Maintain Inflatable Life Jackets

Make sure your boat’s lifesavers are ready to spring into action.

Donning that inflatable life jacket every time you head out on the water, or at least having one or more close at hand, may give you a warm and fuzzy feeling, but when’s the last time you actually inspected it? Sure, it looks OK, but how do you know it will actually work if and when the time comes? Unknown bladder leaks, improperly installed CO2 cylinders, fabric degradation — they’re just some of the issues that can render an inflatable life jacket useless.

The best place to find specific maintenance requirements is the owner’s manual; however, some things apply to the ongoing reliability of any inflatable life jacket.

Prior to each voyage, be sure to do the following:
• Inspect the unit for visible signs of wear or damage. Verify it is free of rips, holes, damaged hardware, etc. Tug on the seams to ensure they are securely sewn and show no thread damage.
• If the unit has a service indicator, check it to ensure it’s green. Red indicates the mechanism has been fired or is incorrectly installed.
• For auto-inflating life jackets, verify that all components are armed and not expired. Open the jacket and inspect both the automatic inflation system and oral inflation tube. Verify the CO2 cylinder is firmly secured and free from damage or corrosion.
• Repack the lifejacket per manufacturer’s instructions, making sure the manual activation pull-tab lanyard is accessible and properly positioned for quick access and use.

If operation of the lifejacket is in doubt, or if you just haven’t checked it in a while, try these procedures:
• Inflate the bladder using the oral tube and leave it overnight in a room with a constant temperature. If the bladder loses pressure, take the life jacket to an authorized service center for further tests and repair. Don’t attempt to mak repairs yourself. If there is no noticeable loss of pressure, deflate the life jacket by turning the cap of the oral inflation tube upside down and pressing it into the inflation tube. Then gently squeeze the life jacket (without twisting or wringing) until all of the air has been expelled.

• Repack the life jacket according to the manufacturer’s instructions, ensuring the manual activation pull-tab inflation lanyard is accessible and properly positioned.

As I indicated earlier, always follow manufacturer recommendations; with that in mind here are a few other good ideas:

• When not in use, store life jackets in a dry, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight.
• Rinse life jackets with fresh water after saltwater exposure and allow them to dry thoroughly prior to storage. If your life jacket has an auto-inflate feature, remove the auto-inflation cartridge prior to rinsing.
• Always read the instruction manual for proper care and maintenance of the life jacket.