I have had my Personal Flotation Device, or PFD, since I got my first kayak. Its old and dependable and fits like a glove. My front zip Extrasport Eddy with quad-hinged front foam and retracted shoulder adjustments has made almost every kayaking trip I have taken since I bought it in 2010.  It’s once bright yellow and black fabric is now sweat stained and faded in the sun by countless trips to the river and lake. Made to last, its zippers and adjustable belts show little signs of wear and tear with over five years of use. It could last another 10 years before it’s retired and exhibited at the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum. You don’t just throw away a piece of canoe and kayak history.
Regardless of my sentiments, the PFD is hardly the vest I bought new. Experts say PFD’s are made up of a variety of materials which over time can be damaged by the environment where they are utilized. 

“The foam inside the PFD loses floatation a variety of different ways, from ultraviolet light damage to off-gassing just sitting on the shelf, ” says River Store whitewater safety instructor Gigi McBee. “The floatation comes from the bubbles in the foam maintaining their shape. As the PFD is exposed to UV,  it looses some of the bubble structure and will compress.”
McBee gives 4 tips to tell if your PFD is starting to lose its floatation:
-) Does color looked damaged by sun, including looking at shoulder straps and stitching in critical areas that are pulled on in an emergency? If there is color damage your PFD is not as strong.
-) Squeeze the foam between thumb and index finger and release. Does the foam bounce back instantly or does it gradually come back out? If it gradually does the foam no longer is holding air in many places and has lost floatation.
-) Go out and test it.  Get out in deeper water; if you feel like the vest is floating you well, keep in mind whitewater is aerated and does not hold you up as well as non-aerated water. Saltwater will give you more buoyancy. 
-)UV damage can cause stitching to fail, and fabric to tear,  Check the fade of the PFD.

“Was it red once and now pink? Is the elastic stretched out, neoprene faded?” said McBee. “If you are depending on your PFD to stay on you,especially if someone has to haul on the straps to pull you up into a raft or out of a sieve, you really need that stitching and cloth to hold up.” 
There isn’t a set number of days or seasons, says McBee, for the life of a PFD.  Most folks can get away with buying a new PFD every 3-6 years depending on its use, storage, and exposure to UV rays. Heat can damage the foam on the inside of the jacket and some oils will be reactive with the foam in such a way that the air pockets in the foam will soften and lose air content, resorting in less floatation. 
“There are some ways you can extend the life,” said Mcbee. “Store it somewhere cool. Use something like 303 to spray on the fabric of the PFD to protect it from the sun, and don’t leave your PFD in the car where it can get over 100 degrees.” 
Air dry in a cool, out of the sun area when not using your PFD, keeping it free from molds, oil and salt residue. NEVER dry with an external heat source like heater, dryer, or in hot sun, as this will damage the foam floatation.
Clean the PFD with a mild soap periodically to help maintain exterior fabric. Do not use the PFD as a seat cushion; it will damage the foam floatation. Check buckles and zips to make sure they are in working order. 

The great thing about PFD’s is that they float… well, at least they should, that is why McBee recommends a simple float test before that big river outing. “See if you are positive or negative on the buoyancy.” said McBee,  “Most PFD’s used in the paddling industry are type III or type V; these hold 15.5 to 22 lbs of floatation. If you are negative a little loss of flotation is a big deal.  If the vest is not for you, but for friends to use, you may want to go with a high float PFD, that way even if it loses some floatation it will have more than the average jacket.”
Looking at my PFD now, it might be time for an upgrade. The final decision was voiced by my wife. “It’s ugly and stinky and I don’t want it in the house.”
Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum, let me know when the exhibit is ready. Until then my PFD and its history will be on the display in my garage. 

A link to Nick’s highly entertaining blog-
WI Canoe Heritage Museum home page-
The River Store home page-

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