A personal flotation device - or simply a PFD - is a necessary piece of boating safety equipment that you should have on board. Mandated by law, the PFD is often considered the single most effective preventive measure for boating-related deaths. So it goes without saying that your PFD should be your best friend.
But did you know that those things wear out? Contrary to popular belief, a PFD isn’t a one-and-done sort of purchase. The average estimate for a PFD’s lifespan is at around 10 years, but that’s often a generous appraisal. So exactly what causes a PFD to wear out over time, and when is it time to buy a replacement? Let’s get started.
Factors That Wear Out a PFD
Just like everything else on your boat, your PFD can only take so much. But because they don’t apparently change in appearance, feel, or fit, it’s hard for people to see whether or not the onslaught of time has affected their integrity. That’s also why people tend to think that PFD’s last a lifetime - because they never really look like they’re worn out.
However there are several factors that can cause degradation of that buoyant foam inside. And when that happens, your personal flotation device might start to malfunction in the flotation department. Here are some of the factors that can wear out that material over time:
Most often, ultraviolet radiation or simply UV radiation is the culprit for PFD degradation. Those harmful rays destroy the synthetic material that makes up both the cover and the foam inside, causing it to lose buoyancy and retain more water when exposed to moisture.
The best way to tell if a PFD has been sun damaged is by checking its cover. Does the color look desaturated and dull? Is the cover looser on the foam inside, making it look wrinkled and creased? If the answer is yes, then UV degradation has likely begun. See to it that you stow your PFD’s away from direct sunlight to extend its lifespan.
Moisture and Humidity
The cover that conceals the buoyant foam inside is anything but waterproof. Sure, it won’t retain water, but it won’t prevent it from penetrating through to the foam material either. When that foam is constantly wet, it will become denser and heavier, causing it to lose its buoyant properties over time.
Another thing about constant moisture and humidity exposure is that it can and will cause the development of mold and mildew. A PFD that’s always wet also becomes a breeding ground for all sorts of microbes and bacteria that make a home in the foam and speed up its degradation.
Wear and Tear
If you’re a model boat owner and you always wear your PFD, then wear and tear becomes normal. The constant donning and doffing of that flotation device will cause friction, constriction, and other mechanical damages that can wear the PFD out the longer you use it.
This, combined with the effects from the elements, makes it impossible to keep your PFD from losing its integrity with each passing year. That’s why there might be something to gain out of using your PFD with a little extra TLC.
Tips to Care for a Personal Flotation Device
A single PFD might not be too tough on the wallet. But if you’re replacing several PFD’s for a whole family, then it might get a little expensive. That said, there are a few things you can try to slow down that degradation process and max out that 10 year lifespan on your flotation device.
Practice Proper Storage
The first and most practical way to keep your PFD’s in good working condition would be to store them properly. Remember that sun exposure is the primary reason for the degradation of a personal flotation device. So naturally, keeping it out of direct sunlight can help keep it functional for longer.
Some boat owners buy their PFD’s their own storage container that goes on board. Steer clear of clear plastic boxes and try to opt for a solid yet light colored container to provide better UV protection. If you have storage under your boat seats, then that might be a good place to store your PFD’s as well.
Keep Them Dry
A lot of people tend to toss their PFD’s into storage after a day out on the beach or lake without taking a second to consider whether it’s been dried thoroughly. Storing that thing while it’s still soaking wet just speeds up the process of mold, mildew, and bacteria formation, which can eat away at the foam inside.
Since PFD’s shouldn’t ideally be exposed to sunlight, drying them can be a bit of a challenge. Most boat owners meet success however by simply hanging it out to dry somewhere warm, well ventilated, and shielded from direct sunlight. It can take a few days to completely dry out though, which you can test by squeezing the material and checking for any residual moisture.
Use Them as Intended
Wear and tear is normal, that’s for sure. But unnecessary wear and tear can cause damage to your PFD’s and render them useless in the water. Some examples of ways that people misuse PFD’s include wearing them when they’re the wrong size, or using them to help you float without actually wearing them.
When you first purchase your PFD, it will come with a short user manual or instruction sheet that tells you exactly how it can be used. Following the instructions can help extend the life of your PFD and keep it functional every time you step into the water.
Avoid Harsh Cleaning Chemicals
While most people fail to properly care for their PFD, others might overdo the job. Cleaning chemicals like bleach, alcohol, and abrasive powders might seem like a good idea to keep your PFD sanitized for storage, but those chemicals can wear away the material and degrade the foam inside.
If you want to clean your PFD, a good hose down might be all you need. For stains and other signs of contamination, you can use dish soap diluted in water. Avoid scrubbing the covers with abrasive, hard bristle brushes to maintain the integrity of the material.
How Often Should a PFD Be Replaced?
Although estimates will tell you that a PFD should last up to a decade, a lot of them won’t actually last that long. It’s worth mentioning though that the lifespan of a PFD isn’t set in stone, so replacing yours shouldn’t be a time-based thing. Instead, you might want to check the status of your PFD.
Here are some signs that it might be time to replace your PFD:
Essentially, if your PFD looks like it’s just barely holding on, then it’s probably time to replace it. For most people, this should be the case after around four or five years from the date of purchase. Longer if they’re been religiously taking care of their PFD’s.
How to Test a PFD
The best way to test a PFD would be to actually try out how well it helps you float in the water. Here’s how to do it:
Your PFD should keep your chin above the water the entire time, and shouldn’t make it difficult for you to breathe. If you find that your face dips into the water too often, and that it’s a struggle to stay afloat, then it might be time to replace your PFD.
Another thing you can try is the squeeze test. Squeeze the material up until half of its thickness. It should rebound within a few seconds. But if it takes too long, or if it leaves a permanent divot in the material, then it’s a sign that you might have to buy a new flotation device ASAP.
Better Safe Than Sorry
A personal flotation device is more than just a prop. This intuitive device has saved countless lives on the waves, making them an essential part of the boating activity. But remember - these things don’t last forever. Understanding what causes a PFD to wear out over time and how to tell if it’s reached its usable lifespan should help you figure out when it’s time to buy a replacement.