It’s ALIVE!

Those of you who read my post in late November know that, while trying to take Barnum for a walk, my powerchair died completely. I had to be pushed home.

I have a powerchair that I use for inside the house, but it’s no good for walks. That’s why, as part of my puppy-preparedness efforts, I bought this chair:

Pchair with headlights

This is how my bad-ass chair looked when it was under construction, a year ago (before it got all dinged up and the batteries died).

I purchased an outdoor pchair that I got specifically so I could take Barnum on long walks in any type of weather (within reason), and over rough terrain. Since we live in the country, on a hilly dirt road, there really is nothing but rough terrain.

Because we live in New England, where winter lasts nine months, a snow-worthy vehicle was a must. Now, here we are, at Barnum’s peak adolescent-exercise-neediness time, and I am power(chair)less. Argh!

At first, it seemed like a simple matter of dead batteries. But when I plugged it in to recharge it, it wouldn’t charge. The red “Fault,” light on the charger glowed when I tried to recharge the batteries. The charger says that if this light appears, you should consult your manual. My chair was built from all recycled parts. There is no manual.

“Fault” seemed a bit too “on the nose.” As in, “It’s your fault that you bought a chair you have no idea how to maintain. It’s your fault you let the batteries die. And now it’s your fault this magnificent chair has been sitting here, ruining many of your dog-training plans, because you are too sick, overwhelmed, anxious, and incompetent to figure out what’s wrong and fix it!”

Indeed, for the past 10 weeks, the chair has remained dead. I have tried to gather information, but I have been overwhelmed and confused about how to figure out what is pertinent, what is not, and what to do about it all.

Plus, there have been all the various health crises, dog crises, dog training efforts, blizzards, migraines, etc.

Oh, and if you’re new to the world of assistive technology and health coverage in the United States and are wondering why I don’t just call my wheelchair vendor and ask them to come out, diagnose the problem, and order new parts, let me explain. My totally inadequate indoor chair was covered by Medicare. This means that I am not eligible for any other type of wheelchair coverage for at least five years or until the indoor chair stops working, whichever is longer.

It would seem to make the most sense to procure a chair that I could use both indoors and out, wouldn’t it? One that fit me and my fluctuating abilities and limitations, one that was suited to life in the country?

However, that kind of thinking does not fit in with the “four walls rule” of Medicare. This is how (bitter, angry) disability advocates refer to the guidelines for who is entitled to powerchair coverage, who is not, and what a chair must do for that individual.

In a nutshell, for Medicare to cover any piece of medical equipment, the recipient must provide proof that without it, they cannot get to the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom. That’s it. If you are totally unable to eat or pee or lie in bed without a wheelchair (or other mobility aids), Medicare will cover a piece of equipment that does just enough to meet those needs. If, however, you ever want to go out into your yard, or down your street, or to the grocery store, and you need a mobility aid to do that, that is not a medical necessity, and therefore it’s not covered.

This is why I have a dinky little chair that serves me well indoors as long as I’m at my most functional, and a much more physically sustainable and usable chair for the outdoors. Again, let me head your question off at the pass: If the outdoor chair is so much better, why don’t I use it indoors, too?

Many reasons, the biggest being that it’s mammoth. For instance, the only door it fits through, in the entire house, is the exterior door to the ramp. Thank God that it does! It never even occurred to me that I should measure my door before I bought it.

It just barely fits going down the ramp, but only without the leg rests on. It also has big, knobby snow-blower tires. It would be like riding a tractor in the mall.

Big, Knobby Tires

Dude! Check out these gnarly treads!

[Photo description: Closeup of the tires for the powerchair. They have purple “hubs” with black, thickly studded treads.]

All this time, Barnum and I have been grounded. I have one helper who can walk him two or three days a week, but only at a normal, walkie, sedate pace. I have a dog walker who comes weekly to take him on a hike around the pond. On the other days of the week, I try to schedule dog play dates in our yard so he can work off energy that way.

Puppy Barnum races Sharon in the superpowerchair

See, this is how we ROLL.

[Photo description: Five-month-old puppy Barnum races next to Sharon across the lawn. He is running full-out, with his ears flying straight behind him, his red tongue hanging out and to the side, his legs fully stretched out. Sharon, in her big power chair, watches Barnum as she zooms alongside. They run through the grass, with a metal fence in the background. Sharon wears a straw hat and shorts, suggesting a sunny day.]

But as a service-dog-in-training, he really needs the benefit of the bonding, training, mental stimulation, and exercise of going for walks with me. I’d been feeling like I was failing him.

