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Does Your PFD Have A Sunburn?

Reprinted from the U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety Circular 72

A Personal Flotation Device (PFD), like any other item of equipment, eventually gets old and worn, and must be replaced. How do you know when a PFD must be replaced? Broken zippers and frayed webbings are indicators of a worn-out device. Less obvious is the cover fabric of a PFD which has been weakened by extensive exposure to sunlight.

The most popular Personal Flotation Devices are fabric-covered Type II near-shore buoyant vests and Type III flotation aids. The fabric covering most often used is one of several types of nylon or polyester.

These synthetic fabrics have a number of advantages for use in PFD construction. They are economical, durable, and resistant to rot caused by microbes. They can be dyed in a wide range of colors. They are easy for PDF manufacturers to work with. They “drape” reasonably well, and therefore are good for constructing wearable articles. The nylon fabrics used are similar to those often used in constructing jackets and camping gear.

Nylon and polyester are plastics, however, and like many plastics they can start to break down after extended exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) light in sunlight. Fabric manufacturers can include UV inhibitors to slow the degradation process, and dyes used to color the devices may also provide some protection. Generally, darker dyes provide more protection than light or bright dyes, such as “neon” (fluorescent) shades. This is not always the case, however.

A PFD with a UV damaged fabric cover should be replaced. A weak cover could split open and allow the flotation material inside to be lost. How can you tell when a fabric PFD cover is worn out? A cover which has torn due to weakened fabric is obvious. Badly faded bright colors can also be a clue that deterioration has taken place. Compare fabric color where it’s protected, under a body strap, for example, to where the fabric is exposed. Another simple test is to pinch the fabric between thumb and forefinger of each hand and try to tear it. If the fabric cover can be torn this way the PDF should definitely be destroyed and discarded.

Fabric covered PFDs should ordinarily last at least several boating seasons in normal use (vacations, weekends, and evenings, for example). PFDs used every day in direct sunlight will probably have to be replaced more often. When the boat is being operated, PFDs should be out and worn by everyone on board. If they are not being worn, they should at least be out and readily available. When the boat is not in use, PFDs should be allowed to dry out, then stowed under cover out of the sun.


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