Do Life Jackets Expire?

As with anything in our wonderfully consumerist society across the globe, life-jackets can deteriorate or lose buoyancy over time. However, this can depend on the type of the lifejacket and how well it is maintained.

But, if you ask for a particular expiration date on a life-jacket you will not be given one. As modern life-jackets are made of reliable and sturdy materials such as polyethylene and plastic foam inserts, they do not degrade unless miss-treated.

Historically, however, life-jackets and other PFD’s (personal floatation device) were made of materials such as cork or balsa wood. These are tree materials that are naturally buoyant as they weigh considerably less than water. Over time, these materials degrade and will not have been suitable for use after signs of mould were present.

In this article I’ll be touching on subjects such as how long PFD’s last, which one’s need the most maintenance and how long should be left before each service. But, first I’ll introduce the types of PFD.

1. A brief introduction to the types of PFD

There are 6 types of PFD that every water-lover should be aware of. Whether you
need a PFD for boating or water-skiing: there is always a need for safety.

I’ll also let you know their level of safety by providing you with their PFD rating. This
is the number of pounds of extra buoyancy given to each wearer; whereby the higher
the number, the better you’ll float!

Type I – The Off-Shore Life-jacket. PFD rating of 22.
Type II – The Nearshore Buoyant Vest. PFD rating of 15.5.
Type III – The Floatation Aid. PFD rating is 15.5.
Type IV – Throwable Devices. PFD rating ranging from 16.5 to 18.
Type V – Special Use Devices. PFD ratings ranging from 15 to 22.
Inflatable PFD’s. PFD ratings of 22 to 33.

The Type 1 is the safest life jacket as it has the highest PFD rating, doesn’t need to be
inflated, and turns the wearer to face the sky meaning they are able to breathe
naturally when unconscious.

All of the above PFD’s are ready to use apart from the inflatable life-jacket which needs
to be activated before use. This is the jacket that has the most compartments that
need regular maintenance and replacements. It is also the life-jacket that does –
technically – expire due to its inflation mechanism.
Here’s a fun-fact I have for you. The USCG (United Stated Coast Guard) rate life-jackets
in performance as; Type I, Type II, Type III and Type V. They do not rate the inflatable
life jacket despite its popularity among boating enthusiasts.

2. Which PFD’s need the most attention?

As mentioned, life jackets in modern days are made with structurally sound plastics,
meaning they will last for long periods and will need minimum maintenance. Most of
the PFD’s above will only need to be checked for perforations and then wiped down
with water and a cloth. This helps the material to stay clean.

If you have a children’s life jacket, then you will need to check this PFD, first. These
will need to have the best fit, comfortability, stability and safety measures.

However, if there are any holes in the lifejacket, it means it has been expired. A hole
will allow water to flood into the life-jacket and when it doesn’t submerge the wearer,
it will allow for mould, algae and other life to grow inside.

The PFD that needs the most attention is the inflatable PFD. This is because it has a
CO2 canister that needs replacing as well as a firing mechanism that needs to be replaced even when not used. The firing mechanism does have an expiration date.
For more information on how to fully service a self-inflating life-jacket as well as which
compartments need changing, click through to my other article; “How Do Self-Inflating
Life-Jackets Work?”.

3. How long does a life vest last?

Although they don’t have expiration dates, life-jackets will typically last around ten years when maintained correctly.

This figure is provided as a recommendation by the USCG as they intend for life-jackets
to be well-looked after as well as for technologies to allow for safer productions with each passing decade.

Signs for wear and tear include:
• Cuts, tears, scratched or perforations.
• Loose stitching
• Discolouration.
• Inability to remain inflated.
• Overheating
• Incorrect storage
• Sun damage
• Buckles not responding

As a side note, the life-span of a child’s life-jacket is dictated by the child’s weight. As soon as they increase in size, they will need more buoyancy and will need to be upgraded to an adult’s life-jacket.

4. How often does a life-jacket need to be serviced?

The USCG recommends servicing your life-jacket once per year to check for buoyancy and performance.
This regularity, however, becomes more often when the life vests are used commercially, for example with beach activities or water sports through a company.
As all life-jackets are provided with clear storage and servicing instructions by their manufacturer, you can try to service your life-jacket at home.

But, I recommend taking your life-jacket to a specialist for your yearly servicing as there is no price on safety.
You can find global servicing companies such as Servitec who specialise in the servicing
and maintenance of your life-jacket, no matter what type, brand or what you use it
for. There are many other servicing companies out there for you to use. So, I suggest
finding a website offering trustworthy servicing at the same time you buy your lifejacket so you stay in control of your safety.

To top it off, I’ll summarise by answering the question ‘do life-jackets expire?’; yes. But, not
in the traditional sense. They can only expire if they have not been properly maintained, if
they reach the ten-year guideline provided by the USCG or if they are found to be no longer
fit for usage during your service.
If you have an inflatable life-jacket, instead of a foam life vest, then you need to pay more
attention. I recommend checking the components every 6 months and replacing cartridges
where needed. If both indicators (for the CO2 cylinder and fire mechanism) aren’t green, take
it for a service.

For more information about the different types of life-jacket available on the market, check
out my other article; “What is the Best way to Check the Buoyancy of your PFD?”.

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