I also really missed our walks, which were just starting to get easier, due to less pulling and more attention on me, instead of on everything else in the known (and unknown — to me) universe.

Lately, however, I’ve been building up steam to solve this problem. If it meant buying a new battery and new charger, and whatever else, so be it. I would find a way to make it happen. I just needed to figure out which type of batteries (which encompasses a huge range of brands, sizes, power sources, and more), which type of charger, etcetera.

Finally,  yesterday Betsy helped me take the chair apart. Neither of us really knew what we were doing, but nothing blew up. That seemed like a good sign.

One of the questions we’d had was, “Are these gel batteries, which is what almost all powerchairs and scooters use these days, or are they lead acid batteries, which is what the car mechanic who helped me fix the broken headlights thought they were?”

This time, by taking both batteries all the way out, I was able to read the answer — in Spanish and French. Nowhere in English did it say “lead acid” on it, but it did in these other two languages. So, that was good information.

I wrote down everything the batteries said, and we got all the part and serial numbers we could find — from the wheel motors, from the batteries, from the charger, from the controller unit.

Although I was approaching this as a fact-finding mission, I tried to do what I could to tweak anything that might improve the health of the chair. I checked to see that the headlights still worked, which they did . . . which was weird.

After all, if the batteries were completely dead — which would seem to be indicated by the charger’s “Fault” light and by the fact that turning on the chair’s controller did nothing at all — why were the halogen headlamps, which run off the batteries, still functioning?

I chalked it up to yet one more thing I don’t understand about mechanics and went back to research and repair.

We filed off some corrosion on the connections. I had Betsy move the charger to the kitchen table so I could examine the cords to make sure no wires were loose. I went to the charger to write down all the relevant data I could.

That’s when I saw it: The switch.

There are two switches on the charger. One switch is the on/off switch. I got into a bit of a problem a few months ago when the charger was lifted out of the back of the chair and then put back in. As the switch grazed against the chair’s exterior, the switch flipped into “off” position, and for three or four days I couldn’t figure out why the chair kept losing juice, even though I was charging it. I discovered the “on/off” switch, and ever since, I keep my eye on it.

However, there was a second switch I’d never noticed before. This is mostly because it is a recessed switch — the type of switch you need something small and pointy, like a pen, to move up or down. It was also because the hole that contained the switch was very low on the unit, so it was totally obscured by the rear wall of the chair.

Rear view of purple power chair

The charger takes up most of the space in this rear "tray," with the hidden switch down where the tail lights ride.

[Photo description: Rear view of very tall powerchair. A gray captains chair seat and big, blocky headrest, and a purple wood tray “box” above the rear tires. The chair is outdoors, in about an inch of snow.]

Here’s what the switch says:

<< Up for conventional wet lead-acid

<< Down for maintenance-free gel-cell

I squinted. It was hard to tell, but the switch seemed to be in the down position.

“Huh,” I thought, and took a pen and flicked the switch up. Nothing blew up. That seemed like a good sign.

We put the chair back together. I told Betsy about the switch. Could it really be something so simple, we wondered?

Only one way to find out: Plug it in and charge it for 24 hours, and see if something changes.

I plugged it in. Nothing blew up. That seemed like a good sign.

The green light that indicates how desperately the battery needed charging flashed in its most pathetic, desperate, flickering manner. No surprise there. Even if the batteries hadn’t been dead before, after sitting for over two months without being charged, they would be now.

I stared at the “Fault” light. It seemed to glow faintly red, but I couldn’t tell if it was really glowing, or if it was just the reflected light of the flashing green charging button. I went to bed with just the tiniest wisp of a hope that what I’d discovered might do some good.

I let the chair charge all day, the full 24 hours. Partly, I knew that if the batteries were to have any chance to recover, they needed a ton of charging. Partly, I wanted to wait until I was ready for the disappointment when I discovered that the damage had already been done by charging the batteries — who knew how many times — on the wrong setting.

Tonight, I examined the charger. The “Fault” light did not seem to be glowing, now that the green light was just a steady green glow, not a frantic flashing.

Huh.

I unplugged the charger and put the cords in the back. I flipped on the power switch. The lights came on! First, all the way to the left, on “E” (for empty), then the bars moved to the right, all the way to “F” (for “Fuck, Yeah!” “full charge”).

I moved the joystick. The chair moved.

Never has the term “joystick” seemed so appropriate.

I screamed up the stairs to Betsy that the chair was working, and that I was going to do A Victory Lap!

