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If there are two elements in our lives that we know not to mix, it's electricity and water. After all, not only will water destroy most electronic devices (think of a cellphone dropped in the toilet!), but it can also electrocute you (think of a radio in the bathtub!).

Logically, consumers are concerned about using a power wheelchair in the rain, as one wisely should be. In fact, some people are so concerned about power wheelchairs and rain that providers have been known to forbid consumers from using their power wheelchairs outdoors on rainy days, period. However, how realistically conservative should consumers and providers be about using power wheelchairs on rainy days - that is, should we call off work, not go to the doctor's, or leave the mail in the box for another day?

Of course not. While it is true that the more a power wheelchair is exposed to rain, the greater the risk of harm to its electronics. However, this isn't to say that FDA-approved, quality wheelchairs don't offer realistic levels of "water resistance" toward everyday use. After all, wheelchair consumers must go to work, attend doctor's appointments, and to get the mail like everyone else - and it would be illogical for anyone to presume that those who rely on power wheelchairs shouldn't leave their homes on rainy days.

Just How Water-Resistant is "Water-Resistant?"
Now, it's important to define what's realistic power wheelchair use in the rain, and its ultimate risks. When I speak of "water resistance," I don't mean in it in the same terms of a water-resistant watch that you can shower with. What I mean is, one can drive a power wheelchair from one's front door to one's van in the rain without worrying about the electronics shorting. What one shouldn't do, is sit with the power wheelchair exposed in the pouring rain at a bus stop for extended periods - the electronics will eventually short, as with most electronic devices exposed to long periods of extreme moisture.

Watch Where the Water Flows
Specifically, there are four major electrical components on power wheelchairs that are exceptionally vulnerable to moisture damage in the rain, and understanding the risks helps consumers best ensure reliability and safety.

Starting with the hand control (joystick), it's typically the most vulnerable to damaging exposure in the rain. Obviously, the hand control is atop the armrest, entirely exposed, with flat surfaces - it's at notable risk for moisture damage. It is true that manufacturers use gaskets to seal hand controls to some extent, but there are still openings for buttons, knobs, and the joystick, and if a hand control gets saturated enough by rain, water can infiltrate the housing, resulting in damage. Protecting the hand control with a plastic bag certainly can help prevent moisture damage; however, such protective coverings can also be a hazzard toward opperating the hand control, so extreme personal discretion should be used if one attempts to use a hand control with a protective covering.

The next power wheelchair electrical components of utmost concern in the rain are the motors. Power wheelchairs feature a drive motor on each side of the wheelchair, and, by nature, they're attached to the drive wheels and close to the ground - that is, they're prone to splashing water. Like hand controls, motors are sealed for some water resistance, but they do have openings for wiring and hardware, so given enough exposure, water infiltration can occur. Interestingly, because most power wheelchair motors don't contain circuitry, water damage rarely results in immediate failure; but, what does occur is that when water enters the motor, it slowly corrodes components, ushering an iminent failure. For this reason, one should be extremely cautious never to splash a power wheelchair through puddles or submerge the motors.

The last two electronic components of foremost risk to rain are the controller (electronics module), and power seating modules. Fortunately, these two components are most often concealed within the power base or seating, and protected by shrouding. However, the modules, themselves, lack the type of water resistance of hand controls and motors, namely because the controller and power seating modules inharently contain many connection ports. Therefore, while these components may not be as visable or as externally exposed as hand controls and motors, they remain susceptable to water damage.

Keeping Dry is Common-Sense
In reality, power wheelchairs require a common-sense balance when it comes to rain: As electrical devices, power wheelchairs are unquestionably suceptable to the damaging effects of rain; however, manufactures recognize that the lives of those with disabilities don't stop on rainy days, and they make reasonable efforts to ensure that responsible users can get from their homes to their vans, or from the parking lot to the doctor's office, without an issue. No, a power wheelchair isn't waterproof. Yet, when used responsibly, it is liberating - even on rainy days.

Published 9/08, Copyright 2008,