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Immersion Suit & PFD

Maintenance

Maintain your PFD as if your life depends on it, because it may. Regular inspection and maintenance not only prolongs the PFD’s life, but ensures that it will work when you need it.

PFD & Immersion Suit Maintenance

Adapted from, Beating the Odds: A Guide to Commercial Fishing Safety, 7th Edition, Susan Clark Jensen and Jerry Dzugan, 2014

Maintain your PFD as if your life depends on it, because it may. Regular inspection and maintenance not only prolongs the PFD’s life, but ensures that it will work when you need it.

Immersion Suit Maintenance

After the sinking of the F/V Wayward Wind, an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that corroded zippers on the immersion suits worn by three of the deceased crewmembers most likely contributed to their deaths. Because the suits were not fully zipped, cold water was able to flush in and out.


In addition, inflation bladders were not attached to all of the suits and none of the suits had lights. The NTSB concluded that the crewmembers might very well have survived if the suits had been properly
maintained.

Visually inspect your suit and bag for rips and tears once a month. Make sure the suit is dry. Storing these suits wet or damp can cause them to mold.

Partially Rolled Immersion Suit. Roll your suit up with the zipper unzipped and air bladder deflated.

Roll your suit up with the zipper unzipped and air bladder deflated.

Rolled Immersion Suit. Avoid creases in the immersion suit’s arms by laying the arms over the top of the rolled suit.

Avoid creases in the immersion suit’s arms by laying the arms over the top of the rolled suit.

Shake your suit out of its bag every month for a more thorough inspection and practice donning during monthly drills:

  • Examine it for rips and tears, and check the seams to make sure they are securely glued. Small leaks and tears can be repaired using a dive suit cement available at dive shops.

  • Try the suit on, zip it up, secure the face flap, and blow up the air bladder. Does it still fit? Is the air bladder’s tube securely attached to the bladder? Deflate the air bladder before storing the suit and make sure the knurled ring (if there is one) is screwed away from the mouthpiece so you can easily inflate the bladder in an emergency.

  • If your suit has a CO₂ inflation system for the air bladder, check the CO₂ cartridge. Unused cartridges have no hole in their end, while used cartridges will have a hole. Test the inflation system once a year to make sure it works, and replace the spent cartridge immediately with an unused one of the same size. Using too large a cartridge can blow out seams in the bladder. Before installing a new cartridge, put the firing lever in the “up” position or the new cartridge will discharge when it is screwed in.

  • Do the PFD’s whistle and light work? Replace malfunctioning PFD light batteries and batteries that will expire before your next inspection.

  • Check the reflective tape. Is it securely attached, and does it reflect light? You should have 31 square inches of reflective tape on both front and back. Yellowing is a sign to replace tape.

  • Repair or replace anything that does not work. Make major repairs only with the manufacturer’s approval, and repair and replace zippers only at authorized facilities. Non-approved alterations may jeopardize the suit’s USCG approval.

  • Wear the suit in the water at least once a year to check for leaks. When your suit has been used in salt water or a swimming pool, rinse it inside and out in fresh water. If it has been contaminated
    with petroleum products, wash it by hand in warm, soapy water (use dish or hand soap), and rinse it thoroughly.

  • Turn the suit inside out, dry it completely in a shady, well-ventilated place, then turn it right side out to dry the outside.

  • Lubricate the zipper according to the manufacturer’s instructions. (Manufacturers differ in their recommendations.) Avoid petroleum-based greases or waxes; they can destroy the rubber on the zipper. Lubricate the inside of the teeth, too, and work the zipper several times, checking to make sure the zipper-pull is still securely attached.

  • Leave the zipper open, but zipped up just one inch to unwork a jam if it occurs. Be sure the zipper toggle is outside the suit. Roll the suit up from bottom to top, trying to avoid any folds. Lay the
    arms over the rolled-up suit, put the suit back in the bag, and write the inspection date on the bag. Follow your suit manufacturer’s instructions for stowing your suit.

  • Store the suit in a dry, accessible place where you can get to it quickly in an emergency.

Lubricating and Immersion Suit Zipper with the Manufacturer's Recommended Wax

Lubricating and Immersion Suit Zipper with the Manufacturer's Recommended Wax

Immersion Suit Repair

If your immersion suit needs repair, be sure to take or send it to an authorized repair shop. Some life raft repackers are also immersion suit manufacturer–approved repair facilities. The suit’s manufacturer
should be able to recommend an approved facility.

Pressure Testing Immersion Suits

Not every suit is tested for leaks by the manufacturer. It is a good idea to pressure test your immersion suit when it is new and every year thereafter. You can do this with a small shop vacuum that can both suck and blow air.

