FISH SAFE – Caring for PFDs: Inspecting, rearming, and storing

Do you have a new personal flotation device (PFD) or lifejacket?  Are you readying your present PFD gear for spring and summer fishing?

Lend an ear.

Here are some tips to help ensure that your PFD, which we hope you are wearing every time you are on the water, will be able to function as intended and potentially save your life or one of your crew.

All PFDs, of course, need to be cared for properly and as we all know, n the marine environment salt is corrosive.  All — including even the most basic PFDs — must be gently cleaned with fresh water and allowed to dry in a well-ventilated location after use. All buckles and other closures such as zippers must be free of rust and able to ‘click-in’ or zip smoothly.  All material and straps must be inspected for wear and tear.  And cursory inspections should be done each time you don a PFD.

After the life team of the program Life Jackets for Lobstermen at the Northeast Center and I discussed my writing this article, I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to inspect and rearm (if necessary) the Stearns automatic hydrostatic inflatable suspender-style PFD that I own.

To be honest, I had never taken the time to inspect it fully according to the directions that came with it.  Frankly, I never wanted to mess with the cartridge for fear I would do something wrong and have to take the PFD to a Stearns-recommended service center.  

As I began to write this article, I took my PFD out of the well-ventilated coats and jackets closet and noticed it was a bit sandy. Guess I should have cleaned it off better before I put it away last fall.  But at the time I had thought that meant I would have to disarm the hydrostatic cartridge to avoid having contact with water used for cleaning inflate the vest.  So I just brushed off the superficial sand. 

Now, while holding the PFD, I inspected the material, the straps, buckles, etc.  All were in good shape.  Then I checked the CO2 cartridge and “pill cage.”  These two items make-up the hydrostatic mechanism.  When the “pill” gets wet, a small pin is released that punctures a material in the small opening of the cartridge, allowing CO2 to inflate the vest. 

I pulled-open the Velcro™ closure around the cartridge and found excellent directions about handling the CO2 cartridge.  I noticed the indicator was green, so I knew the cartridge had not been used.  I followed the directions and unscrewed the cartridge, then popped open the pill cage.  The cartridge was in good shape, not rusted or dented.  That was good news. 

The small pill in the pill cage was still whole and firmly set in the pill cage.  More good news.  That was simple, I thought.  I can encourage others to follow the instructions and be confident they can check their inflatable PFD without being afraid of setting off the cartridge.

Then I opened the other side of the vest where the manual inflation tube is. 

The dust cap was on – perfect — and a nice shrill plastic whistle was tied to the tube.  That was a surprise; I had forgotten about the whistle.  Apparently, most of these inflatables also have a whistle. 

I inflated the vest manually and replaced the cap. The vest held air and there were no leaks that I could detect.  At this point, the manufacturers advise leaving the vest out for 18-24 hours in an environment where the temperature and humidity are stable, then checking to see if the vest remains at full inflation.  If not, replacement is necessary. 

Not wanting to leave the inflated vest out overnight, I deflated it.  This vest, like many, has a small knob on the top of the dust cap which, if inserted into the inflation tube, releases the valve and allows the air to escape.  That worked great for letting out most of the air.  Some folks apparently poke a pencil tip into the air tube to deflate the vest, but that is not recommended as it could damage the valve in the tube. 

After lying on the vest to get the rest of the air out, I closed up the vest to its ready-for-use condition.

But wait.  I forgot two steps. 

I forgot to check the date on the CO2 cartridge and the expiration date on the pill cage.  The manufacturers of PFDs specify that a CO2 cartridge should be replaced if punctured but otherwise these cartridges can last for years (if not rusted or corroded). However, the bobbin or pill cage could be replaced every year, and certainly every three years. 

Back to the vest. 

I opened the cartridge pocket again.  The date stamp read “date of filling: 07/05.”  Sixteen years ago.

If they say cartridges lasts for years do they mean 16 years or more?  I vowed at that point to replace it. 

What about the pill cage?  I opened the pill cage and whoosh, the vest inflated.  What a surprise.  I had not followed the instructions.  

I had not removed the cartridge before opening the pill cage. Now the vest is inflated and the aging cartridge is expended. 

What about the expiration date on the pill cage?  Expired:  3/09.  I should have replaced the pill cage 12 years ago. 

The good news is I now have an inflated vest that I can leave out for 18-24 hours to see if it remains fully inflated.  If it does, I’ll just purchase a new rearming kit for about $50.


If you have read the text to this point, you have picked up the salient points about care for a hydrostatic inflatable PFD. 

First and foremost:  Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter.  Fortunately, there are many different makes and styles of PFDs available these days. There are, therefore, many variations in the care and feeding of these PFDs.

Clean your PFD gently and store, when dry, in a dry and ventilated space.  Keep away from oil, heat, and heavy objects that could dent the cartridge or damage the materials or plastic buckles.

Inspect the PFD superficially before every trip.

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions explicitly for rechecking the CO2 cartridge and bobbin (the pill case or pill cage).  Check every couple of months and definitely annually.  Enter the inspection date on the PFD – there is often a section for noting dates on the PFD itself.

Replace the cartridge if expended, dented, or corroded.

Replace the bobbin/pill cage if the pill is missing or is not whole or firmly seated.  Also, replace it before the expiration date.

Keep an extra rearming kit on hand.

Check the integrity of the inflatable bladder by inflating the PFD manually and squeezing it.  Replace the PFD if it has not remained wholly inflated after sitting out for 18-24 hours.

Lastly, what I learned from this exercise made me realize how important it is to be sure that everyone on a boat crew knows how his or her PFD functions (both automatically and manually) and knows what to expect from the style of PFD each is wearing.

For example, some PFDs do not turn the wearer onto his or her back, some are not designed for children under 16, and some are not meant for non-swimmers. 

For more information on choosing a PFD/lifejacket see <https://necenter.org/portfolio/lifejackets-for-lobstermen/>.   For a video on caring for PFDs view <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5eniRI0mXM>.

Ann Backus, MS, is the director of outreach for the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health in Boston, MA.  She may be reached by phone at (617) 432-3327 or by e-mail at <abackus@hsph.harvard.edu>.



  Wear your PFD when on the water.

  A well-cared-for PFD will care well for you, but only if you have it on.