Silly woman thought I meant take it outside. Outside, where the thermometer currently reads -9 degrees  (that’s negative nine Fahrenheit). With a windchill estimated at -25. Oh yeah, and there’s three feet of snow on the ground, which would completely cover not only the wheels, but also the lower portion of the seat.

Purple powerchair sits in front of six-foot mountain of snow

This is how high the snow would be piled if someone plowed a pathway in our yard! The actual snowfall is about half this height.

[Photo description: Large powerchair with gray captain’s chair, black tires, and purple trim sits in front of snow bank that is taller than the chair.]

No, I told her, in the living room.

We have a nice, big, open space, “main room,” that is the combination living room/kitchen. I jumped on the chair and started it on low power, and set the speed to turtle. It moved, very slowly. And nothing blew up. That seemed like a good sign.

So I switched to high power, turned the knob all the way to rabbit, and let rip!

“Whee!” I squealed as I careened around the room, doing donuts and pin-point spins.

Barnum got into the spirit of things and chased around me.

I narrowly missed hitting various walls and pieces of furniture, and I did hit the plastic easel where I keep a list of behaviors Barnum and I are working on.

“Hey!” Betsy yelled. “That is an OUTDOOR chair!”

“Allllllriiiiiiight!” I yelled, as I headed for the kitchen, spun, and looped toward the hall.

“You’re going to hit something!” She bellowed. “There are glass plates around!”

“Where?” I scoffed. Betsy pointed. I shrugged as I zipped by.

“If you break something, I’m not cleaning it up!”

“Okay, Mom!” I said.

“Young lady, use your indoor chair,” she faux-whispered, like a kindergarten teacher telling a student to use their indoor voice.

We were having fun. We sang “We Are the Champions” by Queen, and did high-fives.

“Go, Team Wames!” We shrieked. (This is a combination of our last names that we just came up with last night. We like it because it sounds ridiculous.)

Do I still need to buy new batteries? Undoubtedly. These poor cells have been sorely neglected for months. I’m also going to add some extra electrical tape to the connectors (when in doubt, add duct tape or electrical tape). It remains to be seen how far I’ll be able to go on one charge.

And the leg rests are in serious need of repair, too.

But, at least we can try. At least Barnum and I will be able to attempt a short walk, stretch our wheels.

I just have to wait for a decent path in the snow. And the temperature needs to come up just a tad — thirty or forty degrees might be enough. (I definitely need to research how long lead acid batteries can withstand the cold, and to what temperatures.)

But meanwhile, we are flying! I plan to take a spin around the living room at least once a day. (Don’t tell Betsy!)

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who didn’t know from these newfangled contraptions), and Barnum (rebel with the paws)

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11 Responses to “It’s ALIVE!”


  1. 1 Kathy January 24, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Kudos to your marvelous brainpower! If i can’t fix it with duct tape, it doesnt get fixed. I can just picture you zipping all over the house doing your victory lap. What a great story!

    And a couple of questions. First off, have you ever told the tale of that wheelchair? The thing looks fascinating! And would gel batteries work better? Are they a lot more expensive? And how do you normally get plowed out so you can go for walks? That is an amazing amount of snow! (I’m a left-coaster, we don’t get much snow)

    Medicare sucks in many ways. But at least it’s available…for now.

    Thanks for the awesome story; it made my day!

  2. 2 Ashley January 24, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    That is absolutely fantastic! I’m so mechanically disinclined I probably would have blown it up. I am so glad you can now go on walks with Barnum!

  3. 3 Cait January 24, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    ROCK ON! I am so excited for you and Barnum- this just made my day.

    One of Kaylee’s favorite skills was heeling next to a scooter- I didn’t work very hard on it because it’s unusual for me to use one (basically a “Walmart when I’m exhausted and still have to go’ skill)- I’ve never been sure why, but it was one of her very favorite things to do.

  4. 4 brilliantmindbrokenbody January 25, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    I’m wondering how long you’re out in the cold with your battery.

    If you build some insulation in around the battery, that may be enough to protect it. It looks like your battery is already in a relatively sheltered area, so adding in a bit of quilted fabric or something else warm may be enough, especially if you aren’t spending a long time out in the cold. The fact that the chair is stored in the house helps a lot, because it means the battery is room temperature to start.

    I’m assuming that you aren’t spending a HUGE amount of time out there. If you’re spending a really long time out there, you’ll want to get a heating coil rigged to warm the battery.

