Power Wheelchairs and Other Electrical Devices for International Travel
Tips for international travelers using power wheelchairs, battery chargers and other electrical equipment.
- Using Power Wheelchairs Abroad
- Plug adapters
- Why do I need a voltage converter/transformer?
- Choosing the right transformer/converter
Megan Smith's travels and volunteer work have taken her around the world. Read more about Megan's experience here: Nepal, Peru and Costa Rica-Volunteering Perspectives from a Wheelchair User.
When taking power wheelchairs abroad, it is important to consider arrangements that can be made before traveling, while flying, and after arriving in the host country. Many of the suggestions below come from Megan Smith, an avid traveler and power wheelchair user.
- Consider taking a foldable power wheelchair. These weigh much less than standard power wheelchairs and are easier to transport.
- It may be possible to avoid the need for voltage converters and transformers in many countries by having a British battery charger, which uses electricity at 220 volts/50 hz. A plug converter may still be necessary to plug the charger into the wall.
- Assess how the power wheelchair will handle rough terrain by checking its ground clearance level and wheel durability.
- Get a wheelchair tune-up and do any maintenance before heading overseas.
- Consider contacting a representative from the wheelchair manufacturer ahead of time to determine if the company has a branch in the host country. This can help with potential repairs, rentals and other issues.
- Be aware that travel insurance typically does not cover durable medical equipment (like power wheelchairs) related to a preexisting condition.
Power Wheelchairs and Air Travel
- Consider removing detachable and fragile parts from your wheelchair and taking them as carry-on luggage when flying.
- Use name tags for each piece of equipment, including removable parts, to ensure that nothing is lost or misplaced.
- Make sure the airline adds a gate delivery tag to the wheelchair so that it will be ready at the gate upon landing.
- Most travel insurance offers benefits like coverage for lost or damaged luggage and a 24-hour traveler hotline. For example, if a wheelchair is broken in flight, this service can assist with airline claims for damaged equipment, locating rentals abroad and coordinating repair services.
- In inaccessible areas and parts of developing countries where power outages are common or electricity isn’t available, consider purchasing a portable generator that uses fuel to charge wheelchair batteries.
Check out Kristina Yancey's vlog about the breakdown of "Godzilla," her power wheelchair, while on a Fulbright student grant in Switzerland.
- In many countries, electricity may be intermittent or prone to voltage drops, so batteries may take longer to charge or not charge fully. In some places, they may need to be charged more often. Plan wheelchair use accordingly.
- Take a note in the native language of the host country with instructions on how to remove and put in power wheelchair batteries, the kind of battery used and any other special instructions.
- If taking a standard power wheelchair, consider renting a battery charger in the host country, especially if the charger you normally use is heavy and bulky.
- In rainy or moist environments, cover the battery with a plastic bag or poncho.
There are many different electric outlet configurations throughout the world, and a plug adapter will usually be needed to plug in equipment such as wheelchair battery chargers.
Plug adapters allow users to put a flat-pinned (North American) plug into a round-pinned outlet, or vice versa. Adapters are either grounded (3-pin) or ungrounded (2-pin). Make sure to have a grounded 3-pin adapter for equipment that has three prongs.
Adapters do not convert voltage. You will need a converter/transformer to convert voltage between the electricity used in North and Central America (110 volts) and the voltage commonly used in the rest of the world (220 volts).
If equipment uses different voltage than the electricity available, do not plug it into the wall, even if the plug (or plug adapter) fits. This can cause fires, electrocution or damage equipment.
Most countries use electricity at approximately 220 volts/50 hertz, while North America (along with Central America and part of Japan) uses 110 volts/ 60 hertz. If electronic or electrical equipment is used with the wrong voltage, it can be severely damaged, pose a fire or electrocution hazard, or not charge properly.
“After trying to give a quick charge to my electric wheelchair, the power converter blew up and I was without power. I had to call more than a dozen wheelchair shops and be pushed around for an entire weekend before I was able to find a UK charger that fit my wheelchair model. Moral of the story, do your homework on voltage conversions before going abroad.” Cindy Otis interned with the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
A voltage converter/transformer converts the electricity coming from the wall to your equipment so that it can be used safely. Voltage converters are primarily for use with appliances that have heating elements and can only be used for short period of times, while transformers can be used for long periods of time with a wide variety of equipment.
Both converters and transformers are designed to either ‘Step-Up’ (from 110 to 220 volts) or ‘Step-Down’ voltage (from 220 to 110 volts), making equipment compatible with the electricity used in the host country. Some voltage converters/transformers have a switch to ‘Step-Up’ or ‘Step-Down.’
Some electronics are dual voltage or multi-voltage, which means they may work with either 110 volts or 220 volts. Take a look at the adapter plugs on your equipment (or look it up online) to determine the “input” it can handle. If it says 110-240 volts, it is dual voltage and a converter isn’t necessary. If the plug lists just one voltage or the other (110 volts or 220 volts), a converter/transformer will be needed for countries with incompatible electricity.
What about the frequency cycles (known as hertz, or hz), which also vary depending on location? Converters and transformers cannot convert frequency cycles and there is no easy fix for this problem. However, most modern electronic equipment, such as battery chargers, computers and stereos, has a range of 50-60 hertz and is not affected by the difference in frequency cycles. It is still important to check the hertz requirements of electronic equipment to avoid potential damage.
In order to choose the right transformer or converter, you will need to know the wattage of your equipment. Wattage refers to the amount of electricity used by a device, and this information is usually included on the label.
If the wattage is not listed, the voltage and amperage usually are. These can be multiplied to determine the wattage. In other words, voltage x amps=wattage. For example, an appliance labeled with a voltage of 110 and amperage of 1.5 is 165 watts (110 x 1.5 = 165 Watts).
It is recommended that a transformer or converter be rated at least 50% higher than the wattage of the appliance with which you intend to use it. For example, a 500 Watt appliance should be used with a transformer of at least 750 Watts.
Power wheelchair battery chargers may need a transformer (as opposed to a converter) because they use high power over long periods of time. Many power wheelchair manufacturers offer their own transformers or may be able to recommend other models that will not void the warranty of the power wheelchair. Check with the manufacturer.
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