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When Should You Discard A PFD?

Mark Armstrong
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If you’re new to watersports or even if you’re not, you may have asked yourself, do PFDs expire? With the various types of life jackets on the market, there can be different answers to this question.

But to give you a better idea of how and why you might need to replace your PFD at some stage, we have put together some information that might help.

When Should You Discard A PFD?Pin

​Two Main Types Of Life Jacket

Inflatable PFD

Inflatable life jackets can be a popular choice for a range of water activities because of their often more compact designs. They can be easier to move in and can be more comfortable.

Inflatable PFDs differ from standard foam ones in that they usually feature a carbon dioxide cartridge that fills the life vest with air when you’re in the water. This can be done either manually or automatically, depending on the type of inflatable PFD you have.

The air or CO2 from the cartridge is what provides the PFD with buoyancy, so they generally need to be inflated for them to work as intended.

​Foam-Filled PFDs

Foam-filled PFDs are probably what you think of when you think of a standard life jacket. This type of PFD tends to be made using a closed cell foam. The foam contains air, which is trapped within the material and it is this air that helps to give the foam its ability to float.

Foam-filled PFDs are generally buoyant by nature, compared to inflatable ones which need to be inflated in order to become buoyant. This means that foam life jackets can be suitable for children and adults as they are designed to be low maintenance and keep you afloat with minimal effort.

The expiry date on a life jacket may not always be clear, except in the case of an inflatable PFD which should have an expiration date printed on the gas cartridge. If your PFD has reached the end of its life span, it must be discarded.

​Do Life Jackets Expire?

As with most fabrics, the quality of the material can deteriorate over time. In the case of life jackets, the materials will likely deteriorate more quickly the more often they’re used or if they are not well looked after.

Generally, foam life jackets have a 10 year lifespan. This includes PFDs for leisure purposes. Life jackets for commercial use will usually need to be replaced more frequently.

With inflatable life jackets, you will often find that the air cartridge has an expiration date printed on the side.

The length of time you will get out of your cartridge will vary but will often be around 1 to 3 years. But you should check the cartridge regularly to make sure there is no damage or corrosion that could affect its performance.

When Should You Discard A PFD?

  • If it is no longer buoyant
  • If there are any rips or abrasions on the material
  • ​Damage to the buckles or strap webbing
  • ​If the materials have faded or suffered UV damage
  • If the air cartridge has expired
  • ​Frequently exposed to extreme temperatures through usage or poor storage
  • ​If the fabric is loose around the foam in your life vest
​Video: How ​To ​Check ​Your PFD ​Health

​How Can You Test Your PFD?

​Check The Buoyancy

Making sure your PFD will still provide you with additional buoyancy can be important before you head out on the water. One way you can test this is by wearing it in a swimming pool or calm water that’s safe.

Wear your foam filled PFD as you would normally wear it and try to float in the pool. If the life vest is working properly, you should be able to float easily and your head and chin should be kept out of the water. The life jacket should also not move around while you’re wearing it or rise above your shoulders.

​Check The CO2 Tank

If you have an inflatable PFD then it’s important to check the gas cylinder before you head out to make sure it’s not beyond its expiration date and that it’s not empty.

If you have inflated the life vest you will likely need to replace the cartridge with a new one and make sure it’s properly connected to the mechanism that enables it to inflate the PFD.

It’s also recommended that you replace the cartridge or cylinder if it looks damaged, for example with rust.

​Check The Straps

The straps that you use to secure your life jacket should be checked before each use. Straps generally go through a lot of wear and tear and can be susceptible to damage.

You can test them by visually inspecting the straps for any fraying or weakening, particularly around the shoulders or waist. Another way to test the straps is to pull sharply on them to make sure they can handle additional pressure.

What Are The Implications Of Using A Damaged PFD?

It’s Dangerous 

A damaged PFD can be dangerous. This is because it may not be able to perform as expected if any part of it is damaged, which could mean it might not save your life. 

Straps or buckles that have become loose or worn may not be secure enough to keep the personal flotation device fitted to your body in an emergency. 

Exterior fabric that has worn away, torn, or has been weakened by water conditions and weather can also affect how the PFD performs. If the shell fabric of the PFD is not in good condition, the PFD may fail and the straps may come off because the material is too weak. 

PFD foam deterioration affects the buoyancy of the life jacket, so it may not be sufficient to keep you afloat when you need it. The foam will eventually lose its buoyancy over time. 

Damaged PFDs Do Not Meet USCG Boating Regulations

As well as being important for safety, a PFD in good condition is required by the US Coast Guard as part of their boating regulations. 

So if your PFD is damaged it won’t be considered acceptable by the USCG and you could be issued with a fine for the violation. 

PFDs need to be in a good, serviceable condition and fit correctly to meet the requirements for the USCG laws on life jackets.

What Regulations Are There Concerning PFD Replacement?

There are no known regulations on when you should replace a PFD. While personal flotation devices will all need to be replaced eventually, some may need replacing sooner than others. 

For example, if you wear your PFD often and it’s frequently exposed to the sun and hot temperatures, you may find it won’t last as long as a PFD that’s worn less often or in less extreme conditions.

It’s up to you to check your personal flotation device for any damage. Zips, buckles, webbing, fabric, and foam can all be susceptible to wear and tear. 

If any component of your PFD shows signs of wear, this can be a good indicator that it’s time to replace the PFD.

You could perform a float test for PFD buoyancy. This can help you decide if it’s time to replace the PFD, as it can simulate the effectiveness of the PFD in an emergency. 

However, remember when you’re testing the buoyancy of the PFD in calm waters, this may not be an accurate representation of how the PFD might perform in other water conditions if you do get into difficulty.

I’d recommend you also perform a visual check of the PFD as well as float test.

Discarding PFDs: Frequently Asked Questions

What Causes A PFD To Wear Out Over Time?

Exposure to sunlight, frequent use, and saltwater can degrade a PFD’s (Personal Flotation Device) materials.

Over time, these factors can lead to reduced buoyancy and compromised integrity, rendering the PFD less effective.

Regular checks for signs of wear and tear ensure safety.

Where Can I Dispose Of My Old PFD Responsibly?

Check with your local waste management or recycling center, as many life jackets can be recycled.

Some places also offer trade-in services, like in California, where you can trade-in your outgrown or worn PFD for a new life jacket.

How Often Should A PFD Be Inspected?

You should inspect your PFD annually at a minimum.

But it’s a good idea to inspect it every month or so during the peak paddling season, especially if you kayak frequently. 

How Do Changes In PFD Color Indicate Need For Replacement?

The color of the fabric on your PFD can become faded over time.

A faded PFD indicates UV damage, which could mean the fabric has weakened and the structural integrity of the PFD could be affected. 

Can I Repair My PFD Instead Of Discarding It?

I generally don’t advise repairing a PFD if it’s torn or damaged in any way. It’s always best to replace it as a repair can affect its performance and its life-saving qualities.

However, you could repair the fabric using a fabric patch or some tape if you damage the PFD while you’re midway through an adventure.

This could tide you over till you’re safely back on solid ground.

​Closing Thoughts

A life jacket can be an essential life saving accessory for watersports but if its components are beyond their expiration date then it may not be able to do its job.

Remember to check your PFD regularly for signs of wear and tear and if you have an inflatable one remember to also check the expiry date on the air cylinder.

Look after your life jacket and it should look after you, but eventually you will probably need to replace it. Let us know your thoughts on this and help others stay safe on the water by sharing this with them.

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