Portable air compressors are essential for wheelchair use
Thanks to a very pragmatic gift request, I always have air in my tires.
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I have a habit of asking for disability-related gifts. One year, for Christmas, it was an in-car back massager to soothe my aching muscles while driving. The next, starter items for my wheelchair repair kit: allen keys, a wrench set, a sturdy bag, the works. But perhaps my best ask was for a small portable air compressor.
Growing up, my parents enrolled me in classes to do with life in a wheelchair. As I was born with cerebral palsy, they wanted me to have an early start in learning how to be independent. I learned how to crash into things without getting seriously injured, how to wheelie over small curbs, and—to my pre-teen mind’s amazement—how to take an escalator using my manual wheelchair. To this day I’ve only fallen down one once.
One of the things that I didn’t internalize during those sessions was wheelchair repair. Now, my disability affects all four limbs, but my fine motor control is not the best. For context, two of the many things I have given up hope on learning are how to use chopsticks and how to tie my shoes. As a result, growing up, I left the very finicky business of wheelchair repair to my parents or the local medical supply provider.
Even though I played wheelchair basketball competitively—an environment where knowing to fix your wheelchair is par for the course—I still didn’t know that much. But when I moved to university three hours from home, I decided that I really needed to have the tools to take care of the basics. Enter: the portable air compressor. While my specific model is no longer available, there are many on the market currently that can do what mine can, and more.
What I like
They're easy to use
Because of my trunk function, I can pump my tires while sitting in my chair if I decide to go that route. More commonly, I transfer to the ground, pop my wheels off my chair, and pump them that way. All I have to do is put the nozzle over the valve—I don’t need an adaptor as my tubes use Schrader valves rather than Presta ones—push down on the lever, and flip the switch.
When it comes to the final pressure, I’m a creature of habit and just use my thumb to test. My tubes are rated to just over 100 psi and I’m not running with higher pressure models like those used by some wheelchair basketball athletes. Basically, I don’t need the gauge to be accurate, though it seems to be even though my model is more than five years old.
They often come with a set of adaptors
Many models come with adaptors for bike tires, basketballs, car tires, and other inflatables. While it's easy enough to grab air compressor accessories from Amazon or a similar retailer—what you’re looking for with wheelchair tires is essentially a small set of bike adaptors—it is nice to have them all in one place.
Surprising no one, the included adaptor for pumping things like basketballs and footballs is what gets the most use in my life. I’ve also been known to throw in a couple of valve adaptors for when friends need them. Most newer models do include these adaptors, but make sure you choose one that does to save you the hassle of finding them separately.
They're super portable
I can fit my mini air compressor in the mesh basket of my wheelchair, and my seat is only 13”-14” across. Both the power cord and hose wind up nicely into their own compartments and this makes it easy to lend to my disabled friends. I’m the type of person to stuff my backpack so full of items that, when I stand up, my titanium chair flips over backwards, but there are no such issues with this handy contraption.
Compressors of this type are so lightweight that I have no problem holding it with one hand or putting it on my lap if that’s required. I’ve travelled across Canada with it in my luggage—mileage may vary there—and have also brought it on many a road trip. You never know when you might lose air pressure and need a little pick-me-up.
What I don’t Like
They're noisy and a little fiddly
Air compressors can be quite loud, and for those whose spasticity can’t be calmed, this would be difficult. Living in an apartment, I have to be rather selective about when I use it. Also, while the cord to the wall is quite long on my compressor, the hose is relatively short. This means that it’s not the kind of machine to use in exceedingly tight spaces.
On the first few uses I was worried about the air that gets released whenever you pull a compressor off of the valve, but after a little practice working the lever, that is no longer an issue. I can see how those with hands that are more impacted by their various disabilities might find the lever hard to operate, but it beats having to use a hand pump or try to balance yourself on a regular bike pump.
Should you buy one?
Absolutely. While my model may be difficult to find, due to advancements in technology—particularly an increase in features like being able to run off of an in-car outlet—having a portable air compressor is a must for any wheelchair living independently, whatever shape that might take for them.
Even if you need support in doing wheelchair repair, having a device that you know how to use, that’s lightweight and easy to hand off to someone else, and that you feel confident can do the job is a real gamechanger.
5 Highly rated portable air compressors
1. Kensun Portable Air Compressor
Rating: 4.4 stars
This mini portable air compressor by Kensun has a very similar feature set to mine. It's a favorite of Amazon reviewers, who say that it's easy to use.
2. Wagan EL7315 Digital Air Compressor
Rating: 3.9 stars
The Wagan EL7315 portable air compressor has an easy-to-read digital display, and it automatically stops when the correct PSI is reached. Reviewers say it's a good value and a reliable little unit.
3. AstroAI Air Compressor Tire Inflator Portable Air Pump
Rating: 4.5 stars
This portable air compressor from AstroAI features an emergency LED light, a digital display, and a long car cigarette lighter cord. The inflator will also shut itself off when the appropriate pressure is reached.
4. EPAuto 12V DC Portable Air Compressor Pump
Rating: 4.5 stars
Ringing in under $30 and with nearly 20,000 five-star reviews, this compressor is a good pick. It comes equipped with a flashlight and easy-to-read digital display, but note that it does not have a wall plug, only a cigarette lighter plug.
5. Carsun Digital Air Compressor
Rating: 4.3 stars
This is another car-adaptor-only compressor, but it might be worth considering for travel. It has auto-shut-off and an easy-to-read display. While it's nothing fancy, reviewers tend to be happy with its performance.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.