Why Do Life Jackets Require Regular Maintenance?

If lifejackets are not taken care of, they can become dysfunctional, and their performance is affected. In addition, they can become unsafe to rely on as personal flotation devices should you end up in the water, creating a dangerous situation.

Regular maintenance not only preserves the integrity of the lifejacket, but it is also a legal requirement for certain professionals, like yachtsmen, as part of inspections and checks.

You need to have complete confidence and rely on your lifejacket to fulfill its purpose: to keep you afloat in water.

As a professional yachtsman of 10 years, life jacket maintenance was a legally required monthly check as a part of our life-saving appliances checks and general boating safety.

Understanding the different types of lifejackets and personal flotation devices is crucial for their proper upkeep. So let’s look at what maintenance needs to be done to both foam and inflatable lifejackets.

Why Is It Critical To Maintain Your Lifejacket?

‘If you take care of your lifejacket – it will take care of you. Sailors will probably only be in serious need of a lifejacket once. Still, it can be lifesaving when they do, so making sure its in good condition and does what it is intended to do is essential.’

  • Personal Safety: When properly maintained, lifejackets are reliable personal floatation devices (PFDs) that can save your life in an emergency by preventing drowning.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Adhering to maintenance guidelines ensures compliance with safety regulations for boating, swimming, and other water activities.
  • Durability: Regular inspections and care extend the lifejacket’s durability, keeping it ready for use when needed in activities like fishing or rescue operations.
  • Functionality Check: Confirm that all components—straps, buckles, and flotation materials—are intact and operational before heading into the water.
  • Children’s Safety: For young swimmers or those participating in water sports, their lifejackets must be in top condition to offer appropriate protection.

Maintenance Of Foam Life Jackets

Foam Life Jackets

Foam life jackets are crucial safety devices that aid in keeping you afloat in the water. Their buoyancy is provided by the foam inner material, which is especially important if you happen to be unconscious, as certain types can turn you to a face-up position.

These life jackets are constructed with durable materials like nylon or vinyl and often include reflective patches for visibility. To ensure they perform their life-saving function, they require regular maintenance.

Steps To Maintain Your Foam Life Jackets

Regular maintenance extends the life of your foam life jacket and ensures it operates effectively when needed. Here’s what to do:

  • Rinse with Fresh Water: After exposure to water, cleanse your life jacket with fresh water. This step is crucial to prevent the buildup of salt or contaminants, which could lead to mildew.
  • Manual Cleaning: Clean the life jacket using mild soap and avoid machine washing. Heat from a dryer can damage the foam and compromise the life jacket’s integrity.
  • Drying: Air-dry the jacket thoroughly in a dry place away from sunlight. Ensure it is completely dry before storage to avoid deterioration.
  • Storage: Store your life jacket in an area that is free from heat and direct sunlight, which could degrade the materials and cause fading.
  • Inspection: Regularly inspect your life jacket for signs of wear. Look closely at the webbing, straps, and zippers to ensure they are functioning and not worn out.
  • Fit and Fasteners: Ensure that buckles and clasps are in good working order and that the fit remains snug yet comfortable.
  • Reflectivity: Check the reflective tape to make sure it still stands out. It should be bright and visible to aid in rescue efforts.
  • Harness Checks: If your life jacket has an integrated harness, inspect the safety clips and straps for any corrosion or weaknesses. Confirm that you can attach and release them swiftly and securely.

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to address any specific maintenance requirements for your particular life jacket model. Proper care not only prolongs the life of your safety gear but also guarantees its reliability in potentially life-threatening situations.

Maintenance Of Inflatable Life Jackets

This type of jacket has cartridges of carbon dioxide gas sewn into them. When activated, the inflation system will release the gas and fill the jacket chambers. 

Follow these guidelines for the maintenance of your inflatable life jacket;

  • Annual maintenance and inspection of your inflatable lifejacket before any offshore voyage is advantageous.
  • The Hydrostatic Release Unit (Bobbin) should be replaced every three years for recreational use to avoid accidental inflation or, more frequently, in extreme conditions, such as high temperature and high humidity.
  • Store them in a dry, ventilated environment. Remove the activator capsule when storing automatic lifejackets (excluding Hammar) while the lifejacket is still wet to avoid accidental inflation.
  • To clean your automatic inflatable lifejacket, only use fresh water (where applicable, remove the activator capsule first).
  • Do not put the lifejacket in the washing machine; do not tumble or spin dry.
  • Allow your lifejacket to air dry naturally, and ensure the lifejacket is dried thoroughly before rearming or storing. 

Life Jacket rearming kits

To ensure your sailing life jackets remain functional and safe, keep these steps in mind:

  • Inspect CO2 Cartridges: Check for any signs of wear or corrosion.
  • Ensure Proper Inflation: Inflate using the oral tube and check for leaks. If any are found, the life jacket may require professional servicing.
  • Replace Components Timely:
    • Replace the Hydrostatic Release Unit (HRU) every three years or as needed.
    • Regularly inspect and change CO2 cartridges to prevent malfunction.

When inspecting your inflatable PFDs, attention to detail is essential to avoid potential malfunctions when you need them most.

Maintenance TaskFrequencyNotes
InspectionAnnuallyBefore offshore voyages
HRU ReplacementEvery 3 yearsMore frequently in extreme conditions
CO2 Cartridge InspectionAs neededCheck for corrosion and replace if compromised
CleaningAfter exposureUse fresh water, and avoid machine washing and drying appliances.
Proper StorageContinuousDry, ventilated environment; remove activator if wet

Life Jacket Maintenance Checklist

When maintaining your life jacket, it’s crucial to follow a set of guidelines to ensure its effectiveness in keeping you safe. Here is a simple checklist to help you keep your life jacket in prime condition:

Visual Inspection
Check for rips, tears, or holes in the fabric
Ensure all straps and hardware are in good working condition
Look for signs of wear or damage on buckles and zippers
Rinse with clean water after use, especially if exposed to salt water
Use mild soap for stains, and rinse thoroughly
Air-dry your life jacket completely before storage
Store in a dry, cool place away from direct sunlight
Avoid compressing the life jacket to prevent damage to flotation material
Inflatable Life Jackets
Regularly check CO2 cartridges for tightness and corrosion
Inspect the inflation system and oral inflation tube for leaks
Keep rearming kits handy in case of accidental inflation
Buoyancy Testing
Periodically test flotation capabilities in a controlled environment

Remember, a well-maintained life jacket is a lifesaving device. Regular checks can uncover potential failures, giving you time to rectify issues or replace the life jacket if necessary.

Frequently Asked

When Should You Replace Your Lifejacket?

You should replace your lifejacket when it shows signs of wear and tear or if it fails a buoyancy test; regular inspection can prolong its life, but consider replacing it if you notice faded materials from prolonged exposure to sunlight, rips, tears, or damaged fabric, worn or non-functioning buckles and straps, or if the lifejacket can no longer keep you afloat for several hours.

How Often Should A Life Jacket Be Checked?

A life jacket should be checked before every use to ensure immediate safety concerns and condition are addressed and serviced annually as per the manufacturer’s instructions. For inflatable life jackets, a yearly professional service is recommended unless you possess the skills for a self-check where permitted.

Why Do Life Jackets Expire?

Life jackets expire due to regular use leading to general wear and tear, environmental factors such as UV damage, and the degradation of materials over time.

While they don’t have a set expiration date, it’s crucial to maintain them and take note of their life span to ensure continuous safety. Always adhere to U.S. Coast Guard regulations and guidelines for personal flotation devices (PFDs).

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.