Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Life of your PFD

A question that gets asked a lot but doesn't get answered very often is "When should I retire my PFD?" It was asked of me the other day and the only answer I had I couldn't trace back to a source. What I said was retire a PFD when the color in it starts to fade. This is showing deterioration of the nylon. What this has to do with flotation I have no idea, so I started doing some research.

I started hitting the FAQs of various PFD manufacturers. I started with Astral Buoyancy since that is what I use, this is what their FAQ said:

PFDs are made of nylon fabric, buoyancy inserts (either plastic foam or Kapok) and some hardware. Over time these components may degrade or lose their structural integrity. As a general rule of thumb, we recommend that a PFD should be replaced every 5 years or after 300 days of use (whichever comes first). Also, we recommend an annual inspection of the PFD at the beginning of every season.
I think this is good solid advice. I also think this means that my PFD is dangerously close to needing to be retired.  So lets check out what some others say:

Extrasport has a little video for care and maintenance, and at the end of the video they recommend doing a flotation test at the end of the season. Simply float in your PFD and see if you notice any difference in the amount of flotation compared to previous seasons.

Stohlquist says it is all about care. Store in a cool dry place, don't place it under deck rigging (it can cause a lot of wear to the materials) and that a PFD can last from two months to 20 years! With an average life span exceeding five years. 

Kokatat didn't have anything on their website about care and maintenance of their pfd's - they did have a lot of info about care and maintenance of drysuits however! - So I sent them an email, and they said that PFD's break down over time, resulting in a loss of flotation. They also said that everyone was at Outdoor Retailer and that I could get a more technical answer in a week or so. My fault for doing this during OR!

So what does this mean? To me, it means there is no hard and fast rule, but you should be vigilant in checking your PFD for signs of wear and tear. When it is getting frayed, and discolored, when you see hardware breaking, or a loss in flotation it is time for something new. I also think a lot of this does depend on storage of your PFD. Which brings me back to Astral Buoyancy's site:

Q. How should I care for my jacket between uses?

A. Proper care and storage your jacket will help your jacket to maintain its structural integrity and buoyancy. It’s easy, here are a few tips:
If you used your PFD is salt water or water that seems especially dirty, rinse your jacket thoroughly with fresh water. (If you just used it in relatively clean fresh water, you can skip this step.)
  • Thoroughly dry your jacket after each use.
  • Store your PFD in a cool and dry place.
  • Do not keep your jacket in direct sun for prolonged periods of time.
  • Avoid unnecessary compression of the jacket, especially during storage,
  • Do not store your jacket in extreme heat.
I am guilty of storing my jacket in extreme heat. I rarely take my gear out of my car in the summer because I am paddling so frequently. I think I will have to stop doing that. Which brings me to one last PFD topic. It may seem pretty obvious but your PFD doesn't do you any good unless you are wearing it. It - surprisingly - doesn't work if it is on the deck behind you under the bungies. I think wearing a PFD is like wearing a seat belt. No one plans on getting into an accident. So be prepared. 

    1 comment:

    1. Beside looking for fading colors another way to check the material for degradation is to put an upholstery or sail needle though the material and see if you can tear it. If you can it is time to retire it.

      I had a life vest that lasted over ten years, but when it went is went all at once. The nylon started tearing all over and the flotation panels came right out.

      303 also makes a fabric protector spray that I apply once a year. Do not use a protector meant for plastic on your fabric.