When kayaking, or participating in any deep water activities, it is crucially important that you have a functioning personal flotation device (PFD) every time you are out. Making sure the PFD is not only the right one for you, but still in good condition is also important because poor quality PDFs can end up doing very little to keep you safe. If you are in doubt of how to care for your PFD or what tests need to be done to keep you safe, you should hold off on your next trip until you have completed all the steps.
What are PFDs?
PFDs are personal flotation devices that provide buoyancy to keep your head above water. While a lot of people may not think it is necessary to wear a PFD on calm waters or during short outings, things can go wrong in any situation and you need to make sure you are protected. Whether you are an adult, child or a pet, everyone needs to be ready for the worst. There are a variety of factors that affect the PFD’s effectiveness including your weight, the fit of the PFD, how long you’ve had it, and how you take care of it when not being used.
Are PFDs different from lifejackets?
While the terms are used interchangeably, there is a difference between a lifejacket and a PFD. Some of the key differences you should understand are the purpose they serve, their limitations and which scenarios require which product. The best lifejackets are designed to keep an unconscious person face up so they can breathe. PFDs on the other hand are made to keep you afloat in calmer scenarios when you are conscious. This makes them perfect for casual trips and kayaking on calm to moderate waters. They also have less buoyancy than the lifejacket, which makes them lighter and easier to move around in and much more comfortable to wear. A big reason as to why the PFD is more comfortable is because the buoyancy material is in the back of the vest rather than the front, like life jackets do. While a lifejacket is better for children, PFDs are ideal for kayaking adults and fishing kayakers because they allow for greater motion and comfort when paddling. If you have any issues discerning between the two you can always ask someone in the shop for help.
What is the lifespan of the average PFD?
While there is no set expiration date for PFDs, there is a general rule that a PFD typically needs to be changed every ten years. If the PFD is not properly maintained or is showing signs of wear it will need to be switched out sooner. The biggest thing to remember is that a PFD is worn to save your life when things go wrong. When there is a need for the PFD you don’t want to have to worry about it not performing well enough. The PFD needs to do a very basic but very important job, and if there is any doubt in your mind that yours may not be able to handle that, you need to get a new one.
What shortens the lifespan of your PFD?
Your PFD is quite literally a life saver and should be treated as such. To keep is in good condition you need to treat it with respect and plan what you do with it more carefully. Even though it may be far more convenient to toss the PFD in a spare room or leave it in the trunk of your car, you need to store it properly and handle it appropriately to prevent issues. Often times you can read the directions that manufacturers attach to the PFD or check out their website to see exactly what they recommend for storage and care. If this isn’t available for you, you can ask your local shops or check online forums. When you have no specifics for the make of PFD you have, you should follow the basic rules and keep an eye out for any signs of trouble.
What are the signs of PFD wear out?
There are some obvious ways to tell that your PDF is wearing out. Rips and tears in the fabric are always a bad sign because it shows not only obvious damage, but it can hint to issues with the inner material as well. You want the foam material inside, which provides the buoyancy aspect that your life depends on, should always feel sturdy and relatively firm. If the foam begins to feel soggy it is time to get a new PFD. You should also be able to distinguish what all the labels on the PFD are. If any of these things occur, regardless of how old or new your PFD is, you need to replace it.
Is there a difference with inflatable PFDs?
With inflatable PFDs there is no foam, but instead the inside is filled with CO2. To keep the PFD running smoothly and safely you need pay close attention to the cartridges and their indicators. Typically the cartridges will show green or red indicating what is left in the cartridge. Green means there is still enough in there to use your PFD safely, while red means you need to either replace the cartridges or buy a new one depending on how long you’ve had it. Before every outing you should check the cartridge indicator and never go out when the indicator shows red.
The inflatable style of PFD also requires more maintenance than the foam filled version because of the air chamber design. When you enter the water with your inflatable PFD the air chambers fill up and inflate. Because of this design, you will have to pay more attention to cleaning and storage to make sure there are no issues with your vest.
What happens during PFD inspections and maintenance?
There are a variety of businesses and companies that you can go to in order to get your PFD inspected and maintained. You can call around or look online to find a place near you that can do your PFD inspection. There are three different inspections you can have performed.
- Before every use: A visual inspection should always be done right before using it. This doesn’t require a professional, but you can always have them check it out if you have any doubts. All closures need to be secure and working perfectly and all the seams need to be secure. You should look for clear physical damage like rips, tears, holes, twisting or seams coming undone but there are a few other things you may need a professional to help you with. Especially with inflatable PFDs you need to be able discern how much CO2 is left in your cartridges and if you will have enough for your trip. Inflation dust caps must be stowed and the inflator pull tab should be visibly on the outside for easy access.
- Every two months: Even if you have just done a visual exam, you need to have your PDF undergo three different tests every two months. If you are having any difficulty with them you should take your PFD in and have the tests done by a professional.
