Life jackets do not have an easy life: They are constantly dunked, thrown around, splashed, strained, and then thrown in storage for the winter. It makes sense that a life jacket would begin to show some age after time, and eventually become unusable.
Depending on the type of life jacket being used, they can normally last upwards of ten years if properly cared for. There are similar ways to examine and determine if a life jacket is still properly functioning, and depending on the type of PFD (personal flotation device) being used, some parts might need to be replaced.
Foam Life Jackets
The most common type of PFD is filled with foam. These jackets are extremely durable and will float for a long time. The biggest concern with this type of life jacket is making sure the actual jacket itself is in good repair. All the seams, straps and zippers should be checked before using, and the jacket should be scanned for holes.
Foam will not lose its buoyancy, but if the jacket is in poor repair, the safety of the swimmer could be compromised by a jacket breaking or falling off mid-plunge.
Because of the compressible nature of foam, life jacket owners should not use their jackets as knee pads or cushions, as this will speed up the degradation of their jackets. If there are rips in the jacket where the foam is located, the foam will start to disintegrate when exposed to the elements, so jackets should be repaired or patched as soon as a hole is noticed.
To clean a foam life jacket, they can be hand-washed in cold water with mild detergent and line-dried. A life jacket should never be dry cleaned or tumble dried, as both will cause the jacket to deteriorate more rapidly.
Inflatable Life Jackets
Inflatable life jackets, or Type V PFDs, need to be examined in a slightly different matter. The first thing to be looked at with these jackets is the physical structure of the jacket, and any wear and tear on the components. However, in comparison to their foam counterparts, inflatable life jackets have a slightly shorter lifespan.
Most inflatable life jackets use carbon dioxide tanks to self-inflate when activated. While the actual structure of the jacket may be in good condition, after a certain amount of time, the carbon dioxide tank will expire. The expiration date on the tank can vary from jacket to jacket, from one year to five years. Inflatable life jackets should be cared for in the same way as foam life jackets.
Both types of jackets should be stored in a way that increases their longevity. Life jackets should be stored in a dry, sheltered area where they are not crushed by any objects. An optimal place for life jackets would be a laundry basket on a shelf in the garage or shed.
Life jackets that have gotten wet will need to dry out fully before being stored with other jackets to prevent decay and mildew. Life jackets can be dried in the sun before being stored with other boating equipment.
When purchasing a jacket, save the warranty and expiration date listed in the jacket’s paperwork or on the jacket’s label, and keep it for reference. Most life jackets, when purchased brand-new, will have a recommended expiration date produced by the manufacturer.
Depending on the wearer’s preference for a Type I, II, III or V life jacket, there are different ways to examine each and determine if the life jacket is still viable. If you are still unsure about the life jacket’s potential, you can conduct a test. To test a life jacket, put the life jacket on and fasten it as normal; use the life jacket in water that is shallow and calm, with no strong currents.
When in doubt, it is always recommended that you purchases a new jacket. Most boating accidents and deaths occur when a person is not wearing a life jacket, and wearing an ineffective life jacket is essentially the same. It is better to be safe than sorry regarding water and boating safety, and a life jacket is a wearer’s first defense against emergency situations.
Boaters and swimmers alike should do some quick checks before engaging in water activities in unfamiliar areas to see that the life jacket is still in good condition. So how long do life jackets last? Most life jackets last for around 10 years.
However, depending on the type, things like the carbon dioxide canisters, zippers, and other parts of the jacket should be checked before using them. If stored properly, taken good care of, and treated well, your life jackets are a valuable piece of equipment with amazing longevity.