Servicing Inflatable Life Jackets

Inflatable life jackets became very popular when laws were changed requiring compulsory wearing of them in power boats up to and including 4.8m in Victoria and NSW. Their popularity can be attributed to the fact they are a lot more comfortable to wear for long periods than the old foam brick style personal floatation devices (PFDs).

All states in Australia have varying life jacket laws and it is priority one to make sure you and your vessel comply. The respective state laws can be viewed here: Vic, QLD, NSW, TAS, SA, WA, NT Remember that life jackets are useless to you if you are not wearing them and often people who end up in the water have little or no time to grab them let alone fiddle about fitting them.

Please use this article as a guide and make sure you refer to the PFD’s manufacturer’s instructions, your local state’s rules and regulations and where possible, refer to the Australian Standards and make sure your PFD complies with them.

As so often happens with anything with moving parts, inflatable PFDs require periodic maintenance. As the skipper of your boat, it is your responsibility to ensure that these inflatable life jackets are in full working condition. Self-servicing your PFD doesn’t just mean a clean down and inspection, it is much more involved than that.

Most manufacturers suggest their inflatable PFD should be serviced by the owner at least every 12 months and taken to a service centre at least every third or fourth service. Maritime regulations state that users must ensure their jackets are serviced according to manufacturer’s recommendations.

Most manufacturers also have detailed instructions on how to service their inflatable life jackets which are downloadable from their respective websites (see below) and can supply the necessary replacement parts if required.

All manufacturers of inflatable PFDs strictly state that no attempt should be made to repair a damaged inflatable PFD. This includes but is not limited to; the inflatable bladder, fittings, CO2 cylinders, webbing belt(s) and fasteners/clips.

When in doubt about any component of your PFD, remove it from service and identify it so nobody else can inadvertently pop it back in your boat and contact the manufacturer for advice.

The first thing to inspect is for visual signs of damage such as tears, rips, punctures or abnormal wear e.g. a hole has been rubbed into the outer cover by something stored on top of it. Check over the webbing strap and outer cover both visually and with your hands to also check for foreign bodies stuck in the outer cover which may puncture the inner. E.g. metal swarf/shavings, fishing hooks etc.

The reflective strips should be reflective. They do wear off and become less effective if they get a few creases. If they’re not as reflective as they should be, contact the manufacturer to see if replacement is viable. These stick out like you would not believe at night when a light hits them so it is in your best interest that they are in good nick.

Some manufacturers sew into the webbing “load indicator thread” which is designed to indicate if the webbing experiences heavy load such as a wearer being hauled into a boat by the life jacket. If the indicator thread has broken, the webbing could have sustained significant load and should be inspected by a service agent and/or replaced.

Check that the belt buckle or fastener works correctly. Some manufacturers employ a stainless buckle and some have a plastic snap lock type fastener. I’ve seen the plastic ones break after being crushed and not hold together after that so pay particular attention to this.

The outer cover is designed to offer a level of protection to the inner inflatable bladder. This cover can be held closed via press studs, hook/loop fasteners (e.g. Velcro) or a combination of both. You know how Velcro loses its grip after plenty of use? When the fluff goes extra fluffy and won’t hold? Check for this. If there are press studs here, check for corrosion and make sure they pull open easily.

Next step is to open the outer cover fully by tearing apart the Velcro with care to ensure you do not accidentally trigger the inflation by pulling the cord.

Check the whistle works. The whistle is used to attract attention if boats are within earshot in low visibility such as fog or at night.

Visually inspect the CO2 cylinder by making sure it has no corrosion and has not been fired. Cylinders that have been fired will have a hole in the threaded end which is only visible once the cylinders are removed from the firing mechanism. Corrosion may be a build-up of white deposits, pitting, rust or all of these. When in doubt, replace it.

When I first inspected my inflatable PFDs, I found one CO2 cylinder had worked loose which would have rendered the PFD completely useless in an emergency and another cylinder showed signs of corrosion! Both were recipes for disaster and provided motivation to write this guide.

The CO2 cylinder can now be unscrewed from the firing mechanism and be presented for “weigh in”. It should have a stamp with a weight and an acceptable error margin. E.g. 142g (weight of cylinder + CO2) +/- 2g meaning the CO2 cylinder should weigh 140, 141, 142, 143 or 144g grams if it is stamped 142g – a leeway of 2 grams heavier or lighter.

