Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) Lifejackets & Buoyancy Aids - The Facts
What is a Personal Floatation Device?
This is a generic term used to describe lifejackets and buoyancy aids. The main difference between lifejackets and buoyancy aids is that a lifejacket is designed to turn an unconscious person face up on entering the water. A buoyancy aid is not guaranteed to do this and is as the name describes, an aid to keeping you afloat.
Wearing Personal Floatation Devices
It is vital to wear a buoyancy aid or a lifejacket when afloat or if your activity takes you near the water. You must ensure that it is the correct size, properly fastened and that you understand how to operate it. In sports like jet skiing, water skiing, dinghy sailing, windsurfing and canoeing, wearing the right personal floatation device (PFD) will give you the confidence to enjoy your activity even when your in the water. For other activities wearing an appropriate PFD can give you extra time for the search and rescue services to find and rescue you.
Caring for you Personal Floatation Device
Your PFD could save your life, so it is important to look after it. You should have it serviced in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations. On a regular basis, you should visually check the PFD for wear and tear especially at the folds, straps and fastenings. On inflatable lifejackets, check to see if the gas bottle is full, fitted correctly and has no signs of corrosion. If used in salt water, you should regularly wash out you PFD with fresh water and allow it to dry fully before repacking. Ensure you disarm any automatic inflation mechanism before washing your PFD to avoid accidental inflation.
Don’t use your PFD as a cushion as this may compress, and thus reduce the effectiveness of the buoyancy. Like most things they do not last forever. If your PFD is looking tatty it may not work so get a new one.
The right Personal Floatation Device?
Personal floatation devices are available with foam-only buoyancy, air foam buoyancy or air-only buoyancy. The most suitable type for you will depend on the type of activity and the distance you are likely to be from the shore.
Foam only personal floatation devices provide buoyancy at all times. They may be bulky, but in addition to providing buoyancy, they often provide additional protection against wind and cold.
Air-only lifejackets are likely to be the most compact and comfortable and may be automatically activated on entering the water or inflated manually or orally. Spare gas cylinders and automatic inflation mechanisms should be carried.
The type and amount of clothing worn will affect the effectiveness of a lifejacket. If air becomes trapped in clothing, or if a floatation suit is worn in addition to a lifejacket, it may reduce the ability of a lifejacket to roll you face up in the water. Choosing a PFD with more buoyancy may counteract this.
It is recommended that all personal floatation devices be fitted with a whistle. Light and retro-reflective strips and should have crotch straps.
For some sports such as jet skiing, water skiing, dinghy sailing, windsurfing and canoeing, specialised personal floatation devices are available which are specifically designed to suit these sports.
Understanding Personal Flotation Devices
Buoyancy is measured in Newton – 10 Newton equals 1 kilogramme of flotation. There are 4 European standards for personal floatation devices, which must all carry the CE mark.
- The 50 Newton Personal Flotation Device is commonly called a Buoyancy aid. It is intended for use by those who are competent swimmers and who are near to the bank or shore, or who have help and means of rescue close at hand. These PFDs have minimum bulk, but they are of limited use in disturbed water, and cannot be expected to keep the user safe for a long period of time. They do not have sufficient buoyancy to protect people who are unable to help themselves. They require active participation by the user. Recommended for Dinghy sailors, windsurfers, water-skiers & Personal Water craft where the user might reasonable expect to end up in the water.
- The 100 Newton lifejacket is intended for those who may have to wait for rescue but are likely to do so in sheltered and calm water. Whilst these lifejackets are less bulky than those with more buoyancy, they are only intended for use in relatively sheltered waters. They may not have sufficient buoyancy to protect people who are unable to help themselves and may not roll an unconscious person onto their back particularly if they are wearing heavy clothing.
- The 150 Newton lifejacket in intended for general offshore and rough weather use where a high standard of performance is required. It should turn an unconscious person into a safe position and requires no subsequent action by the wearer to keep their face out of the water. Its performance may be affected if the user is wearing heavy and/or waterproof clothing. Recommended for general use on coastal and inshore waters when sailing, fishing etc. where the user would not expect to end up in the water.
- The 275 Newton Lifejacket is intended primarily for offshore and extreme conditions and for those wearing heavy protective clothing that may adversely affect the self-righting capacity of the lifejacket. This lifejacket is designed to ensure that the wearer is floating in the correct position with their mouth and nose clear of the surface of the water. Recommended for offshore cruising, fishing and commercial users.
Look for a Lifejacket that is IMO/SOLAS approved. These are mainly carried on certain of commercial vessels like passenger boats. They are usually intended only for use when abandoning ship as they ten to be bulky and difficult to use when working.
A survey to measure compliance with the wearing of Personal Flotation Devices
|Number of Boats||806||557||775||437|
|Number of Adults on Board||2370||1721||2175||1155|
|Number of Children on Board||299||145||415||142|
|Percentage Wearing Lifejackets||76.3%||73.5%||72.4%||72.5%|
|Percentage of Adults Wearing Lifejackets||75.5%||73.5%||69.6%||71.6%|
|Percentage of Children Wearing Lifejackets||82.6%||71.0%||87.0%||79.6%|
Inflatable PFD/lifejackets now comprise a significant portion of the sales of new lifejackets to
the boating public. They offer a number of advantages over traditional types including:
Easy to wear, do not constrain the wearer.
