My Tilite ZRA Series 2 – One Year After Review

My first wheelchair was an Everest & Jennings. At RM1,800, it cost as much as a Honda C70 motorcycle then. It was foldable with full reclining back, removable full support headrest, detachable armrests, and removable and elevating legrests. It was heavy like a tank and handled like one. My weak hands made it even more difficult to propel. I yearned for a smaller and lighter wheelchair.

Over the next two decades, I went through three standard folding wheelchairs with detachable armrest and footrests. In between that, I also had an Etac, a rigid frame wheelchair that was one size too small. I moved on to my first customised folding wheelchair in 2007. The Max Pleasure Synergy set me back more than RM5,000. Unfortunately, the axle broke just after three years.

Fed up with having to repair broken axles and other parts of wheelchair frames every now and then, I decided that I wanted a rigid wheelchair. With less moving parts, there are less probabilities of parts breaking down. Compared with folding wheelchairs, a rigid wheelchair has less flex of the frame. This translates to a more efficient push. I narrowed the search down to the Tilite ZRA Series 2 which is an ultralight rigid titanium wheelchair. As it would be custom-built, precise measurements were needed. It was also to be the most expensive I had ever paid for a wheelchair.

I did extensive research on getting the right measurements and accessories, mostly at the CareCure Community, a forum for people living with spinal cord injury. After an exhaustive two-month of reading up on the experience of people using similar wheelchairs, asking questions and getting good advice and suggestions, I felt that I was ready and placed my order with Bike-On, an online store dealing in wheelchairs and handcycles.

Computer aided design printout of my Tilite ZRA Series 2 wheelchair
CAD of my Tilite ZRA Series 2 wheelchair.

The following are the final measurements for the wheelchair:

Rear seat width: 16″ (no taper)
Seat depth: 17″
Front seat height: 19″
Rear seat height: 15.5″
Cushion: Supracor Stimulite Sport
Front frame angle: 85 degrees
Seat to footrest: 15.5”
Footrest: Titanium with flat ABS cover, 4″ narrow than rear seat width (1.5″ taper)
Seat back type: Folding titanium adjustable height that locks when folded
Tishaft back release bars: Titanium
Integrated push handles
Seat back: Medium folding set at 16″ + 4″ deep rigidizer bar
Seat back angle: 95 degrees
Centre of gravity: 2″
Rear wheel spacing: 1″
Camber: 2 degrees (Titanium)
Front casters: 5″ x 1″ plastic wheels with poly tires
Front forks: Tilite standard
Rear wheel: 24″ Spinergy Spox (black)
Rear wheel tires: Schwalbe Marathon Plus Evolution
Axel: Stainless steel quick release
Handrims: Aluminium, long tab
Wheel locks: Uni Locks, pull to lock
Back upholstery: Black, tension adjustable by straps
Seat upholstery: Tension adjustable bolt-on
Side guards: Aluminium rigid removable
Armrests: Swing away flip-back tubular

Tilite ZRA Series 2
Tilite ZRA Series 2 ultralight titanium Wheelchair.

I have used the Tilite ZRA Series 2 for slightly more than one year now. The measurements for the wheelchair were almost perfect and needed no adjustment when I took delivery of it. Credit must certainly go to the members of Care Cure Community Forum who gave valuable feedback and comments. Having said that, I also understand better now how the wheelchair can be further fine tuned for an even better fit.

My posture has improved termendously. My feet sit flat on the footrest although I now would prefer the footrest to be positioned further forward at 80 degrees instead of the current 85 degrees. Being tucked in like that is causing poor circulation and edema of the feet. Otherwise, the positioning of my legs and feet have reduced occurrences of spasms. (SCI_OTR has since advised that increasing the seat depth from 17″ to 18″ while maintaining the front angle at 85 degrees would give the same result of having my feet further forward as an 80 degree front agle.)

The folding backrest had some play to it when upright. The locking stud on the left kept coming loose and had to be tightened often. One of the pins in the folding mechanism also kept slipping out. This was a known fault of the ZRA Series 2. Tilite redesigned the mechanism to resolve the issues. I requested for a replacement through Bike-On. It was delivered via UPS several weeks later. A big thumbs up to Tilite and Bike-On for this painless process.

The first few months using the Tilite standard forks and plastic front casters gave me a bumpy and uncomfortable ride. I could even feel the bumps while rolling across the thin gaps of tiled floors. The ride became significantly smoother after the forks and casters were replaced with Frog Legs Uni Tines and aluminium Epic soft roll casters. Besides, hair that used to get wound round the axles were drastically reduced.

Other than the position of the footrest that I would like changed, I am also considering a rigid backrest, rigid seat pan and the Q-Grip handrims. The rigid backrest and seat pan could provide better support and at the same time further improve my posture. However, I need to add an extra inch to the seat depth to accommodate the rigid backrest which means I cannot install it on my current wheelchair. The Q-Grip handrims are coated with non-slip neoprene. This will allow me to push the wheelchair more efficiently which my weak hands cannot do with the current anodised handrims. I plan to have these upgrades for my next wheelchair.

All said, I have no regret whatsoever in forking out the amount I paid for the Tilite ZRA Series 2, it being the most important piece of equipment for my mobility and independence. In fact, I wished I had gotten one earlier. I have nothing but praises for the ZRA for its full adjustability, not that I have had the need to adjust anything. The best thing about this wheelchair is that I look good in it. This is my best wheelchair yet and the rigid frame is the only way for me now.

FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment In Malaysia

The wheelchair rolls well on smooth surfaces. Roads, pavements, grass and pebbled paths is another story. The small front caster can easily get caught between bumps and cracks. Apart from making it difficult to push, they make rides bumpy which in turn causes spasms of the legs. Traversing these surfaces could quickly damage the wheelchair as well. I avoid such terrains as much as possible. For someone who likes the great outdoors, it is indeed a difficult choice for me to make.

This is the same dilemma wheelchair users all over face when we want to go off the beaten path, until the FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment was invented, that is. When I ordered the Tilite ZRA Series 2, I got the FreeWheel shipped together with the wheelchair to save on freight charges. With the FreeWheel hooked to the footrest, going across grassy fields or sandy beaches became a breeze. This practical mechanism is the brainchild of Pat Dougherty, a wheelchair user himself, who saw the need for an easier way to get the wheelchair across challenging terrains.

FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment in Gurney Drive, Penang, Malaysia
Peter Tan with Tilite ZRA Series 2 and the FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment in Gurney Drive, Penang, Malaysia.
Photo by Wuan.

The FreeWheel’s design is simple and ingenious. It consists of a 12.5 inch wheel attached to a fork. Attaching the Freewheel to the wheelchair is easy once the clamp is properly adjusted to fit the footrest. Swing the wheel out and place the clamp over the footrest. Pull the lever back and the FreeWheel is securely clamped to the footrest. Push the wheelchair forward to turn the wheel back. This lifts the front casters one inch off the ground. And all is good to go!

FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment in Gurney Drive, Penang, Malaysia
Closer view of Peter Tan with Tilite ZRA Series 2 and the FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment.
Photo by Wuan.

On my recent trip to Penang, I used the Freewheel at Gurney Drive, the Botanical Gardens and several other places. The ride was certainly smoother even over rough roads and paved walkways. Moving around was a joy. In tight spaces like at the food courts, I simply unclamped the FreeWheel, stored it by attaching it to the perch fastened to the back rigidizer bar. With the FreeWheel out of the way, I manuevered around crowds with ease. With the FreeWheel, I do not have to think twice about where I can go now. Using the wheelchair when I am out and about has become less inconvenient. Truly, the FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment is the best thing since sliced bread for wheelchair users. Thanks, Pat, for a wonderful invention.

Wheelchair Users – What Price Independence?

Wheelchairs are like shoes. One size does not fit all. A customised chair makes a lot of difference to the person using it. My first made-to-measure aluminium chair was a folding Japanese-made Max Pleasure Synergy that costs RM5,700 in 2007. I enjoyed a great deal of independence from it. The small footprint made it very maneuvreable. My posture improved tremendously; I was no longer slouching. For the first time in two decades, I actually looked good in a wheelchair.

Unfortunately, the crossbrace fractured after just three years of moderate use. The crossbrace is the X-shaped mechanism that allows the chair to be folded. I have also had the same issue with the crossbraces of two other steel wheelchairs that I used previously. Both were standard off-the-shelf wheelchairs. They were heavy, difficult to push and fitted me badly.

A custom-made wheelchair takes many aspects of the user’s body and needs into account. The width, depth and height of seat from floor all make a difference; so are the sizes of the rear wheels and front casters. One can choose either a folding or rigid chair. A folding chair takes up less space when folded and is easy to store in the car boot. It is also heavier because of the crossbrace. The rigid chair is lighter because it does not have a crossbrace. The rigid wheelchair has less flex of the frame thereby translating to more energy efficient propulsion.

The current wheelchair that I am using is the Tilite ZRA Series 2. This is a rigid wheelchair with its main frame constructed from aerospace-grade titanium tubes. Titanium has better strength-to-weight ratio compared to other materials used for making wheelchairs. It also does not rust and corrode. That makes it durable, an important factor for something that I am totally dependent on for my mobility.

This wheelchair is also twice as expensive. The costliest part is the titanium frame, followed by the rear wheels, shipping and then the cushion. Friends, non-disabled people and wheelchair users as well, asked me why I was willing to cough up so much for a few titanium tubes on wheels when I could have bought another aluminium chair for only half of what I paid or the Tilite ZRA.

In getting a wheelchair, especially for long-term users, the decision cannot be based solely on cost comparison alone. There are other factors to consider like durability and functionality of the wheelchair. The most important factor to consider, however, is the implication from pushing a heavy wheelchair ten or twenty years down the road. The repetitive actions of propelling the wheelchair has been proven to wear out the shoulders in the long run.

An injured shoulder will rob me of my mobility and independence. Should that happen, I may have to depend on someone to help me with my activites of daily living for a period of time pre and post-surgery. The question is do I scrimp on cheaper wheelchairs now and suffer the consequences in the later years or do I take preventive measures now to preserve whatever functions I still have for as long as possible?

For me, the answer is simple: An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. The RM13,000 I paid for the Tilite ZRA Series 2 and cushion is a necessary expenditure albeit a steep one. It is justifiable nonetheless. I am already living with a host of spinal cord injury-related health issues, many I could not have prevented even if I had wanted to. My shoulders I can. This wheelchair is the gift to myself for sustaining a better quality of life in the long term. In that sense, it is worth every sen I paid for it.