Clearly, you should have scales that are accurate enough to weigh items to the nearest gram. I purchase some digital scales quite cheaply online. To check their accuracy, I placed a syringe measured volume of water on them. 25mL = 25g, 50mL = 50g, 100mL = 100g and 1000mL (1 litre) = 1000g (1 kilogram). They were very accurate which was great.

CO2 cylinders can be replaced for around $15 to $25 and it is vital you select the correct one for your jacket as they come in varying sizes and capacities. Some are 38g and some are 33g and the jacket’s CO2 capacity should be clearly displayed near the firing mechanism. So, if you put a 38g cylinder on a jacket meant for a 33g cylinder, it will burst on inflation and if you install a 33g cylinder on a jacket meant for 38g, it will not inflate to capacity.

Next step is to manually inflate the jacket using the oral inflation tube. Watch it for 10 to 20 minutes at first to see if there is a major leak, then leave it overnight and check on it in the morning.

Most manufacturers then state that they should remain inflated for anywhere from 5 to 12 hours and checked for unnatural deflation. Alternatively, you may choose to leave them inflated for as long as you wish to stay afloat should the unthinkable happen and you’re forced into the water! I tend to leave mine overnight plus a bit more which can be anywhere from 12 to 24 hours.

It is important the jacket is in a room with a reasonably stable temperature. For example, if it started out at 18 degrees and overnight it got down to 8 degrees, a 10 degree drop in temperature may see the pressure in the PFD decrease giving the impression it has a leak.

If you do get large differences between day and night temperatures, it may be best to leak test them during the day or indoors where the temperature is more stable. Past experience has shown my jackets to hold their pressures very well indeed with them still being quite taut in the morning. Good! If you see them partially deflated or completely flat in the morning, I’d be tossing them out and buying a new one.

The manual inflation tube has a one-way valve which lets air in as you inflate, but won’t let air out when the jacket is inflated or being inflated. Clearly, this valve should do its job. If it fails, the overnight or 10-20 minute leak test should show this.

The bladder can then be deflated by turning the cap for the oral inflation tube over and poking it into the inflation tube to depress the one-way valve and let the air out. All manufacturers stress that this cap and only this cap should be used to depress the one-way valve in the oral inflation tube. The use of anything else could damage this one-way valve.

There are a few different types of firing mechanisms. All of them thrust a cutting point into the CO2 cylinder to pierce it and release the CO2 cylinder. The differing firing mechanisms are often used in different models by the same manufacturer and are indicated so in their instruction manuals. Manual inflation PFDs

With the CO2 cylinder removed, pull down on the manual firing cord (lanyard) to ensure the lever mechanism operates freely. A firing indicator clip is severed also and will need to be replaced when you operate this lever. This firing indicator clip is included in rearming kits. The clip is pushed into place when the firing lever is pushed back to its ready state.

Auto-inflation PFDs

Automatic models have a firing mechanism which is triggered when submerged in water. They should display a green band near the bottom if they are in service with a full CO2 cylinder screwed in place and have not been immersed in water previously.

They should also display an expiry date and must be replaced before they expire. Once all the above tests pass, the CO2 cylinder can be refitted to the firing mechanism. It simply screws in and should be hand tight only. Never over tighten or use a tool to tighten it up.

The service can then be recorded on the PFD in the space provided on the inner bladder. Sign and date it and where possible, record any expiry dates and CO2 cylinder weights.

The PFD can now be repacked according to manufacturer’s instructions. Pay careful attention that the manual firing lanyard is poking free of the outer cover and not tangled or wrapped around anything. The inner bladder should be carefully folded and packed with the Velcro and any other fasteners pushed shut.

Links to Self Service/Inspection guidelines (subject to change):

AxisBurkeCrewsaver Hutchwilco

MarlinMenace MarinePFD Australia PFD1

RFDSpinlock (YouTube)StearnsUltra PFD

Watersnake

Stormy Seas, Marine Pool and SOS Marine don’t recommend users service their own equipment. Stormy Seas provide an annual self-checking guide here.

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