One of our staff remembers having to wear an old Kapok-filled keyhole style PFD when she was growing up. She used it for years. One day it fell off the dock and into the lake, where it proceeded to slowly sink. It goes without saying her parents were horrified.
Non-inflatable personal flotation devices are now made with much safer and stabler materials than Kapok (a vegetable fiber found in tropical tree pods). However they also degrade over time and lose their buoyancy. So how do you know when to replace them?
We called up Steve Wagner at Salus Marine Wear to see what he had to say about this. Salus is a Canadian PFD manufacturing company and Steve knows his stuff.
Steve mentions that obvious damage like rips and cuts should be addressed, of course. But he says there are some things that most people don't know that affect the life of your PFD.
Different water bodies have different pH levels and algae populations, both of which affect how easily mold and mildew grow on your PFD. Some lakes are very clean and you'll never have a problem; some have conditions that make fabrics more susceptible to mold and mildew. Steve recommends rinsing your PFD with clean water after using it and laying it out in the sun to dry. Although UV exposure will fade colours, it is a natural bleaching agent that kills organics like algae and mold. Keep your PFD clean with an occasional gentle soap and water wash, and always store it in a dry, aerated space.
The foam inside a PFD is a closed cell foam, so it doesn't absorb water. It's a stable material that will last a long time if cared for properly. If you kneel on it or place it under a boat for cushioning, the foam will compress and some of the air bubbles inside may break. Over time buoyancy will be reduced. This can also occur in high pressure areas - parts of your PFD that fit tighter. This is why older PFD's are often more comfortable, Steve explains; the foam has compressed in those pressure areas to conform to your body. This is ok up to a point, but if you notice the outer fabric starting to hang a little loose it means a lot of compression has occurred and you should test the buoyancy of your PFD.
This is easy. Put your PFD on, jump in the water, and tilt your head back. If your chin stays out of the water it's good. If your mouth is underwater, your PFD does not have sufficient buoyancy.
Steve stresses that although PFD's don't expire it's a good idea to check them at the beginning of each season to make sure they are in good shape. Keep in mind that a repair will void PFD's approval by Transport Canada. If you keep it clean, store it dry and use it appropriately, a good PFD should last you 10 years or more.