Two days at Naidex means that if you’re a wheelchair user, you’ll find limited opportunities to transfer out of your wheelchair for a bit of a seating change. If you struggle to regulate your body temperature, then this can be even more of a challenge. Roll forward wheelAIR – Dominic took the cooling backrest for a two day test drive.
The wheelAIR is a seat back upholstery that is vented with the help of a battery powered fan unit to enable cooling to flow up and down the backrest. It’s available up to 430mm in length and in widths of 290mm, 330mm, 360mm, 400mm and bespoke. Because the foam and fabric can be cut to measure, they can make something to fit your needs. Max user weight is 136Kg – 11Kg more than most manual wheelchairs. We haven’t tried it on an electric wheelchair and at the moment, wouldn’t recommend it unless you had a clear area for the fan housing, as seen in models such as the Foldachair D09 or Airwheel H3.
The battery will last up to 20 hours on its lowest setting of 4. It’s recharged with a micro USB and activated by a push button to cycle through the speeds and turn off. There’s a second button to press and see the battery levels, which are indicated by a darker blue LED. Recharging takes up to 17 hours depending on battery depletion, according the manual.
There is a single pocket on the rear, secured with a magnet. The upholstery is faux leather, Rayon and polyester. The wheelAIR is 100% vegan.
On the seat
I jumped straight in and got on with my day – the wheelAIR was fitted to our demonstration RGK Sub4 just as I was about to film live for our Naidex pre-show look. Given I was in a shirt and insulated softshell jacket, I could feel the cooling up and down my back straight away on its lowest setting. We were able to identify where the venting ended in the seating, highlighting the importance of making sure you fit it correctly to get the flow correct around the backrest.
It wasn’t too thin either, which is a blessing in itself – internal foam weighs a bit so it was good that this wasn’t too heavy on the backrest.
The controls can be velcro’d anywhere on the seat – be conscious though that the wire is attached to the cooling unit, so it will need to be un-threaded if you remove the cooling unit for travel, such as in a car or in an airplane – you may choose to leave it on in the car though as it doesn’t always sit outside the frame.
Because the wheelAIR sits over your existing seat frame, it uses the tension adjustable straps from your own wheelchair. This means that you’re going to receive the same support as you did before – a great opportunity to remind you about maintaining your seat tension straps and lumbar support.
It’s not a Jay or Tarta backrest – they are very different products. You should always seek an OT’s advice if you’re swapping your backrest from one to another, to ensure you don’t do any damage to your back in the short or medium term.
Because the cooling unit is below the back near to the COG position, It doesn’t affect your pushing. This means that the battery is located in the best position and reduces the impression of the weight for you. It doesn’t weigh that much either – the cooling unit weighs just 450g, just over half of the 750-860g of the backrest.
Because of the cooling flow, you keep yourself sat up against the seating – the venting otherwise loses some of the effect if your posture isn’t correct.
Real wheelAIR world use
In our road test at the NEC, it kept me cool. This meant I could wear the proper layers without risking overheating. It also meant that my core and hips had better temperature regulation and most importantly, my cushion wasn’t uncomfortable through the day.
The backrest quality felt comparable to that of an RGK or Sunrise vented upholstery, with the PU Leather shade complementing the black seating. The plastics are soft touch, which has a matte look and feel giving a better experience than some of the typical controllers you might find on wheelchairs. The batteries are built in, so can’t be changed by the user. You’ll need to return the unit for new batteries
It isn’t too noisy either, although we didn’t get to find anywhere quiet enough to do the sound level checks. We’ll fix that soon though.
The wheelAIR lives up to its promise. It keeps you cool and is a great seating accessory for many manual wheelchair users. Its simplicity and ease of use means that you don’t need to relearn any tricks before you can use it.
The price, some have said, can be off putting. £650 for a piece of upholstery can be considered a lot of money and with a 1 year warranty on the cooling unit, the price tag can be considered quite high. The fabrics have a 5 year warranty, although are less likely to go wrong. That said, it is a well made product.
You can buy the wheelAIR direct from their website.