Charging Your Battery Abroad

Two exchange participants of diverse backgrounds smile in the camera: A power wheelchair user and a woman of short stature
Don't be among those who are stranded after arrival abroad when their wheelchair battery explodes or cannot charge.

When you've just arrived in a foreign country after a long flight, the last thing you want to hear is that there is a glitch with your wheelchair battery. So what do you need to do?

First, know that 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.

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 time.
  • Transformers can be used for long periods of time with a wide variety of equipment.

Power wheelchair battery chargers may need a transformer (as opposed to a converter) because they use high power over long periods of time.

Both converters and transformers are designed (either with a switch or automatically) 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 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.

Choosing the Right Transformer or Converter

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.

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.

Don't Forget the Plug Adapters

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. If equipment uses different voltage than the electricity available, do not plug it into the wall, even if the plug (or plug adapter) fits.