How to Do Maintenance on a Manual Wheelchair
Despite not having a lot of moving parts, manual wheelchairs need regular maintenance.
The Right Tools
Here’s what you will need to get started:
- PTFE or silicone based lubricant
- A roll of paper towels or a large shop rag
- A pair of screw drivers or a set of hex or Allen wrenches (depending on what your chair uses)
- Tire levers
- Good lighting
- Air compressor or bicycle pump
- Some kind of sheet, towel or blanket to put under your chair
The Right Parts
Depending on what kind of maintenance you are doing on your chair, you may need one or more of the following:
- Caster bearings
- Caster wheels
- Wheelchair tire tubes
- Wheelchair tires
Before You Begin
Before you start, you should gather everything you’re going to need: tools, parts—even your cell phone. Once your chair’s been taken apart, you’re not going to be able to get up and go grab whatever it is you forgot, so plan ahead.
Get comfortable. You should work from a position that puts you at about the same height as your wheelchair, like a couch or sofa. A good test is to flip your chair on it’s back. If your front casters are at roughly eye level, you’re in position.
Pull the chair as close to you as possible. You should be able to comfortably reach both front wheels without straining. If you need more support, put some pillows behind you to help you lean forward.
Decide where you are going to put things before you get start. Lay out your tools so that they are easy to see and reach. Make sure you put a towel under the chair and over your lap to catch any dirt that might fall off.
You should clean your front casters at least once a month. To clean a caster, take two screw drivers or Allen wrenches and place them in the screws on either side of the wheel. While keeping one side stationary, turn the screw on the opposite side. You want to make sure the screw you’re not turning doesn’t move. If you don’t, the screw on the other end is just going to rotate in place and not come loose.
Once you get the screw loose, place your hand under the entire caster and slowly remove the axle from the wheel. You want to do this so that you don’t accidentally drop the wheel spacers that sit between the tire and the fork (the housing of the caster).
Take the wheel, casters, and any dirt or debris that falls out of the fork and place them on a shop rag or paper towel. If you haven’t cleaned out your casters in a while, there’s a good chance you won’t even be able to see the spacers. Instead, you’ll just be holding what looks like a very hard ball of hair (try not to think about where the hair came from). Peel away any hair or dirt from the spacers and set them aside.
Examine the wheel and clear any debris from on or around the bearings. Hold the center of the wheel between your thumb and middle finger. With your other hand, spin the wheel. It should spin freely and with little to no noise. If it doesn’t, spray the bearing with lubricant on both sides and try again. If that doesn’t fix it, or if the wheel is making a grinding noise, it may be time to replace the bearings.
Reassembling the caster takes a bit of finesse. The hardest part is going to be getting the spacers back into alignment.
First, slide the axle back through the the fork and then thread a spacer through it on the other side. The spacer should be on the inside of the fork. Next, slide the wheel into the the middle of the fork and secure it in place by pushing the axle through the center of the wheel. But, make sure that the axle does not poke through to the other side: you’re going to need as much room as possible to get the last spacer in.
Gently slide the remaining spacer between the fork and the wheel. It may take a few attempts to find a spot with enough give to let you slide it back in place. Once you get the spacer between the tire and the fork, push on the axle from the opposite side until it slides through the wheel and the spacer and pops out the other side of the fork. Then, tighten both axle screws back in place. Relish in your victory.
Give the reassembled wheel a good spin. It should rotate freely. If there is still resistance, spray the axle and bearing with more lubricant.
You should change your tires and tubing once a year, regardless of visible wear.
Here’s a breakdown of how to change your chair tires:
I recommend you fill your tires with enough air until they feel firm and there’s no “give” when you squeeze them. You don’t necessarily need to fill them to the pressure level listed on the tubing.
Side Guards and Brakes
You should check the screws on your side guards and breaks once a month. The screws on these parts are likely to loosen over time, so go over each one with the appropriate tool and make sure they’re secure.
Bolts and Screws
If any bolts of screws have a tendency to loosen over time, I recommend you secure them in place with either super glue or Loctite. Loctite is great for long screws or bolts. For smaller screws, coating the tips with a thin layer of super glue should suffice. Make sure that whatever you are gluing in place is in the exact position you need to be in. Once you glue it down, it’s going to be nearly impossible to move.
Seat Cushions and Backs
Check on your seat cushion and chair back every six months. Make sure that there’s no visible damage or loss of support. If your chair has adjustable tension straps, make sure they still have their elasticity. If either of these parts are damaged or causing you discomfort, it’s time to replace them.
Buying Replacement Parts
Thanks to online shopping and drop‐shipping, spare parts are easy to get a hold of. For tires, tubes, and side guards, and seat pads, I recommend sites like Sportaid. For more advanced parts like brakes, caster forks, and seat backs, I would contact your chair’s manufacturer.
To get parts directly from the manufacturer, enter in your wheelchair’s serial number on their website. This should get you access to the list of parts used to build your chair. Then, contact the company you went through to buy your chair (e.g., NuMotion) and have them order the parts you need.
Where to get Help
If you are having trouble, or if your disability makes doing repairs by yourself difficult, take your chair to a bicycle shop. It’ll cost you a little cash, but they’ll be more than willing to do the repairs for you. Just remember to bring the parts with you.
Parts You Should Always Have On Hand
You should always have two spare tubes and two spare tires on hand. These are the parts of your chair that are going to wear the most over time leave you stranded if they fail.
For a complete list the gear I use, please see my gear page