Best Practices Spotlight Article: Wheelchair Charging at Transit Stations and on the Bus
While forms of chairs on wheels have been around for centuries, and motorized wheelchairs have been around since the early 1900s, electric wheelchairs were first mass-produced in the 1950s. These mobility aids are also known as power chairs and electric powered wheelchairs (EPWs). Although data are limited, studies (2, 7) have estimated that between 5-23% of wheelchair users have electric wheelchairs.
The average wheelchair user spends about 10 hours in his or her wheelchair daily (8). Most power wheelchairs can travel over 10 miles before the battery becomes exhausted under ideal conditions (6).
Public transit systems may wish to consider offering riders the option of charging their wheelchairs while using transit services. Wheelchair charging stations have been set up in all sorts of buildings and public areas, including schools, courthouses, convention centers, chambers of commerce, farmers markets, libraries, parks, hospitals, malls, and even Disney World. Charging stations can be installed at transit facilities and inside transit vehicles. Scooters and other mobility devices with smaller batteries can also benefit from these charging stations, perhaps even more than power wheelchairs, because they have smaller batteries and can deplete and recharge faster than the larger batteries on the power wheelchairs.
While wheelchair battery chargers for individual use can easily be bought for under $100, wheelchair charging stations can cost anywhere from $450-$10,000.
How Wheelchair Battery Chargers Work
The batteries in power wheelchairs are different than batteries in cars, cell-phones or computers. A cell phone battery can simply be plugged into a charger for 15 minutes, and it is ready to go for another 2 hours. Wheelchair batteries are deep-cycle batteries, which achieve a full charge over a long, slow process. If a wheelchair battery has “died,” it may need to be charged for about 2 hours just to get it ready to take a full charge. It can take anywhere between 8-12 hours to fully charge power wheelchair batteries. However, some charging stations can fully recharge, or turbocharge, a chair in 45 minutes by connecting directly to the battery. The success of this method depends on factors including the charger current, the chair model, its wiring, and ability to safely accept a current. Please note that turbocharging wheelchair batteries can result in defective battery circuitry and/or shorten the battery’s life.
Dr. R. Lee Kirby, who heads the Wheelchair Research Team at Dalhousie University and wrote the textbook Wheelchair Assessment Skills and Training, recommends that it is ideal if both the wheelchair and the charger are turned off when being connected to each other and the power source. Then the power to the charger should be turned on.
Transit agencies that are interested in installing wheelchair chargers should look for battery charging systems that meet the International Standards Organization (ISO) standards for wheelchair chargers: ISO 7176-25:2013, Wheelchairs — Part 25: Batteries and Chargers for Powered Wheelchairs. The standards cover electrical safety, performance-related safety, charging capability, and electromagnetic compatibility for battery chargers, and ANSI/RESNA Wheelchair Standards requirements. Agencies also use chargers that comply with the regulations set forth in 10 CFR 430, Energy Conservation Program: Energy Conservation Standards for Battery Chargers, effective June 13, 2018.
Since 2016, Clearview Disability Resource Center has installed power wheelchair charging stations in over a dozen cities in Oregon. Darrin Umbarger (shown at left), CEO of Clearview Disability Resource Center, uses a wheelchair himself. He has been a leader in establishing power wheelchair chargers in transit stations and on vehicles. The Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization contracts with Clearview to provide for non-emergency medical transportation. Clearview heralded a successful pilot program through the Reaching People with Disabilities through Healthy Communities national pilot project of the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors (NACDD), which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Disability and Health Branch out of the CDC’s National Center for Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, to incorporate their own wheelchair charging stations throughout the area. About a year ago, Clearview began to place electric wheelchair chargers on their own buses and vans. “We had instances where our drivers had to place wheelchairs in neutral and manually push them out of the wheelchair van to get the passenger to the doctor’s office, because the wheelchairs lost their charge,” recalls Umbarger.
How did they do it? Clearview invented their own wheelchair chargers and manufactured the charging units themselves. Mechanics tested the electrical functionality and determined that the chargers do not have any effect on the vehicles’ alternators or have any adverse effect on any other component of the wheelchair. Their chargers can be plugged into an inverter that can be used on any transit vehicle, or directly into any wall unit for facilities. Umbarger estimates that about 95% of power wheelchairs are equipped with a three-pronged plug-in and are compatible with Clearview’s device. The other 5% of wheelchairs can be charged by the device because an extension cord that is part of the unit.
In 2016, the first year of the rollout, about 200-300 people used the Clearview wheelchair chargers. There has been equal interest in the apparatus from rural and urban areas. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation received a grant from the Umatilla County Health Department and is preparing to equip two of their buses with Clearview wheelchair chargers.
