Magicwheels, A Subjective Evaluation
(From one person’s point of view)
This is a discussion of my experiences with a set of Magicwheels. I am lucky enough to live in the Seattle area, and was able to go to Magicwheels to get a trial set of wheels. The folks at the factory are very helpful and Jill made sure that I understood the techniques needed for smooth operation of the wheels. I will cover more on this later. My trial period was extended from about two to over four weeks so that I could take them on an Alaskan cruise. I will also cover that experience in detail.
Before I get into their operation I have to comment on the wheel’s construction. NO SPOKES! I have broken literally hundreds, maybe even thousands of spokes in the 20 plus years of wheelchair usage. A standard wheel with spokes (bicycle style spokes) involves some very interesting physics. Essentially, they are going through constant stretch and compression as the wheel rotates. If you want to prove this, pluck a spoke at the top of a wheel and listen to the tone. Rotate that spoke to the bottom of the wheel and pluck it again. The tone will be lower. This shows that you are literally hanging on the top spokes (stretching them) and pushing down on the bottom ones (compressing them).
This means that constant mechanical forces are applied to the spokes and eventually they loosen up. I always carried a spoke wrench when I traveled because the forces applied to the wheels in hotels with deep pile carpets made me put a lot of torque on the wheels, and the spokes would loosen up quickly. In a week’s time I would tweak the spokes two or three times. The Magicwheels design does away with spokes but still supplies the advantage of a strong, light weight wheel which is why wheels with spokes are so common.
The Magicwheel’s carbon fiber disk allows it to change shape. If one applies enough force on wheels with spokes to change their shape, particularly side loads, spokes distort and eventually either loosen up or break. The Magicwheels merely make in interesting “thunk” sound and then do it again when they regain their original shape. I find this true particularly when I do a wheelchair pushup or if I apply a side load to the wheels.
I have not weighed my wheels with spokes, but Jill tells me that the Magicwheels add about 10 pounds (five pounds per wheel) to the wheelchair. I found this additional weight virtually unnoticeable.
What makes these wheels magic?
There are several things on which I shall dwell. First, I like the fact that I can push a conventional chair and maintain my upper body strength without compromising my old shoulders. The problem with powered wheels is that they always assist. I didn’t realize how much muscle mass I lost until I had to use manual wheels and found that a 12:1 ramp was a real problem for me. I have the option with the Magicwheels to use the low gear when necessary, and press on with the 1:1 ratio the rest of the time.
Next, the low gear is a 2:1 ratio; in other words, the hand rim goes around twice for every one revolution of the wheel. It is enough of a mechanical advantage that if I cannot go up a slope with it, the slope is probably too steep to be safe for me. I do not use tip tubes so I lean forward to change my center of gravity and if the front end comes up while I am in that position, it is time for me to quit.
Additionally, deep pile carpets and other surfaces which offer rolling resistance are good candidates for the low gear option. I have found situations where I feel good going down a particular chunk of carpet at the beginning of the day, but by the time I have made several trips, I am down in low gear!
The real genius in the design of these wheels is the brake that comes into operation in the low gear (2:1) setting. The chair will not roll backwards down a hill. In fact, it will not roll backward period, unless you want it to. I will go into lots of detail to show how useful this feature is.
Finally, the wheel’s inner mechanisms are designed for a long and dependable life. It is a robust design that includes a hypocycloidal design that uses only two gears and a lot of other physics magic to achieve a very low friction, high performance 2:1 ratio. When in the 1:1 mode, that whole mechanism is locked out and for all intents and purposes one is pushing a standard wheelchair around. Mechanical engineers take note – this hub design combined with the lightweight wheel dish and hand rims, and very high pressure tires contains more than a wee bit of genius. It achieves a lightweight, low rolling friction solution.
How Did I Use Them?
My goal was to use the wheels in my every day environment which includes a lot of running around town in the van, working at home, and traveling. I had a chance to do some interesting things at home, in the car and on an Alaskan Cruise which included two train rides, taxis, buses, airplanes and of course the ship and some of its ports of call.
First let’s go around the house. From the time I get up in the morning until I go to bed, I find useful things to do with these wheels. I mentioned the brake in second gear. This is most useful for times that I don’t want to back up. In the morning while I am at the bathroom sink, I lean on it to support myself. The chair backs up unless I put on the brakes. I have a Quickie GPV with scissor brakes, and they are a bit of a pain to operate because they are located under the frame. I just put the wheels in second gear and problem solved! Additionally I can move around if I need to without changing anything.
Think about the kinds of activities this would be useful for:
- Working at the kitchen cook top
- Washing dishes
- Eating at any kind of table
- Washing a car (really frustrating if you have not tried it!)
- Closing heavy sliding glass doors
- Working on a surface that has a slight slant where you want mobility but on which you don’t want to constantly roll backwards (my garage floor and driveway)
- Pushing the garbage and recycle containers back up hill to their storage spot
- Transferring from my wheelchair to bed and vice versa.
