One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Wheelchair Tires

by Kathy Wechsler on January 1, 2005 - 4:44pm

I know a woman who owns 85 pairs of shoes. She has a selection of shoes to go with every outfit — shoes for walking, jogging, running, dancing, hiking and just hanging out by the pool or in the yard.


Since our wheelchairs do the walking for us, their tires act as our shoes. Imagine if we had 85 sets of tires and wanted to change them several times a day, depending on our activities. Now imagine being carted off to the nearest funny farm for making such a ridiculous request.

Although the market offers a number of choices of wheelchair tires, most of us are going to pick out one set and stick with it for a while.

“You have to find a happy medium that goes outside pretty good and inside pretty good,” says Rob Cameron, service manager and head technician at Carr Rehab in Knoxville, Tenn.

Do you know which tires are best for you? Test your knowledge below. Quizzes won’t be timed or graded, but one or more incorrect answers may cause your tires to explode. Good luck.

1. What type of wheelchair tires do experts recommend?

A. Foam-filled
B. Pneumatic
C. Flat-free
D. Solid

Answer: A

Foam-filled tires are the most practical, Cameron says. They won’t go flat, and you don’t have to worry about adjusting the air pressure.

Solid tires don’t go flat either, but they give a rougher ride than foam-filled. Both foam-filled and solid are easier to maintain than pneumatic tires, which have tubes filled with air like bicycle tires.

Foam-filled tires sometimes ride a little rougher than pneumatic, but I didn’t notice a difference after I switched to foam-filled on my manual and power chairs because of a “cactus incident” when I first moved to Tucson.

Foam-filled tires basically are the same as pneumatic tires, except they’re filled with foam instead of air. Both pneumatic and foam-filled come in black or gray rubber, but since black can mark up floors, gray is usually the color of choice. Solid tires are made of polyurethane and won’t leave floor marks, allowing you to express yourself in red, green or blue.

Front caster wheel tires (the smaller ones) are usually, but not always, foam-filled or solid.

Think about where you’re going to use your chair most. If you live around prickly plants or work in a warehouse with nails on the floor, foam-filled or solid is best, wheelchair experts say. If you ride over snow, pneumatic tires give more traction and a better ride because letting out air gives them a nice grip.

You can get flat-free inserts for pneumatic tires, but it’s easier to just buy foam-filled or solid tires, which cost a little more than pneumatic. Some insurance companies won’t pay for them because they’re “not medically necessary,” although the cost of repeatedly fixing flats adds up.

Explain to your insurance company that they’re paying a supplier to come fix your tires and that the cost can be avoided by using foam-filled or solid tires. You may need to get your doctor to write a letter of necessity explaining you can’t maintain pneumatic tires by yourself.

“Sometimes you just have to be your own advocate,” Cameron says.

2. What kind of tire tread do experts recommend?

A. Smooth
B. Knobby
C. Ribbed
D. It depends on where you take your chair

Answer: D

If you live in the country where there aren’t many sidewalks, a knobby tread gives the chair better traction in gravel, dirt and grass, Cameron says. Tires with smoother tread don’t grip as well and may slide in wet grass. Unfortunately, tires with knobby tread tend to collect mud and drag it inside, and believe me, it’s hard to play dumb when the evidence leads to your chair.

If you’re a city dweller who never leaves the sidewalk, then a smooth tread gives a gentler ride. Knobby tread also wears out faster on concrete.

Caster tires often have ribbed tread to reduce friction.


3. How often should you change your tires?

A. Monthly
B. Yearly
C. Every two years
D. When they wear out

Answer: D

The condition of your tires depends on how many miles you put on them.

“I’ve got customers that can go two years on a set of tires and I’ve got people that go through three sets of tires in a year,” Cameron says. “I would say on average most people probably get about a year out of a set of tires.”

If the tread is gone and the tires are slick and don’t provide much traction, it’s time for a change. But if there’s still a lot of tread left, then “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Cameron says.

“Generally, the rear tires pretty much wear out at the same time as the front tires,” Cameron says. “You hardly ever just change one tire because they wear pretty evenly.”

For tires that don’t have tread, you’ll know it’s time for new tires when you can see fabric showing through the rubber.

When you do change your tires, make sure you stay with factory-recommended sizes, says Paul Martin of Las Vegas, who has hypokalemic periodic paralysis and has been responsible for his local MDA loan closet for 10 years.

Don’t deviate from the sizes, heights or dimensions listed in the owner’s manual.

4. What will happen if you don’t replace your worn tires?

A. Your ride will become rough
B. Your tires will make noise
C. Your tires will melt
D. Your tires will wear down to the inside layer

Answer: A, B, D

If you don’t replace your worn tires, they’ll go flat (if they’re pneumatic). You’ll definitely notice when your back foam-filled tires wear out, because the pieces will start flapping and making a scraping noise. You’ll also see pieces of tan thread sticking through. Change them way before that happens.

Front tire wear is obvious, too. If you notice a black streak running down the center of the tire, it’s wearing through to a different layer and needs to be replaced. Worn-out solid tires lose big chunks, making the ride uncomfortable.

The tread on manual wheelchair tires affects how tightly the brakes hold, experts say. Worn-out tread means tires can’t be locked in place and may slip. To keep this from happening, adjust the brakes as the tires wear.

5. What should you never do to keep your wheels clean and rolling smoothly?

A. Wipe down tires with a wet rag
B. Wash tires with a garden hose
C. Clean out bearings using a knife or clippers
D. Lube bearings with silicon spray

Answer: B

When your tires are muddy, use a brush or rag and a bucket of water to clean them off.

“I never recommend that anyone take a water hose to their chair because I’ve had a lot of people who fried their electronics doing that,” Cameron says.

Martin, 53, who’s president of a nonprofit corporation called Nevadans for Equal Access, gained experience repairing and rebuilding wheelchairs and other mobility devices while volunteering at his MDA loan closet. He owns one manual chair and two power chairs and “keeps them in tiptop condition.”

People often complain about getting string, hair and even Christmas tree tinsel caught in their wheels, Martin says. The debris winds tighter and tighter around the bearings (the mechanisms on the axle that keep the wheel turning), wearing a groove into the bearings and causing them to disintegrate.

To prevent your bearings from burning up, Martin recommends cleaning your wheels once a month. Use tweezers or a knife to clip off the rats’ nest in your wheels.

Another way to keep bearings in good condition is to take off the wheel and clean and lubricate them. Martin suggests using silicon spray available at any hardware or automotive store.

It’s also important to keep the axles tight so your wheels won’t wobble. If you’re like me and need help tightening, cleaning and making sure everything is in working order, Martin recommends having your chair serviced by a medical supply company every three to six months.

No votes yet
MDA cannot respond to questions asked in the comments field. For help with questions, contact your local MDA office or clinic or email See comment policy