Learn the tell-tale signs that it's time to replace your life jacket to ensure personal comfort and, most importantly, safety.
Life jackets* don’t have an expiration date. If you buy a quality jacket and care for it properly it can last years unless it somehow gets torn or otherwise damaged.
However, even the highest quality, most carefully cared-for personal flotation device life jacke* or PFD has a finite lifespan, so you need to know how to spot the signs of a life jacket that may not be fully capable of protecting you. The following are all signs that your life jacket is or may be ready to be replaced:
- Loss of buoyancy: Test this by wading into shallow water, then bend your knees and float on your back. The PFD should easily support your weight and keep your face out of the water
- Worn fabric: If the fabric of the jacket has rips, tears, separation or brittleness, it’s at the end of its useful life. Pull-on seams and suspect spots with moderate manual tension to see if they hold up
- Frayed straps: The straps should be strong and flexible, with no frayed areas. If you can tear a strap by hand, it could easily fail when you need it most.
- Inoperable buckles or zippers: The jacket’s fasteners should open and close easily and should never open unexpectedly. If a buckle is cracked, or if a zipper is missing any teeth, that’s a sure sign of PFD that cannot be trusted.
- Suspect foam: The foam material inside your life jacket is what makes it buoyant. If you can feel through the fabric that the foam is starting to break down, developing holes or getting stiff and brittle, it’s quite likely it’s not as buoyant as it should be.
- Severe mold or mildew: Minor mold and mildew spots can be removed by a proper cleaning, but if the infestation is severe, or if cleaning fails, the life jacket is ready for the dumpster. Not only will an infested jacket release spores that will damage your lungs and infect other life jackets and fabrics in the vicinity, the mold and mildew may have infiltrated the foam, making the jacket unsafe.
- Intuition: If your life jacket starts to feel different, smell particularly bad or otherwise just doesn’t seem right in some way, don’t discount that. If you have any reason to believe your life jacket is not able to do its job, it’s well worth the money to replace it.
- Missing Tag: If the U.S. Coast Guard-approved tag is missing or is illegible. It is deemed inoperable. (Source: https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/iac/rule/571.37.13.pdf - page 2, first paragraph)
Never, ever, ever try to repair a life jacket: if something is wrong with it, replacement is the only safe option. It’s also worth noting that you should always destroy any life jacket you are throwing away for any reason. Cut off the straps, slice up the fabric, and cut it into several pieces – whatever it takes to ensure that someone else doesn’t find and attempt to use it.
To make your life jacket or PFD last as long as possible, don’t use it for fenders, cushions or anything other than its intended purpose. Proper cleaning on a regular basis can extend the life of your PFD and it’s a great way to ensure periodic inspections. To learn how to clean and disinfect your life jacket the right way, check out this previous Dockline post.
* This information applies to non-inflatable life jackets only. Your life jacket manufacturer is the definitive source for information about your particular PFD, and its information supersedes any information provided here.
Visit the Mercury Marine Dockstore to check out Mercury-branded PFDs by clicking HERE.