- The Oral Inflation Valve Test: This test entails fully inflating the PFD via the oral inflator and then holding the valve under water. If you see bubbles you will need to deflate it and re-inflate. If the bubbles are still showing up this can be a sign that there is an issue with the valve’s seal.
- The Leak Test: For this test you will need to once again inflate the PFD and then you must let it sit, fully inflated, for 16 hours. After 16 hours, if the PFD has lost any of its firmness there is a leak somewhere in your PFD. This means it will have to be replaced.
- The Bobbin Inspection and Replacement: For many inflatable PFDs there will be a bobbin activation system that will need to be tested. If you have any difficulty understanding whether or not your PFD involves bobbins you can look at the manual, online or ask your local shop. The bobbin test needs to be done by a professional as it involves a yellow capsule with white powder inside of it being used to activate the pin that punctures your CO2 cylinders and causes your PFD to inflate. Seeing if the capsule can create the inflation and still stay uncompromised will show if anything is wrong with the system.
- Once a year: You need to pick a date to be your designated annual inspection date. On this day you will need to perform a visual inspection, oral inflation valve test and a leak test. You should also clean your PFD, look for any corrosion and replace the corrosive parts. If your PFD passes all of these tests without issue you should write the date on the PFD service record label in permanent marker. If your PFD doesn’t pass these test you will need to buy a new one.
Can I get my PFD serviced?
To get your lifejacket or PFD serviced you will meet a few basic requirements. Firstly, the PFD must be free of all tears, rips or any other obvious damage. The closures used on the PFD, whether they be zipper, buckets, or something else, have to be able to secure you in completely without issues of any kind. The foam must be in the vest and not soggy feeling, and inflatables need CO2 levels in the green. Lifejackets need all of these things as well as Coast Guard approval. Even if only one of these qualifications is not met you will have to get a new PFD.
How do I prolong the life of my PFD?
–Storage: When trying to find the right place to store your PFD you should consider the conditions of the area and what share that space with your PFD. Things that can potentially pierce or tear your PFD should not be stored in the same location. Even if it may not be overly obvious if something in the storage space could do harm to your PFD, you should try to keep it up away from other items and never put in anywhere where things may fall on it or squish it. Never put things on top of your PFD, no matter how light you think they are, because this can have a negative effect on the foam inside and therefore the buoyancy on your vest and its ability to keep you safe. Your PFD should also avoid contact with strong detergents or chemicals of any kind, including gasoline.
-Climate: Moist or humid places can be a nightmare for PFD, especially ones that have not been cleaned properly. Mold and mildew thrive in these environments and it can be almost impossible to get rid of it once it starts growing. Mold poses a lot of health risks and you should never take its appearance lightly. To be safe you may need to throw out that PFD and buy a new one.
Extreme heat is also something to avoid when storing your PFD. Much like your kayak, you should never have your PFD in direct sunlight more than you need to. UV rays can cause problems in how durable the material keeping you safe is and can compromise the effectiveness of your vest. Extreme heat can also warp the foam inside the vest and cause the buoyancy to be redistributed improperly and make your PFD unable to do as it was designed.
A good rule of thumb when looking for a place to store your PFD is to pick places that are not subject to extreme temperature changes and out of direct sunlight. A closet in your home that is organized enough to have your PFD in there is optimal but you can decide what is best based on your individual home. When in doubt, contact local shops or check out forum suggestions.
– Handling: You should never put pressure on your PFD by standing or kneeling on it. This is because you change the placement of the foam and put additional wear on it, which decrease the effectiveness of your PFD an the buoyancy design. The goal is to keep your PFD in the same condition as it first arrived in and the form and feel of the foam should be almost identical. You should also avoid bending or folding your PFD because it can also shorten your PFD’s lifespan.
– Use: PFD should always be worn when kayaking or doing any water activities. But they should not be worn when you are not in the water. By all means, put them on when on the land before getting into your kayak, do it. But wearing it in the car, around the house, or for purposes it is not designed for, all add to the possibility of wear and tear and needing to replace your PFD.
– Cleaning: While it may not seem tremendously important, cleaning your PFD properly is a huge deal to help keep it in great shape to have it in use for the full ten years. The biggest reason for this is that a clean PFD maintains its serviceability much better than an uncleaned one.
To clean your PFD you should always use cold water and mild strength soaps that are environmentally friendly . Make sure to wipe down both the inside and the outside, all cracks, straps and inside the buckles. You shouldn’t need to scrub to the point of exhaustion, but you should put in more effort than a casual wipe down so you know you have properly cleaned it. It is recommended that you use a sponge and a soft bristle brush to get the best possible clean. You need to rinse your PFD thoroughly so all soap is removed and then allow it to air dry. Don’t hang it to dry next to heating sources or in direct sunlight, Never dry clean or tumble dry your PFD because this compromises the integrity of the buoyancy foam inside your vest. The PFD should be totally and completely dry before putting it away so mold and mildew don’t have an opportunity to grow.