When Must A PFD Or Lifejacket Be Replaced?

According to the United States Coast Guard (USCG) regarding the replacement of life jackets and PFDs, their guidelines are:

1️⃣ Serviceable Condition: PFDs must be in a serviceable condition to be effective in an emergency. This means they should not show signs of deterioration or loss of integrity.

2️⃣ Signs for Replacement: PFDs should be retired from service if they display any signs of wear and tear, such as rips or tears, broken or corroded hardware, permanently compressed materials, rotted components, or detached or broken oral inflation tubes.

3️⃣ Inspection and Maintenance: Regular inspection and maintenance are critical. This includes checking for any damage, ensuring the hardware is intact and functional, and confirming that the material has not become compressed or rotted.

For commercial vessels, specific types of PFDs are required depending on the vessel and operating conditions. In this case, the rules for replacements are far stricter than for recreational boating.​

Best Practices:
✅ Regular inspection and maintenance are crucial.
✅ Replace PFDs showing signs of damage or wear.
✅ Ensure compliance with specific guidelines based on vessel type and operating conditions.

How To Tell If It’s Time To Replace Your Lifejacket

Even though there are different opinions regarding the maximum lifetime of PFDs, everyone would agree that there are sure signs when they need to be replaced. 

Firstly, if your lifejacket has any straps missing or broken, then the fit is compromised, and you may as well toss it out. A lifejacket can only hold you above the water if it fits well. 

Some parts of the PFD will not fit as soon as straps are compromised. The worst-case scenario is that the lifejacket completely slips off or over your head when you’re in the water. 

Secondly, if your life jacket has cuts, rips, or tears, it’s time to replace it. Cuts on a rigid lifejacket could leave enough room for a piece of the foam to slip out, which means it won’t float well. 

However, cuts in an inflatable lifejacket could leak air out. And if air leaks, the lifejacket is entirely useless.

There are a few other signs specific to inflatable and non-inflatable life jackets.

Warning Signs Of Non-Inflatable Lifejackets

The two warning signs specific to non-inflatable PFDs are excessive mildew and compression. 

Where there is water and dampness, there is a risk of mold and mildew, and life jackets tend to see a lot of water. You may think mold doesn’t pose any real threat to your PFD apart from the horrible smell, but that’s a mistake.

While the awful smell is terrible, what that mold is doing to your lifejacket is far worse. Mold degrades fibers over time. This means that if your life jacket is moldy, the chances are good that it will rip at some point.  

In the case of non-inflatable life jackets, the mold can grow into the foam’s pores, filling the foam and making your life jacket heavier. This added weight and filled space will make it less effective. 

Another sign to watch out for is compression. As you wear your life jacket, it will become more comfortable. This is because parts of the internal foam are constantly being squashed against your body, eventually taking on a new shape. 

However, as the foam compresses, it loses buoyancy. So, if your life jacket has become flattened by wear and tear or by something heavy that was placed on top, it may be time to replace it. 

Warning Signs Of Inflatable Life Jackets

Although inflatable life jackets don’t have foam, mildew can also damage the material, so you shouldn’t allow mold to accumulate on your inflatable PFD.

Another clear warning sign is if your CO2 canister has leaked air. A visible indicator on your lifejacket should show whether your canister is still OK. This is typically a green indicator that turns red once the air has escaped. So, if this indicator is red, you need to replace the canister.

Another warning sign is excessive rust or degradation on the fittings. If any of the fittings or tubing fail, the air from the CO2 canister won’t inflate the life jacket, and you’ll be left swimming.

The Legal Requirements For Replacing Lifejackets

You may also wonder what the legal requirements are for replacing your PFDs. In other words, when does the law say they must be replaced?

 Again, most state laws do not prescribe a set timeframe. But they aren’t entirely quiet on the matter either. Generally, the law requires that the lifejacket is in the working condition it was designed for.

In other words, when a lifejacket goes through the design process, that design must be approved by a state authority (usually Coast Guard Approved).

Part of that approval has to do with the maintenance of your lifejacket. So, most laws will require you to have your lifejacket serviced in line with manufacturers’ requirements.

This is the case in both the USA and Australia. And very likely many others.

For example, if your lifejacket isn’t serviced, has defects like cuts, or no longer floats as well as it should, then you may need to replace it by law.

How To Extend Your Lifejacket’s Life

Getting to that ten-year lifetime is possible. It merely requires looking after your life jacket correctly.

The first thing you should do is clean your PFD. And wash it often. I give mine a rinse in a mild soap solution every time I use it. Cleaning your life jacket often helps prevent mildew from growing on it. 

Don’t use super-strong detergents, as these may damage the life jacket.

The next thing is to service your inflatable lifejacket regularly. First, there are some basic, daily checks that you should do, like checking the CO2 canister. Then, there are more intensive checks and maintenance that you should do annually. 

This could involve inflating the PFD, checking for leaks, and replacing any necessary components. 

Thirdly, you should store your lifejacket in a well-ventilated, light, and dry area where it can breathe easily. You’ll encourage mold growth if you store it in a dark and damp boat cabin. 

Finally, never store a unicellular foam lifejacket under compression. In other words, don’t squeeze it into a small cupboard space. Doing that could compress the foam and damage the life jacket.

Frequently Asked

How Long Does A PFD Or Lifejacket Last?

You probably won’t find a printed expiry date on a lifejacket. But before you get too excited, nothing lasts forever, and lifejackets are no exception. So, your life jacket will need to be replaced eventually.

So, many opinions exist on the maximum lifespan you can get from a lifejacket. Some say you should try to replace them every couple of years, while others say that a well-maintained lifejacket can last up to ten years. 

The latter is especially true for foam or non-inflatable life jackets. They don’t have any moving parts apart from the straps and buckles, so you’re okay as long they fit and float well. 

On the other hand, inflatable lifejackets have quite a few bits and pieces, from valves and hoses to cylinders. And many of these components have their own limited lifetimes.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get ten years out of your inflatable PFD. But it means you will need to do quite a bit of maintenance to extend its life. 

How Do You Know If Your Life Jacket Is Still Good?

The easiest way to check if your life jacket is still in good working order is to test it. Put it on and get into safe water. 

If it’s an inflatable life jacket, you can let it inflate. If it’s holding the air, that is already a good sign. 

With your life jacket on, lean your head back. If you float with your head out of the water, your life jacket has enough buoyancy, and you’re good to go. However, if the water covers or gets into your mouth, your life jacket doesn’t float well enough to keep you safe, and it’s time to replace it.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.