This article gives you essential information to check when you are considering the purchase of a portable oxygen concentrator.
A portable oxygen concentrator (POC) is a device that provides oxygen therapy and that is smaller, lighter-weight, and more portable than a stationary concentrator. Portable oxygen concentrators are often considered an alternative to oxygen tanks. Portable oxygen concentrators (POCs) offer many advantages to people on supplemental oxygen.
POC Advantages and Limitations
Oxygen tanks lack some characteristics that make portable oxygen concentrators (POC) desirable:
- POCs do not have to be refilled
- POCs do not leak
- POCs are easy to transport and carry
- POCs are allowed for air travel
Portable oxygen concentrators have some limitations also:
- POCs do not provide the level of oxygen flow that some patients need
- POCs need power (electrical or battery) to operate
- POC are expensive to buy and can be expensive to repair
Will it satisfy your oxygen requirements?
Portable oxygen concentrators are great devices, if they deliver the amount of oxygen that you need. But there is a lot of confusion around the difference between the setting numbers on a POC and the liters per minute of oxygen that your doctor prescribed. Yes, there are numbers on the dial of a POC that say 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Do not confuse those settings with liters per minute (LPM). Numbers on the POC are manufacturers’ settings and do not mean liters per minute. Advertising often fails to mention this. You may also find salespeople and technicians who are unaware or fail to mention this. Do not be misled by people or advertising that suggests that the number settings on a POC mean liters per minute.
Let me say that again. Setting level numbers on a POC are not liters per minute!
In the tradeoff to become lightweight, POCs give up the capacity for delivering higher flows of oxygen. Currently, most POCs that are light enough to carry (under 8 pounds) deliver a maximum flow of 1.25 – 1.5 LPM. If you often need more oxygen than that, you may get very limited use out of a small, lightweight POC.
Look at the maximum oxygen output (liters per minute) of the models you are considering. Remember that the maximum output of a POC won’t be what you always get. The maximum output will only be delivered at the highest setting. Using a higher setting should give you more oxygen, but can reduce the POC’s battery life.
There are currently a few portable oxygen concentrators that can deliver up to 3 LPM, but they weigh between 16 – 20 pounds. They are considered “portable” because they can be pulled on wheels, run on batteries, and can be used on most airplanes.
The best way to understand how much oxygen a POC can provide is to consult the POC Comparison Chart from runningonair.net.
Does it offer pulse flow, continuous flow, or both?
Portable oxygen concentrators can deliver oxygen to the user in two ways, continuous flow or pulse flow (also called pulse dose). Continuous flow is when oxygen is delivered in a steady stream and is not affected by your breathing rate. Pulse flow delivers oxygen only when you inhale, which triggers the concentrator to deliver a burst of oxygen (called a bolus).
Pulse dose delivery offers the benefit of conserving oxygen – so that oxygen is not wasted between each breath. When using pulse delivery, you must breathe deeply enough to trigger the concentrator to deliver a bolus.
You need to know that a device using pulse delivery changes the amount of oxygen in each bolus to deliver a specific amount each minute. If you have a higher-than-normal respiratory rate (more than 12-18 breaths per minute) the amount of oxygen delivered to you with each breath is lowered. If your breathing is very shallow or you have a high respiratory rate, you may find that continuous flow works better for you. As with all questions, talk with your doctor or a healthcare provider to determine your needs.
For a more detailed explanation of the difference between pulse and continuous flow, read this Pulse v Continuous Flow ResMed fact sheet.
Is it a medical device that requires a prescription?
A portable oxygen concentrator is a medical device and, in the US, it must be prescribed by a medical doctor or specialist. A reputable seller will require a copy of your medical prescription for oxygen.
There are some POCs sold online that are NOT FDA-cleared or approved medical devices. Medpage Today published a warning about the purchase of these devices.
Doctors, the FDA, and other health organizations warn lung disease patients not to buy or use any oxygen or oxygen equipment that can be purchased without a prescription. These non-medical products may be called over-the-counter oxygen, canned oxygen, or oxygen canisters. Over-the-counter oxygen and oxygen delivery devices are sometimes sold online, in pharmacies, or in drug stores at a much lower cost than the ones that require a prescription. The over-the-counter devices have not had FDA testing for safety and effectiveness. In a small study, the COPD Foundation has shown that most of these devices are ineffective for someone with lung disease.