Automatic operation options, range of models and types.
Reasonable priced, and widely available.
Ease of Stowage
Perceived as "acceptable" to be seen wearing on the water.
Such PFD/lifejackets are now the primary choice of most boat owners, and are to be found in
use on almost all craft.
However, with the increased proliferation of these PFD/lifejackets, there are real concerns
that the associated essential maintenance required to ensure their reliability is being ignored by owners. It should be noted inflatable PFD/lifejackets have a finite lifespan, and this in turn is dependant on their being serviced and maintained on a regular basis, in accordance with their manufacturers instructions.
Full servicing, should only be undertaken by manufacturer-approved agents. In addition to
inspection/renewal of firing mechanisms and CO2 cartridges, it involves the inspection, testing and renewal, of inflatable collar welded seams, webbing, sealing o-rings, internal nonreturn valves, and inflation/leak testing of the unit. Specialist tools and training are required, and it is essential that correct spare parts are always used. It is considered to be outside the competency of the average owner to undertake such a full servicing routine.
However, all owners should be familiar with the procedure to undertake an inspection of their
PFD/lifejackets. The details of which are described in this notice.
Inflatable PFD/lifejackets are designed to allow the wearer free and unimpeded movement on the deck of a boat, they comprise of a horseshoe type collar worn around the neck, and attached to the torso by suitable straps I webbing. Superior models will incorporate a safety harness with "D"-ring, and thigh straps. (Fig: 1)
Should the wearer fall overboard, the unit will activate an inflation chamber I bladder via a
CO2 gas charge, the buoyancy of which keeps the wearer afloat. Inflation may be "manual only" type - where the wearer operates the firing mechanism, or
more commonly by "automatic" inflation whereby a sensing device will operate, causing the
lifejacket to inflate if the wearer falls overboard or enters the sea.
There are two types of Automatic inflation systems currently available.
1. Soluble Pill or Collar type, - A spring loaded firing pin is retained in position by a
cellulose collar within a firing cap. The tablet dissolves on contact with water, releasing
the spring causing the firing mechanism to operate, piercing the bottle, and thus causing
the jacket to inflate.
This design located the bottle outside the inflatable bladder making it easier to check, but
leaving it prone to corrosion attack.
Movement of the jacket can also gradually cause the bottle to loosen in the firing
This method has the advantage of operating immediately it comes in contact with water,
but there are instances of them operating inadvertently, due to becoming wet or damp
following to exposure to heavy rain or spray. Modern designs incorporate protection to
reduce the frequency of this occurring.
2. Hydrostatic - requires the wearer to be immersed to a minimum depth of water before operating, but will not fire if the unit is wet.
The firing mechanism requires submersion to a depth of approx 100 - 150mm before it
The firing bottle is located within the bladder offering protection from corrosion.
To change a bottle requires the breaking of a major seal on the unit, it is recommended
that any maintenance on these inflatable lifejackets is only undertaken by trained
Automatic types are also equipped with manual firing in the event of failure of the automatic
mechanism to deploy. Inflatable PFD/lifejackets are also fitted with an oral means of inflating
or topping up the inflation chamber by the wearer.
1. Soluble Pill or Collar Type Inflatable PFD/Lifejackets
The inflation chamber, CO2 charge bottle, firing mechanism and manual inflation tube, are all
packed within the external cover most wearers are familiar with. (Fig: 1 & 2)
Owners should read and keep, all manufacturers care and servicing instructions supplied
with new inflatable PFD/lifejackets. Fig.1 150N Inflatable PFD/Lifejacket. Fig.2 PFD/Lifejacket components
1 External Cover
3 O-Ring for safety Harness
5 Manual Firing Toggle
6 Inflatable collar
7 Retro reflective tape
8 Manual Inflation Tube and cap
9 Firing Mechanism
10 Velcro Sealing tape
Inspection prior to each use the following brief safety checks should be undertaken each time before donning.
Harness straps / stitching inspected, and checked for damage / wear
External lining inspected for wear / damage.
All buckles checked / adjusted as required.
Crotch/thigh straps attached.
CO2 Firing Cylinder firmly screwed in position.
Manual Firing lanyard positioned for use if required.
Be aware of any marked expiry dates of the firing mechanism components, do not use
the unit with expired components.
Refer to figs. 2, 3, 4
Lay jacket out on a suitable flat worktop surface
Visually inspect the external lining for wear or damage.
Inspect all webbing, plastic or stainless buckles, "D"-rings, and fittings for wear
damage, or corrosion.
Open the velcro edge-sealing strip, undo any pop closers on the neck area, and
carefully open out the yellow inflator collar, noting the manner it has been packed.
Locate, unscrew, and remove the CO2 Cartridge from the inflation mechanism.
Unscrew and remove the firing cap - the unit is now safe to work on. (Fig 3 & 4)
Fig.3 Firing mechanism unit (armed) Fig.4 Firing mechanism (unarmed)
A - Firing Mechanism. B - Manual Release Lanyard. C - Firing Cap. D - CO2 Cartridge E -
Firing Safety Tab.