The benefits for passengers who use electric wheelchairs are immense. “There are so many things that this helps with,” states Umbarger. “The scariest thing for someone in a wheelchair is going somewhere and worrying about becoming stranded if their wheelchair loses its charge. While wheelchair chargers at transit stations and on buses are not the same as a full overnight charge, just a one-hour charge can help someone do whatever he or she needs to do for 4-5 hours without having to worry about finding another charging station. That takes so much weight off someone’s mind.”
Transit agencies considering implementing wheelchair charging stations can work with elected officials to gain support and momentum for their initiative. The projects Darrin led in Oregon had leadership support from state senators. The following case study shows how a mayor in New York had a vision to address better accessibility for persons with disabilities.
Mayor William J. Barlow initiated and spearheaded the installation of four free 24/7 wheelchair charging stations in Oswego, New York in 2018. He also conducted research on available products and oversaw the implementation. The initiative’s goal was to make it easier for more people with disabilities to visit and enjoy public places in the community, such as Oswego’s Riverwalk, summer concerts, and farmer’s market. One charger is 100 feet from a bus stop, while another is a few blocks away. Mayor Barlow selected MobilityMatters2Me’s HandiCharge wheelchair charging station, and has been quite pleased with the charging stations’ appearance, which blend in nicely with the environment, and their durability. Another plus is that the chargers can easily be moved and reinstalled if they need to be.
Their local Department of Public Works maintains the wheelchair charging stations as part of their regular checklist. Occasionally, the wires that plug into the wheelchairs may need to be untangled, but the outdoor charging stations themselves have not experienced any other issues despite upstate New York’s hot, humid summers and freezing winters.
Feedback has been quite positive, and the wheelchair charging stations have been consistently utilized. “Making our community more ADA accessible is something that we are trying hard to do in Oswego, and the wheelchair charging stations are a way we can make more positive changes,” explains Mayor Barlow.
The NACDD Reaching People with Disabilities through Healthy Communities national pilot project sites are Carroll County and Sioux City, IA; Butte and Helena, MT; Cattaraugus County and Syracuse, NY; Adams County and Marion County, OH; and Benton County and Umatilla County, OR. In addition to the rural case studies described in this article, a number of urban and suburban sites have placed wheelchair charging stations at or near transit stops. To date, a wheelchair charging station was placed at the transportation center location in Sioux City, IA; one was placed at the central bus hub and another was placed at the regional transportation center in Syracuse, NY; one was placed in the Lane Transit District in Eugene, OR by way of the Umatilla County, OR project participant, and two were placed in Columbus at transit stops by way of the Adams County, OH project participant. The project participants in Cattaraugus County, NY are also planning to install wheelchair charging stations on or near transit stops in the future.
While this is a fairly new technology in general, enhancements to wheelchair charging station apparatus are evolving at a rapid pace.
In 2019, Complete Coach Works (CCW) was the first bus company to offer wheelchair charging station retrofits so passengers could charge their wheelchairs at each securement location in the bus. Their charging station is compatible with all types of buses. Each wheelchair securement location includes a plug outlet, so riders can plug in their cords and charge while riding. These outlets have the same functionality as standard wall outlets and charge the batteries at the same rate.
The city of Shasta Lake, CA installed a fully renewably energized electric vehicle charger, the Envision Solar EV ARC standalone Solar Charging Station, in a parking lot and made it available free of charge to the public. The unit is equipped with a standard Level II electric vehicle charger and power outlets to enable electric wheelchair charging. This type of charger generates and stores all its own energy through solar power.
Many of the newer charging stations have universal hookups that will fit many types of power wheelchairs. Wireless wheelchair charging pads also are in the pipeline for development. Research is already underway for the next generation of charging stations, which may include hands-free charging stations, intelligent wheelchair charging technology, smart grid chargers that optimize charging cycles to occur primarily during the local electric company’s 'off-peak' hours when electricity costs are lower, and autonomous wheelchairs that can navigate to charging stations by themselves, and connect and charge automatically.
Wheelchair battery technology is likely to evolve as well. One example is a Zinger Chair, which is not a power wheelchair, but is a mobility device with a lithium-ion battery that can be charged on the chair or removed for charging at a charging station. The chair includes a battery indicator control panel indicating the battery life, and the battery can fully charge in under 4 hours for 5-8 miles of travel.
Advice and Best Practices
Mobility Matters 2 Me sells wheelchair chargers and provides the following practical advice:
- Charger boxes should be mounted on a wall near an electrical outlet. Do not install them higher than 4 feet in order for wheelchair users to be able to access them.
- Prime locations for the chargers are somewhere convenient for the user to spend at least ½ hour.
- Outdoor wheelchair charging units should be located undercover to protect the user and the charger from extreme weather conditions.
- Charging stations can be moved easily by attaching them to a cart or other mobile device.
Transit agencies should also keep in mind:
- If purchasing the charging stations with federal funding, the transit agency must comply with all necessary procurement, asset management, and reporting requirements.