Is it new or reconditioned?
New portable oxygen concentrators (POCs) can be expensive between $1500 and $3500 USD as of this writing. Buying used devices is one way to save money. Used portable oxygen concentrators have been owned and used previously by another oxygen patient.
Beware of the risks of a used POC. You may see a well-intentioned family member or patient offer a used POC on sales forums or at a garage sale. A neighbor recently offered us her father’s POC, which had been stored in her attic for some time. Because we did not know how it was maintained or its condition, we decided not to use it. A POC that has a faulty part or dirty filters may not deliver oxygen that is impurity-free. And even if there isn’t an issue with its oxygen quality, a used POC may not function reliable and efficiently.
A refurbished POC is different than a used one and is a safer choice. Refurbishing includes major repairs, replacement of critical parts that concentrate the oxygen, and a thorough cleaning. A refurbished POC may be available at a lower cost than a brand-new one. Some refurbished POCs have been sent back to the manufacturer; others are refurbished in certified repair centers. Some may even provide service warranties.
Will the battery life satisfy your needs?
Most people purchase a POC to allow them to go out socially, travel by air or car, and be outdoors. Consider your habits and desires. How long can you expect one fully charged battery to last? Manufacturers will often give you the best-case estimate for battery life. Individual results can vary. Can you purchase a second battery? If so, this will extend your usage, but at an added cost. Can the POC be plugged in while being used in a car or at home? If so, this may help you get longer usage.
What additional costs might you face?
Some POCs contain a filter that needs regular cleaning to prevent it from becoming clogged with dust or microparticles. Consult the manufacturer’s information or reviews before you buy. Look for information on how often filters should be cleaned and also on the cost of replacement filters, if needed.
Most POCs need to be serviced periodically. Sometimes parts may need to be replaced. POCs are complex machinery and the replacement parts and repairs can be expensive. For example, as of Sept. 2023, the cost of two replacement columns for an Inogen 3, 4, or 5 model is listed at USD 129. (These columns remove most of the nitrogen from air so the POC can deliver purer oxygen.) Again, check the manufacturer’s website. It may list prices for replacement parts. You may also find estimates for periodic servicing and repairs.
Does it have a warranty?
New devices will likely come with some type of manufacturer’s warranty. Read the fine print to learn what it covers and how long it lasts. In some cases, you may be able to purchase a longer warranty. Consider whether this would be cost-effective. Some warranties cover essentially all costs other than battery replacements. Other warranties are more limited. Either might save you money and assure you that the device is backed by the company.Is it approved for commercial flight?
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration approves POCs for onboard use if they meet certain acceptance criteria and if they are labeled as meeting the requirements for commercial flying. Individual airlines may have their unique set of requirements for bringing and using your POC on their flight. If you regularly fly the same airline, it may be worth checking their website or making a phone call to be sure you purchase a POC model they approve. If you are outside the US, consult your governing organization or airlines for a list of approved POCs.
When considering different POCs and their capacity to deliver oxygen, remember that at a higher altitude, you may require more supplemental oxygen than you do at your home altitude.
How much does it weigh?
Weight is a consideration, especially if the exertion of carrying a POC increases your need for supplemental oxygen. We would, of course, like the lightest, quietest, POC that meets our oxygen requirements. Realize that as size and weight get smaller, there might be a trade-off in the amount of oxygen that a POC can provide.
How noisy is it?
Oxygen concentrators make noise. After all, they are machines with a motor. They may also have built-in low battery and other alarms. Consider the type of environments where you may want to use your POC. Will the noise make you feel like you are causing a disturbance during a church service, attending a funeral, dining in a quiet restaurant, or attending a movie? Some POCs are noisier than others. The manufacturer’s documents should list the noise level in decibels. It is a good practice to listen to one before you buy if you can.
In the Checklist, we have listed these 10 things to consider with room for you to make notes as you research portable oxygen concentrators.
POCs are great devices and can keep you active and connected socially, which is better for your overall health and outlook. They are ideal for keeping you active and involved in life. They can be expensive and there are differences in the quality of these devices. Use the checklist to fully research your options. Then, go out and enjoy every day – living your best life.
More POC articles
POC Comparison Chart from runningonair.net