The squeaky wheel: knowledge of basic maintenance is a must if you use a wheelchair as your primary mode of mobility.
Prior to my accident, I raced bicycles in southern Spain while serving at the Naval Air Station in Rota. While I wasn't on my bicycle near the amount of time I now spend in my wheelchair, I soon discovered that an hour on the bike meant almost an hour of performing maintenance.
If I'd been a pro racer for one of the big teams I would've had a crew of mechanics to do the dirty work. As an amateur and at a pay grade that didn't afford me the luxury of paying a shop to perform my maintenance, I had to learn to do it myself. Who knew the different use I would have for this knowledge just a few short years in the future?
I remember meeting with a sales rep from a major wheelchair manufacturer during my initial rehab and expressing my disappointment in the quality of the wheelchairs. I told him, "If this was a bicycle it would be on the bargain rack in a discount department store."
I couldn't understand why wheelchairs, having so many similarities to bicycles, and with such greater need for state-of-the-art performance, didn't incorporate state of the art technology.
Twenty-five years have passed since then and many wheelchairs today have a level of quality comparable to high-end bicycles. With that in mind, tires still go flat, wheel locks still need to be adjusted and front casters still need to be cleaned or replaced.
Even if you don't have the physical ability to actually do the work, having the ability to direct others through these procedures may be helpful in maintaining your independence. As the old saying goes, "Knowledge is power."
All of these repairs are best accomplished by transferring to another wheelchair or a strong, stable chair. This allows you to have your wheelchair right in front of you for greater access without having to resort to acrobatics.
Detailed videos for all the maintenance items mentioned in this article are available on the PN website at pvamag.com
A good place to start is with one of the most essential of all wheelchair repairs changing a tire.
You'll need tire levers, a bead jack, air compressor and a little baby powder never hurts. Whether you've got a flat tire or your current tires are worn smooth from use, the operation is basically the same.
The first step is to remove the wheel from the wheelchair and let the air out of the tire. Using the tire levers, remove one side of the tire from the rim (Step 1). At this point you can easily pull the tube out with your hand (Step 2). The tire can now be inspected for foreign objects or disposed of if needed.
Next, you can put the new or freshly-inspected tire back onto the rim (one side only). Reinsert the old tube (or a new one) starting with the valve stem and working your way around the rim. This is the step where the baby powder can be handy. Lightly coating the tube with baby powder reduces the friction, lessening the chance of pinching. Once the tube is inside the tire, you can begin working the bead of the tire back over the edge of the rim (Step 3).
Begin at the valve stem and work your way around to the opposite side. Once you get close to having the tire completely seated it'll become nearly impossible to push the bead over the rim with your hands. The bead jack is very helpful at this point to lift the remaining tire over the edge of the rim without pinching the tube (Step 4).
Use the compressor to inflate the tire to the recommended pressure and put the wheel back on the chair.
Removing the front casters for cleaning or replacement is a simple task.
Most front casters use a traditional carriage bolt for an axle with a nut at one end to secure it in place. Some models may have a bolt with an Allen head, but the procedure is the same.
Remove the nut and pull out the axle (steps 1-3). The caster wheel and two spacers will drop out from between the fork (step 4). Clean the spacers and caster wheel or have your new one ready to install.
Start by inserting the axle bolt into the fork, slide one spacer onto the axle, then the caster wheel and the other spacer (Steps 5-7). Then guide the axle through the other side of the fork and install the nut (Steps 8-9). Tighten the nut and the job is complete (Step 10).
Nimble fingers are the answer for successful reassembly.
The need for wheel locks varies greatly depending on the level of injury and personal preference.
For some, the need for their wheelchair to be firmly locked in place during transfers is essential. If you find your wheel locks aren't holding as securely as you'd like, the first thing to check is the air pressure in your tires. Low air pressure or severely worn tires are the most common cause for a less-than-secure lock of your wheels.
If this doesn't fix the problem, a repositioning of the locks is probably required.
Wheel locks vary by manufacturer, but most adjust the same way. This is one of those repairs that defies a clear and concise procedure, but rather requires a bit of trial and error. The only tool required is the proper size Allen wrench to fit your wheel lock.
You should find two hex socket head screws on the side of the clamp that holds the wheel lock to the frame. Loosen the two screws just enough to allow movement of the wheel lock (Step 1). Reposition the lock and tighten one screw. Check the lock for desired tension and repeat until the desired tension is achieved (Step 2). Once you've found that perfect spot, securely tighten both screws (Step 3).
To get a better look at how all of these tasks are completed in real time, check out the videos at pvamag.com.
photos by Devon O'Brien