    ~Kali

  5. 5 Sharon Wachsler January 26, 2011 at 1:15 am

    Hi Kathy,

    Thank you! Believe me, I’m no mechanical genius, but desperation is the mother of contrition, or something like that. Plus, Betsy did the most of the heavy lifting (definitely physically, and some mentally, too).

    I have refrained from telling too much of the story of the chair in public forums. I will probably continue that policy. However, with a little googling, you can probably figure out a lot about it if you know that it was made from recycled parts.

    I need to research gel versus sealed lead acid batteries for distance and in cold weather. All my other pchairs and my scooter use(d) gel. I believe the person who made the chair used lead acid because it can withstand cold, snow, etc., better, but I need to look into it. It appears the type I have can withstand abuse much better.

    We have someone who plows our driveway, and then I have a helper or someone shovel my ramp and a path from the ramp to the car. Also, I need a turnaround at each end of the ramp, including Barnum’s relief area.

    Actually, I love Medicare. Love, love, love it! It rocks in most ways, and only sucks in a few, such as limitations for DME and the homebound restriction for personal care. But, overall, IMO, it’s the best health insurance in this country; Medicaid covers more, so theoretically it’s better, however, it is often hard to find a good provider who takes Medicaid. I have both, which is the best of both worlds. I consider myself extremely fortunate, and I wish everyone had it (universal health coverage, yes). The HMOs are horrible, horrible, horrible. ‘Nuff said.

  6. 6 Sharon Wachsler January 26, 2011 at 1:16 am

    LOL! Thank you! Yes, we had our first walk today. Hoping to blog about it shortly.

  7. 7 Sharon Wachsler January 26, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Hey Cait,

    Aw, thank you!

    Hmm, interesting. Jersey took a long time to get used to the scooter, because she had never experienced one before. Gadget took to it like it was totally not worth noticing one way or the other. Though, it meant he could go FAST, which was a bonus. He adapted from scooter to pchair easily, too, like it was nothing.

    Barnum has only ever known me in a pchair, so he has experienced being walked by others on foot and me in the chair, actually in different chairs, and he knows the differences among them. He was very excited when my big chair was moving, because it’s FAST and it means, “WALK”!

  8. 8 Sharon Wachsler January 26, 2011 at 1:25 am

    Hey Kali,

    The insulation is an interesting idea, although this chair was purchased specifically for cold- and snow-worthiness. The guy who makes them has a snow plow attachment for his (I kid you not).

    I think, but am not sure, that this type of battery is intended to hold up better to the cold. When I asked him how long I could be out in the cold, he said, “You’ll be ready to go in before the chair is.”

    So far, I think he’s right. What’s kept me indoors since we got it restarted is that my Lyme-affected joints and muscles cannot handle the cold without locking up and severe pain, and if it’s negative 15 out, nobody wants to go out in that who doesn’t have to!

    I’m going to research the battery thing more, and see if the fabric idea would help, or if it would be a fire risk or anything.

    I’ll say this: My everyday, indoor use chair, which has the typical gel batteries, one day a couple weeks ago when I was outside for half an hour to oversee a doggy play date, died. And it wasn’t even that cold out — maybe 30 degrees. So, that was pathetic. Fortunately, I was on my ramp in my yard, and my friend could just push me inside. It revived as soon as it warmed up.

  9. 9 brilliantmindbrokenbody January 27, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    You know, I was thinking about it, and I realized I skipped over the Duh! answer.

    They make battery insulators for car batteries. That’d be safe, as your chair is unlikely to get as hot as the inside of a car engine. As long as the battery is roughly the right size, it should be a big help.

  10. 10 Sharon Wachsler January 27, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Hi Kali,
    I already have a serious problem with the stinkiness of the chair. I couldn’t use it for the first 6 months because of that, and that’s another reason I can’t use it in the house. Any type of fabric or absorbent material like furniture (and thus, powerchair seats) is problematic for me. I can’t imagine that something that would be used in the engines of cars would be safe for me to be around. Fire retardants are one of the most toxic chemical stews, and I’d bet something for a car engine would be sprayed or imbued with it. Let alone that the fabric itself would very likely not be organic cotton, wool, or hemp!

  11. 11 brilliantmindbrokenbody January 27, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    *facepalm* When one does not have MCS, it is incredibly easy to take for granted one’s ability to buy whatever seems most useful.

    A lot of what I’ve seen kind of reminds me of emergency/space blankets, which are made out of thin aluminum or mylar.

    For what it’s worth, the maker of your scooter is right – it is exceedingly unlikely that you will want to be out longer than the battery will be effective. At most, I would expect you might encounter some minor slowing.


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