When Must A PFD Or Lifejacket Be Replaced?

A personal flotation device (PFD) or lifejacket that is well cared for can last many years, but how do you know if it’s time to replace it? Generally, a PFD or lifejacket with rips, cuts, or tears must be replaced

A foam lifejacket should also be replaced if it has areas that are compressed or squashed and if it is showing signs of excessive mildew.

Sea rescue volunteers report receiving calls to assist with man-overboard situations that turned fatal simply because the person wasn’t wearing a working lifejacket.

To be safe at sea, you must pay special attention to your life-saving appliances and safety equipment. In this article, we’ll cover the following;

  • How long do lifejackets typically last
  • How to tell if it’s time to replace your life jacket
  • How to extend your lifejackets life

🦺 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 it needs 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. 

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

Secondly, if there are cuts, rips, or tears on your life jacket, 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. See, mold degrades fibers over time. This means that if your life jacket is very moldy, the chances are good that, at some point, it will rip.  

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 both the case in 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.

❓ FAQs

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 last forever, and lifejackets are no exception. So, your life jacket will need to be replaced eventually.

So, there are many opinions 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 as long they fit and float well, you’re OK. 

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.

🗣️ Final Words

Life jackets or PFDs typically don’t have an expiry date and can last up to ten years if they are well maintained, cleaned, and looked after.

However, you should replace the life jacket if there is any severe damage like rips, cuts, or severed straps.

You must also watch out for mold, as it could damage the life jacket’s fibers.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I’m a lover of being out on the water and sampling Caribbean rum! Currently, I run an SEO consultancy in addition to this little corner of the interwebs. Welcome, and I hope that we can provide the portal you need to dive into your next aquatic adventure.