same principle holds true for “everyday” power wheelchairs, where wider, knobby drive tires can enhance outdoor performance.

The industry standard drive wheel size on rehab power wheelchairs is 14”x3”. However, most major manufacturers – either on the order form or by custom order – offer a gray knobby 14”x4” drive wheel option, and it makes a notable difference in outdoor performance. The extra width and aggressive tread helps with outdoor traction on mid/center-wheel-drive power wheelchairs, and makes rear-wheel drives exceptionally capable outdoors. 14”x4” knobby drive wheel options range from no-charge to $600, based on model, manufacturer, and market (for example, a particular northern provider, based on the winters, includes 14”x4” drive wheels on all of his rehab power wheelchairs at no-charge).

Similarly, larger casters enhance off-road performance. Six-wheel power wheelchairs are beginning to offer 8" rear caster options instead of 6". On rear-wheel-drive power wheelchairs, 9"x2-3/4" casters provide significantly more flotation and obstacle-surmounting capabilities over 8"x2" casters. Therefore, simply selecting larger casters on a power wheelchair enhances outdoor performance - often at no extra charge or entirely funded by insurance.

Tweaking for Torque
Torque is among the most overlooked aspects by consumers when selecting a motor package, especially toward outdoor use. Most consumers look at the maximum speed that a motor offers, and base their decisions on that. I want the fast one! However, usually the faster the motor, the less the torque. And, torque is vital in rough terrain, from crawling over obstacles that would stall a lesser motor, to increasing battery range, to allowing the system to run cooler, reducing the chance of thermal fold back. Put simply, if you want meaningful rough terrain performance, then you want maximum torque.

Most manufacturers label their super-high-torque motors as “heavy-duty” motors, often intended for those weighing over 300 lbs., or those needing extreme torque. Now, there is a trade-off between speed and torque, but here's what's astounding: In comparing two companion 4-pole motors used in the mobility industry, the 5 mph heavy-duty version has 64% more torque at the drive wheel than the 8 mph version – that's a monumental increase in torque. Such extreme torque isn't needed by most users (and, if you're running an 8 mph power wheelchair, you can imagine the extreme power your wheelchair would have if you had 64% the torque!); however, if one lives among very demanding terrain, selecting heavy-duty motors can make a huge difference toward rugged outdoor performance.

Pieces to a Puzzle
Based on any particular power wheelchair model, one or more off-road-performance enhancing aspects – wider drive wheels, larger casters, and heavy-duty motors – may or may not be available. Nevertheless, incorporating even one of these strategically-picked components into one's power wheelchair can dramatically improve performance. Adding 14”x4” drive wheels will increase traction, obstacle climbing, and soft-terrain flotation on virtually any rehab power wheelchair. Selecting 9” casters on a rear-wheel-drive power wheelchair will foster easier obstacle climbing and soft-terrain flotation. And, choosing heavy-duty motors will notably increase a power wheelchair's torque, offering greater obstacle handling and performance efficiencies.

Whether you're using a mid/center-wheel, rear-wheel, or front-wheel drive, no matter – if you can't fund a secondary, exclusive off-road power wheelchair, look at wider drive tires, larger casters, and heavy-duty motors during the ordering process to see if any or all of these strategic component selections may offer the enhanced outdoor performance you're needing.

Published 9/2010, Copyright 2010, WheelchairJunkie.com