Wheel Size – As outlined in other articles wheel sizes currently range from 24” to 26”. Most people go with 24” wheels as they are the standard size but taller people (or people with longer arms) find they benefit more from having larger wheels. Larger wheels are more efficient (not necessarily easier) to push because one push goes further but ultimately a smaller person generally doesn’t need large wheels. An interesting fact to note is that in the 1970s-80s the standard wheel size ranged between 20” and 22”.
Spoked – Spoked wheels are in a similar design to what you would find on your bicycle. Spokes are the standard wheel people get and the benefits are that the wheels have more flexibility, are less likely to break and provide extra shock absorption. Having wheels that will last a long time is important if you are using a wheelchair as there is nothing worse than being stuck in the snow on the footpath because one of your wheels fell apart.
Standard steel spokes: These are the cheapest spoked wheels you can buy and are relatively inexpensive to repair. These spokes bend a lot more on impact but most damage is most often just a case of replacing a spoke or two.
Spinergy: Spinergy Wheels are considered the best available at the moment for long term wheelchair users. They are extremely lightweight weighing as little as 3 lbs each and look good thanks to a variety of different colour choices. The spokes are made of polyphenylene bensobisoxazole fiber which are three times stronger than standard steel spokes (see above) and only weigh half as much. One of the most important things to keep in mind when using a wheelchair is damage you do to your body in the form of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). One of the best ways to reducing the chances of this is to have a lightweight rigid wheelchair (and wheels) that requires little effort to push. Spinergy LX wheels currently come at a price tag of approximately $596 USD depending on the vender.
Molded Plastic/Composite – These wheels are generally used on old clunker hospital style chairs as they require little maintenance and last a long time if treated like a hospital wheelchair. These wheels are a great deal heavier than spoked wheels and can’t handle the impact/strain of everyday use. Many wheelchair users have complained in the past they don’t trust their wheels not to break when attempting various tricks in their wheelchairs as they don’t feel as durable as they are meant to be. Also, because they are solid they don’t absorb bumps like spoked wheels do and create a harder ride for the user.
X-Core: These wheels currently come in five (plastic) and three (composite) spoke forms and have been pushed as a low maintenance alternative for the active wheelchair user. Some people go for these wheels (particularly the three spoke type) for appearance sake however they have the same drawbacks as most molded plastic/composite wheels.
Machine Billeted – Currently the only company that produces these wheels is Glance. Machine Billeted wheels are aluminium wheels cut into various shapes and styles similar to chrome rims on cars. People choose these wheels because they look really good and provide them with a way of making their wheelchair stand out from the crowd. These wheels offer no shock absorption and are not comfortable for everyday use but unlike the molded plastic/composite wheels they don’t crack or break. Some users argue the extra weight creates a smoother ride but this is ultimately down to personal experience. They cost around the same as spinergy wheels.
Solid – Solid tires are just what they sound like. They have no air in them and last significantly longer than pneumatic and high pressure tires. Solid tires are better on carpet. Using solid tires increases the difficulty of pushing your wheelchair and means you feel every single bump you roll over. Some power chair users find more benefit in using solid tires than manual chair users (I’m not that knowledgeable on power chairs) and some people use them if they don’t go out very often but ultimately you would be doing yourself a favour if you kept away from them. The benefits of your tires never going flat can be overcome with planning and proper maintenance.
Pneumatic – These tires are the same as what you would find on your everyday bicycle. The tread on them can range from normal tread to knobby all-terrain tread. Pneumatic tires generally provide a much softer ride and are easier to push than solid tires but harder to push than high pressure tires.
High Pressure – High pressure tires are narrower than pneumatic tires with a smaller tread that makes the chair much easier to push by reducing the amount of tire that comes into contact with the floor. High pressure tires wear down faster and have much less traction in slippery or wet situations. As the name implies high pressure tires require 90-110 psi compared to pneumatic tires that only need 65 psi.
Full time wheelchair users tend to change what tires they are using with the seasons, particularly in countries where it snows in the winter time. Some people have two sets of wheels for this purpose with high pressure tires fitted to one set and knobby tires fitted to the other set for off-road and unfavourable conditions. Bicycle tires can be fitted to wheelchair wheels but it should be noted that wheelchair wheels are made to create less marks on the floor than what a normal bicycle tire would. Bicycle tires also tend to create a lot more noise indoors than standard wheelchair tires. Some bicycle shops can order in spokes and tires for your wheelchair wheels (or so I have heard) and most shops are more than happy to repair punctures and flat tires for you. Rolling on a flat tire can ruin the wheelchair rim so repairing tires straight away is recommended.
Casters are the smaller wheels fitted to the front of your wheelchair next to the footrest. They range in size from 3” to 8”. Smaller casters have the benefit of a tighter turning circle and more manoeuvrability but struggle to navigate over bumps and curb cuts like larger casters without popping the casters in the air to avoid the bumps altogether. The size caster you choose ultimately depends on how agile you want to be and how much function you have in regards to navigating over and around bumps and dips in your path. 3” casters also tend to get stuck in dirt and grass more easily and cannot be used for off-roading. The caster types are generally similar to the rear tires in terms of pros and cons and large casters do not necessarily mean better. Everyone’s choices for casters is different and I would recommend you ask other people what they use (and why) before you decide for yourself what style you prefer.