Examine the condition on the CO2 bottle, ensure the unit has not previously discharged -
the seal in the bottle neck should be intact, and the bottle weight should correspond to that
stamped on the outside.
Renew the CO2 bottle if any signs of corrosion are noted, pay particular attention to any
damage to the threaded section of the cartridge. Fig 5. below shows a selection of
cartridges, only the unit on the left is suitable for reuse, the others have been condemned.
Fig.5 CO2 cartridges, (new and condemned models)
Examine the firing cap, - some may be stamped with an expiry date, replace before this
date, otherwise renewal frequency should be based on manufacturers instructions. The
firing cap may have safety tags fitted to indicate if the unit has operated, ensure they
indicate correctly and are in place. (Green tag on fig 4 item C.0
Firing mechanism units may also be fitted with safety tabs, which detach in the event of
operation, and offer external evidence of the unit having fired - if fitted check it is in
position. (fig:4.item E)
With the bottle removed, check the operation of the firing mechanism by pulling on the
manual lanyard, the action should be free, with the operating plunger returning to the
housed position on release.
Examine the sealed edge of the yellow inflatable collar for damage, ensure it has not
failed in way of the creases caused due to folding within the outer lining. I . Ensure all
Retro Reflective tape strips are in place. (Fig: 2 item 7)
Remove the cap from the manual inflator tube, orally inflate the collar (DO NOT use a
compressed air supply) and leave for 24hrs, re-examine, while there may be some slight
fluctuation due to temperature variation, if a significant loss of pressure occurs, the unit
should be sent to the manufacturers approved service station for attention.
Fig 6 Oral Inflation Tube and Cap -incorporating pressure release on reverse side of cap.
If the pressure remained satisfactory, deflate the collar via the manual inflation tube,
the tube cap is designed to be reversed and used to hold open the associated non-return
valve, thereby allowing pressure release.
DO NOT attempt to vent the tube by inserting any foreign item into the tube valve
assembly (e.g. a pencil) damage to the inflation valve may result, and will render the
PFD/lifejacket unsafe. If any concerns exist regarding this inflation valve always return
the jacket to the manufacturer's service centre.
Ensure all air is completely expelled from the inflatable collar, replace the manual
Rearm the unit by replacing the firing cap, ensure the firing pin is housed correctly and
will not inadvertently operate the CO2 cartridge on tightening into the housing before
replacing the CO2 cartridge; it is essential that the bottle is screwed fully and firmly
into place and checked for tightness.
Carefully repack the yellow inflator collar as originally found inside the external lining,
generally inflator collars are packed in order to inflate outwards on pressurising.
In the event of a PFD/lifejacket inflating due to its gas charge, take great care to avoid
inhaling the gas when deflating to repack the unit. CO2 is hazardous to health.
2 Hydrostatic Type Inflatable PFD/lifeiackets - e.g. Hammar models
This type of jacket operates subject to water pressure when the wearer is immersed to a
Due to the increased skill, technical knowledge and specialist tools required, no attempt
should be made to service the firing device other than by manufacturer approved personnel.
General inspection is limited to an external inspection of the firing unit to check that it is still
within its expiry date, and that the operating indication still shows it is armed (Green tag
showing). Fig 7. Item B
Note that the CO2 cartridge is housed within the inflatable collar, and requires the unit to be
dismantled to renew it. This should only be undertaken by manufacturer approved personnel
due to complexity of obtaining ~ correct seal on assembly.
Fig.7 Hammar Hydrostatic Unit.
A - Hydrostatic firing unit CO2 cartridge housed within the inflatable collar.
B - Firing indication tag (green = ready, Red= discharged)
C - Unit expiry date.
D - Manual firing lanyard
The inflatable collar may be manually inflated and checked as in the previous sections
Care of Inflatable PFD/lifeiackets
Inflatable PFD/lifejackets only have a finite lifespan, and while offering substantial
advantages over traditional PFD/lifejackets, they require regular servicing, inspection, and
correct storage when not in use. They should not be left in high moisture environments e.g.
tender bilges, and they are not designed to sustain substantial mechanical abuse.
If following an inspection, ANY concern exists regarding the unit or a component on it
ALWAYS refer it to an approved service agent for immediate attention, Identify the
PFD/lifejacket, remove it off the boat and do NOT use it!
Inflatable PFD/lifejackets are supplied with a service routine by the manufacturers that should
always be adhered to by owners.
Suitably competent and trained individuals should only undertake servicing of
PFD/lifejackets, using correct spares parts.
If you have an automatic inflating lifejacket then please contact your supplier to determine the expiry date of your lifejacket. A considerable number of lifejacket manufacturers will not guarantee their lifejackets beyond 10 years. In which case you will have no comeback to them if they do not operate correctly after the expiry date.
A guide to Personal Flotation Devices Download PFD info.doc
Department of Transport - SI No 921 of 2005 - Pleasure Craft (Personal Flotation Devices and Operation) (Safety) Regulations 2005