- Wheelchair charging stations and associated signage may need to match agency branding in terms of colors and graphics. If purchasing from a vendor, the transit agency should ask about customization. If the purchase be a competitive procurement, involving a request for proposals or invitation for bids, colors and other customization requirements should be included in the specifications.
- Charging stations may be targets for vandalism or theft, so agencies should have plans in place should this occur. A transit agency could install charging stations in locations that are staffed (such as a transit center with a customer service office or security personnel) and secure the charging stations when not staffed.
- Obtain a warranty that details vendor terms of service.
- Ongoing and preventive maintenance is important to assure safe and efficient operation of these units. Charging stations should be inspected frequently by trained personnel, especially if they are located outdoors.
- Keep up to date with the industry as technologies may change, and update any outdated equipment as necessary.
- Travel training programs should develop training specific to use of the wheelchair charging stations.
- Add information about the charging stations where applicable to print and online transit agency documents, such as your Rider Guide. Educate your riders on appropriate utilization.
West Livaudais, program coordinator at Oregon Office on Disability and Health, advises transit agencies considering installing wheelchair charging stations to educate their riders. Riders should be informed that giving their wheelchair battery a short “boost” charge on the bus or at/near a transit station is not a substitute for regular, overnight charging. “If someone is using short charges,” explains Livaudais, “they need to understand that they should also charge overnight or they can shorten the life of the battery.” A good practice would be installing signage explaining this on/near the wheelchair chargers and/or on transit agency web pages about the chargers.
NACDD is creating a Power Wheelchair Charging Station (PWCS) Best Practices guidance document that was written by the project’s five State Expert Advisors, representing the five CDC funded State Disability and Health Programs participating in the project. Some of NACDD’s recommendations include soliciting input and inviting engagement from people who depend on battery-powered mobility devices, and identifying appropriate persons or entities to install power wheelchair charging stations within communities to ensure consistency of installation techniques. Their guidance document will be posted on the NACDD website soon. If you would like a copy of this guidance, please contact Karma E. Harris, Public Health Consultant, Healthy Communities Lead, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
National RTAP would like to thank the following individuals who contributed to this article: Kallie Arevalo, Marketing Manager, Complete Coach Works; Mayor William J. Barlow, City of Oswego, NY; Sandra L. Brundage, Youth Bureau Director, City of Salamanca; Mary Carney, Population Health Coordinator, Community & Population Health Improvement, HealtheConnections; Brad Carson, Director of Sales, Complete Coach Works; Beth Hamby, Senior Associate, The KFH Group; Karma E. Harris, Public Health Consultant, Healthy Communities Lead, National Association of Chronic Disease Directors (NACDD); Lizabeth Lafferty, Superintendent, Adams CBDD; West Livaudais, MPH, Program Coordinator, Oregon Office on Disability & Health; and Darrin Umbarger, CEO, Clearview Disability Resource Center.
- CCW becomes First to Offer Wheelchair Charging Station Retrofits. Metro, May 9, 2019. https://completecoach.com/complete-coach-works-becomes-the-first-to-offer-retrofits-for-wheelchair-charging-stations/
- Hubbard, Sandra L., et al. Distribution and Cost of Wheelchairs and Scooters Provided by Veterans Health Administration. Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development. 2007; 44(4): 581–592. https://www.rehab.research.va.gov/jour/07/44/4/pdf/Hubbard.pdf
- International Organization for Standardization. ISO 7176-25:2013, Wheelchairs — Part 25: Batteries and Chargers for Powered Wheelchairs. 2012. Excerpt available at https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:7176:-25:ed-1:v1:en. Accessed August 27, 2019.
- Kirby, R. Lee. Wheelchair Assessment Skills and Training. CRC Press, 2016.
- Mobility Matters 2 Me. Instructions for Use. Available at: https://www.mobilitymatters2me.com/instructions-for-use. Accessed August 27, 2019.
- Pearlman, Jonathan L., et al. Evaluation of the Safety and Durability of Low-Cost Nonprogrammable Electric Powered Wheelchairs. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2005; 86(12): 2361-2370. https://www.archives-pmr.org/article/S0003-9993(05)00927-5/fulltext
- Smith, Emma M., et al. Prevalence of Wheelchair and Scooter Use Among Community-Dwelling Canadians. Physical Therapy. 2016 Aug; 96(8): 1135–1142. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4992144/
- Sonenblum, Sharon E., et al. Characterization of Power Wheelchair Use in the Home and Community. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2008 Mar; 89(3):486–491. https://www.archives-pmr.org/article/S0003-9993(07)01769-8/fulltext
- U.S. Department of Energy. 10 CFR 430, Energy Conservation Program: Energy Conservation Standards for Battery Chargers. Final Rule. 2016 Aug 12. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/06/13/2016-12835/energy-conservation-program-energy-conservation-standards-for-battery-chargers