- Getting in and out of my ramped van
- Working at my desk
- Vacuuming or mopping the floors (not my idea, but it works!)
The list could go on and on. These brakes get used more than the second gear during my daily life, but when I need that extra help it is there with a flick of my wrists.
My wife and I do a lot of traveling. Some of it is for pleasure and other times it is for business. All of the experiences I have had with these wheels in airports, hotels, restaurants, sidewalks, etc. have been very positive. When I travel by air, these wheels make things easier – no batteries. Both the TCA and the air carriers can handle such things, but it just complicates life. The only thing I do when traveling by air is take the wheels off the chair and have them stored on board in the wheelchair closet to keep them out of harm’s way. I also recommend that accessible taxis, vans, or busses be used for transport in lieu of sedan types of cabs. The one weakness of the wheels is they can have holes punched in the wheel disks. While they can be repaired, and they do not lose structural integrity, it gives me the shivers to think about a cabbie lobbing suitcases on top of my Magicwheels and punching a hole in them. By the way, I have also had wheels with spokes damaged in cabs, so it is not just a precaution for Magicwheels. I just don’t use sedan types of cabs.
Since I am talking about traveling let’s start out on the 13 night Alaskan cruise. The ship was Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas, launched in 2003. She was leaving from Vancouver B.C. so we took the Amtrak from Seattle to Vancouver. While there is nothing particularly remarkable about the train ride, something that did pop out at me again was how I could use those low gear brakes. I was riding backward, so I engaged low gear and when the train would slow down or stop, I stayed put. When it started up, the acceleration was slow enough that I didn’t roll forward, so it was nice to have the mobility without having to constantly put on and release the wheel brakes.
Once in Vancouver we used a rear entry wheelchair accessible taxi to get to the hotel. Nothing exceptional happened during the ride and the hotel experience was as I expected. I used the low gear in one of the halls that had an aggravating carpet and wouldn’t you know the wheelchair accessible room was at the end of the hall from the elevator!
The next day we took another accessible van ride to the port to board the Serenade. Vancouver has a nice terminal and the ramps, while a little steeper than 12:1, were no match for the low gear on the Magicwheels. Once on board – head for the bar!
The ship offered no barriers for me. It was a marvel of marine engineering. There were the usual carpet issues, a few door thresholds I had to hop over, and some ramps to be negotiated. Again, I operated mostly in the 1:1 mode until my arms or shoulders told me that it was time for a rest, so I shifted into low gear and pressed on. In our suite I found a small ramp that lead out to our balcony. Again, I had to work the ramp, and get over the tracks for the sliding water tight door. This door was very heavy, and even with the normal wheel brakes, I slipped opposite the direction I tried to push the door closed and latch it. But when I put the Magicwheels in low gear that problem went away. I have several pictures that try to illustrate that feat.
I did not get off the ship as much on this trip because the weather in Alaska at this time of year is very iffy. I did, however, get off at Skagway so I could make the trip on the White Pass and Yukon narrow gage railway up to White Pass. Additionally, I HAD to make a special effort at Juneau, because one just has to go to the Red Dog Saloon! I have some pictures of me negotiating the ramp from the dock up to the street level. Again, the second gear was very useful and allowed me to make my way alone.
The next stop I left the ship for was, of all places, Seattle! We needed more dog food for Marlaina’s guide dog, so off I went, down the incline from hell at pier 30! It is not that incline is so steep, but it is a very long ride. It’s fun to go down, but it is a very long way back up. I have attempted to get pictures of this ramp to give an idea of its length. Also, it is useful to note that I have climbed this ramp unassisted with standard wheels, and this time with the Magicwheels. There is no comparison between the two experiences. This time around it was painless!
One thing that I had to get used to is that with a 2:1 ratio, I was going twice as slow and with twice as many repetitions as before. I had to settle down and just treat myself as an 18 wheeler going up hill. I won’t get there as fast, but I’ll get there in good shape. I had a tendency to try to speed up and the repetitive action on my arms and shoulders started to bother me, but when I slowed down, things were back to normal again.
So after taking a lot of teasing from the security people in the port about the eight pound bag of dog food on my lap, I made my way back up to the ship’s entrance with no assistance and in a much better state than when I had climb it with regular wheels.
For me, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. My impression about these wheels is that if one is mobile and realizes that it takes some adapting to get used to their operation, the wheels are a great solution. If one is fixed in their ways and is not particularly mobile, then they will probably not solve many problems. I find them to be a great compromise between the need for assistance and the need to be able to keep my upper body in condition. Further, I believe that they are well enough constructed that they should last a long time without maintenance, something that most other wheels (other than cast wheels) can claim. Finally, the staff at Magicwheels is extraordinarily helpful. They happily fielded my questions and helped me understand the techniques needed to make my transition to the wheels smooth. I am very pleased with the wheels and look forward to many years of use.
Gary E. Lieberg
C6-C7 incomplete – 20 years in a wheelchair
October 24, 2007