  • Insert shop-vac hose into the “blower” opening. Insert the other end of the hose into the narrow end of a 14-inch conical buoy and secure the buoy to the hose with tape. Insert other end of buoy into hood of suit.

  • Zip up suit so it makes a tight fit around the buoy. Seal any air valves in the feet with duct tape.

  • Prepare a spray bottle with mild soapy water. Turn on the shop-vac to inflate suit. Spray seams or problem areas with soapy water and look for bubbles. Mark the location of any leaks on a suit diagram.

  • Turn off shop vac. Rinse soap off suit and hang to dry.

 

When the suit is dry, use a wet suit repair such as Aquaseal® on leaky seams. You can also thin it with Cotol®. Both are available from dive shops. Add a tag to your suit’s bag and write the date of
the pressure test and work done.


Be sure to use a good organic fume respirator and impermeable gloves, as well as hearing protection. Don’t overinflate or leave suit pressurized more than needed. This should help when the Coast Guard checks your suit for its condition. If the suit is older than 20 years, it’s time for a new suit.

Equipment for Pressure Testing an Immersion Suit

Equipment for Pressure Testing an Immersion Suit

Leak testing an immersion suit. Spray the seams with soapy water when pressure testing and immersion suit to check for leaks.

Spray the seams with soapy water when pressure testing and immersion suit to check for leaks.

Maintenance of Other Kinds of PFDs

Take care to maintain your PFD so it will keep you afloat when you need it.

  • To prevent rot and mildew, thoroughly dry PFDs, both inside and out, before they are stored. If they have been soaked by salt water, rinse them in fresh water before drying to help prevent the zippers, zipper-pulls, snaps, and other metal parts from corroding. Follow the cleaning instructions on the label.

  • At least once every three months and more often if you wear the PFD frequently. Check it for rips, holes, corrosion, and decaying fabric. Although a small tear or hole will probably not destroy the garment’s flotation, it should be repaired.

  • Lightly lubricate metal zippers with a silicone lubricant designed for diving-gear zippers. Replace broken zippers, snaps, and fasteners.

  • Check all straps to make sure they are still attached and in good condition.

  • Try the PFD on. Does it still fit?

  • Test the reflective tape to make sure it reflects light, and replace any defective tape. Be sure there are 31 square inches of tape on both front and back of each PFD.

  • Many PFD manufacturers use the vegetable fiber, kapok, for the filling in Type I PFDs and seat cushions, sealing the kapok in plastic bags to keep it both dry and buoyant. If these kapok-filled bags
    get punctured or burst, the kapok can absorb water, and the PFD will lose flotation or may not float at all. Check the bags by gently squeezing the PFD, listening for air leaks. If the PFDs leak, are
    waterlogged, or do not float, they should not be used. Slice through and discard them to prevent others from using them.

Unused (left) and Used (right) CO2 Cartridges for Inflating PFDs

Unused (left) and Used (right) CO₂ Cartridges
for Inflating PFDs

Installing a CO2 cartridge in the inflator mechanism on an inflatable PFD. Make sure the inflator mechanism lever is up before installing a new cartridge.

Make sure the inflator mechanism lever is up before installing a new cartridge.

Inflator mechanism on an inflatable PFD. Pulling the inflator mechanism lever down pushes a pin into the CO2 cartridge.

Pulling the inflator mechanism lever down pushes a pin into the CO2 cartridge.

  • Check CO2 cartridges and replace them as needed.

  • A water-activated CO2 mechanism in a USCG-approved inflatable PFD should have two green markers indicating it is in the charged position. One is a green tab indicating the cartridge has not been discharged. The second green indicator is at the bottom of the mechanism and indicates that the automatic inflation mechanism is still intact. Automatic inflation systems using a dissolving pill also should be visually inspected for pitting every few months. Pitting is a sign that the water-activated catalyst is degrading in the moist environment. This may lead to failure of automatic inflation. Red indicators mean the device has been discharged in some manner.

  • Inflatables need to be orally inflated every three months at a minimum.

Water activated inflator on an inflable PFD. A water-activated CO₂ mechanism in one type of USCG approved inflatable. The PFD should have two green markers indicating it is in the charged position. Red indicators mean it has been discharged.

A water-activated CO₂ mechanism in one type of USCG approved
inflatable. The PFD should have two green markers indicating it is in
the charged position (above). Red indicators mean it has been
discharged (below).

  • Check life rings to make sure they float, and inspect the attached lines. Are lines secured at all points? If faulty lines cannot be reattached, destroy and discard the life ring.

  • Be sure your vessel’s name is clearly written on the ring.

  • Test PFD lights to make sure they work, and replace defective parts or batteries that will expire before your next inspection.

  • Avoid leaving PFDs where they will be exposed to fuel; this can cause some types to deteriorate.