How an Electric Wheelchair Works (Comprehensive Guide)

Written by Dayna C
Last Updated :

Ever asked yourself how an electric wheelchair works? Deciding on the best features to buy a wheelchair is hard and knowing how they work will help.

I’ll explain everything about electric wheelchairs, from motors to wheels. Read on to learn!

Key Takeaways

  • Power wheelchairs run on motors powered by rechargeable batteries in their power bases below the seat.
  • The user controls the wheelchair’s movement using a joystick, the chin, or voice control. Some wheelchairs are capable of foot control.
  • Electric wheelchairs use different wheel systems depending on the terrain. Rough or uneven terrains need more specialized wheel systems.
  • The seat systems in electric wheelchairs are flexible and customizable and fully support the back.

How Do Electric Wheelchairs Work?

Manual wheelchairs are the most common wheelchair type. And everyone knows they need someone to push them to move.

An electric-powered wheelchair doesn’t need any of that. See how easily this wheelchair user moves their wheelchair? How is that even possible?

There are different ways to control a power wheelchair. But most power wheelchairs rely on the user’s joystick to guide their movement.

CHECK: How Far Can an Electric Wheelchair Go?

Electric Wheelchair Parts

Let’s see the different parts that dictate how an electric wheelchair works.

The Power Base

The power base comprises the batteries, the motor, the brakes, the wiring harness, and the wheels. Most electric-powered wheelchairs have power bases right below the seat.

The Batteries

While most power chairs use rechargeable batteries, the intended use usually dictates which type and how many batteries are going to be used.

For instance, a lightweight electric wheelchair can use only one 12-volt battery. Heavy-duty wheelchairs require two 12-volt batteries, contributing 24 volts in total.

While the batteries are of different types, these are the most common ones.

  1. Lithium-ion batteries.
  2. Lead-acid batteries.
  3. Gel batteries.
  4. Absorbed Glass Mat batteries.

Battery life varies with the level of use, but lithium-ion batteries are more popular for their long lifecycles (1).

The Motor

Electric wheelchairs can either use a four-pole or two-pole motor. Four-pole motors are more common in heavy-duty outdoor wheelchairs.

Lightweight electric power chairs are more likely to have two-pole motors.

The Wheels

The terrain heavily influences what wheels an electric-powered wheelchair will have. The four drive systems common in these wheelchairs are below.

men with wheelchair lift but how much is a wheelchair lift for car

a) Front-wheel Drive

These drive wheels are perfect for outdoor terrains. So you’re more likely to find them on outdoor power chairs.

b) Rear-wheel Drive

This system is only ideal for flat terrains or indoor use.

c) All-wheel Drive

Perfect for rough terrain thanks to their four-wheel system. The two-drive and four-caster wheels provide wheelchair stability and smooth maneuverability.

That makes them the best for navigating the tight spaces in most homes. See how this wheelchair works.

d) Centre Wheel Drive

Ideal for indoor use or on flat terrains.

e) Track Wheels

This style is ideal for wheelchair owners that want to go to the roughest terrains.

ALSO CHECK: Best Electric Wheelchair Accessories

The Control Panel

This is the section of the wheelchair with all the controls. The panel has a joystick or keypad for the direction and speed controls.

But it can be programmed to respond to voice or to be chin or foot controlled.

Depending on the style of the wheelchair, the control panel is most often on the armrest.

The Seating System

The seating system, besides protecting the user, also offers postural support. Most wheelchairs have seats with seat belts to prevent the user from falling out of the chair.

Others have an adjustable seat height and options to tilt the seat to the user’s convenience.

Are Power Wheelchairs the Same as Electric Scooters?

Mobility scooters are another excellent assistive device. But can we say they’re the same as powered wheelchairs? Don’t they all run on powered wheels?

The reality, however, is that they aren’t the same. Here is why.

1. Different Control Mechanisms

Power wheelchairs users use either joystick movements controlled by hand, chin or foot, or keypads. They can even be voice controlled, depending on the type of wheelchair you buy.

Electric scooters have tillers or handlebars the user uses to control them. This requires more arm strength than in an electric wheelchair.

2. Maneuverability and Convenience

Electric wheelchairs are more convenient for indoor use than scooters, thanks to their structure.

The tiller at the front of the scooter can’t allow you to move close enough to anything.

Electric wheelchairs are often relatively easy to transfer from. Sometimes a user can use them as a normal chair.

3. More Convenient Seating Positions

A scooter has only one seating position since you can’t customize it, unlike the power chair. And the contoured seating in electric wheelchairs offers more support for the back than the scooter.

While both are excellent assistive devices for people with disabilities, they aren’t the same.

What’s the Average Cost of a Power Wheelchair?

Power wheelchairs, because of their specialized nature, cost a pretty penny.

power wheelchair

Thomas Henley, a medical expert, says electric wheelchairs cost between $2,000 and $6,000 depending on their sophistication (2).

The more sophisticated a wheelchair is, the more it will cost. Some can go for as much as $50,000.

READ MORE: Wheelchair Disposal (How to Dispose of Wheelchair Properly)


1. Can you manually push an electric wheelchair?

Yes, you can. The wheel system of the electric wheelchairs allows for occasional manual pushing.

2. Can you use an electric wheelchair in the rain?

While not waterproof, sometimes you might get caught in the rain while using your wheelchair. The wheelchair will probably be okay, but you’ll need to dry off all the water once you get home.


Understanding how an electric wheelchair works will help you make better use of it when you buy it.

Electric wheelchairs increase the independence of people with disabilities. They thus boost their quality of life by being an improvement on the traditional wheelchair.

man in a power wheelchair playing hockey

What surprised you most about how the electric wheelchair works? Please share it with us down below in the comments.


1. Kim T, Song W, Son D-Y, Ono LK, Qi Y. Lithium-ion batteries: outlook on present, future, and hybridized technologies. Journal of Materials Chemistry A. 2019;7:2942–64.

2. Haupt A. Best Electric Wheelchairs Of 2022 [Internet]. Forbes Health. 2021 [cited 2022 Nov 22]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/health/healthy-aging/best-electric-wheelchairs/#:~:text=Prices%20for%20electric%20wheelchairs%20can

About Author

Dayna C
Dayna has an incredible passion for helping others and a background as an in-home caregiver for the elderly. She left the field temporarily three years ago to stay at home with her twins, but found that she really missed working with senior citizens. She launched LoAids as a way to help not just her own loved ones and former clients, but ALL seniors live life to the fullest in their golden years.  Follow her on LINKEDIN and TWITTER. Read her LATEST POSTS. Learn more about her HERE.

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