Your immersion suit is a bit like a parachute. When aviators are forced to "bail out", they rely on their parachutes to get them to the ground safely. If you can no longer safely stay on your boat, you are going to rely on your immersion suit to keep you afloat and warm until help arrives. It makes sense then, that you will want to ensure that it's ready to go in case of an emergency.
To help you out, below is an article on how to maintain your immersion suit. We first published the article in the Spring 2009 edition of Marine Safety Update. Want to learn how to pressure test your own immersion suit? Download our brochure, Your Immersion Suit: How To Maintain It, Leak-test It, Repair It.
Immersion Suit Inspection Steps Outlined
Whether you have recently purchased a new immersion suit or you are depending on the same one you have had for years, now is a good time to inspect your suit. Persons wearing an immersion suit are seven times more likely to survive an emergency at sea than those who are not wearing one, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health. You want to be sure it’s ready to use in case of an emergency. Here are some things to inspect for:
How does your suit fit over the clothes that you normally wear working? Many of us tend to increase our girth as we get older. Does your suit still fit?
Beware of the sizing label on immersion suits. Despite the fact that some suits say they fit “110 to 330 pounds” no suit is guaranteed to fit you unless you try it on. Floating in 20-foot breaking seas is not the time to try out your suit for proper fit!
Style & Features
Can you operate survival equipment such as EPIRBs, life rafts and radios while wearing the suit’s gloves? If you have removable gloves, can you get your hands through the neoprene cuffs? Try out your suit in the water to make sure the features you bought the suit for actually work as designed.
Your suit’s air bladders are critical for extra buoyancy in rough seas. Is the bladder firmly attached to the suit? Is the inflation hose firmly attached? Is the mouthpiece firmly attached? Is the inflation hose situated in its holder in front of the suit? Can you inflate the bladder and does it hold air for 24 hours? Alternately, place the inflated bladder underwater and immediately look for leaks. Is the lock screw on an older air hose in the locked open position away from the mouthpiece?
There should be at least 31 square inches of tape on the front of the suit and an additional 31 square inches on the back. Any peeled, yellowed or missing tape should be replaced.
Your suit’s zipper is one of its most important and expensive parts. Ensure that there is no corrosion or missing teeth on the zipper. Green-colored teeth are a sign of corrosion. Clean by brushing with a mixture of baking soda and fresh water, rinse and repeat. If green teeth are still evident, or teeth are missing, replace the suit.
Zipper lubricant should be a nonpetroleum product recommended by the manufacturer. Spread lubricant on both the inside and outside of the zipper. Run the zipper up and down several times. The zipper should be easy to pull. Then, leave the zipper about one inch from bottom when stowing the suit, so that your clothing won’t hang up on the zipper when donning the suit in a hurry.
Be sure that the lanyard is not too long, so it does not get caught in zipper. An arm’s length is too long.
Whistle and Light
The whistle should not have a floating ball or pea, which will prevent the whistle from being blown when in the water. The light should work, have batteries well within their expiration date, and be of a good quality for the saltwater environment.
The suit’s material should be dry inside and out. Feel the inside of the legs, feet and gloves for moisture. It should also be free of grease, dirt, fuel smells, holes, mold, burns, chemicals, etc. Soap designed for neoprene, or a mild soapy solution and a rinse in fresh water should clean suit.
Check all seams for tears, particularly where seams meet or turn quickly. Small holes can be fixed with a sealant such as Aquaseal®, which is available at dive shops. Anything more than a minor hole should be repaired at a factory authorized repair shop.
Note the thickness of material. Neoprene suits should be at least ¼ inch thick. Thin material means it has been compressed over time in storage or has been on a vessel that has sunk. Thinned material compromises its hypothermia protection and is a sign the suit should be replaced.
Do not dry immersion suits in direct sunlight or heat. Store your suit in a moderate temperature and in a well ventilated space. In the off-season, remove your suit from its bag and hang it up to extend its life.
Mustang™ immersion suits have an inner liner. Be sure that the liner has no tears, is dry, and that the liner is snapped into the suit correctly.
Ensure that the face flap is fully sewn onto hood. Make a mental note of which side of the hood the flap is located to make it easier to find when donning suit.
Some suits have valves in the feet to allow air to escape if entering water in a head down position. Immerse the foot valves in water to check for leaks.
Check that the metal snaps are not ripped out, are not corroded, and are lubricated. Ensure that the bag handle has not torn from bag. Be sure the size of the suit corresponds to the size indicated on the bag. Generally, red bags are for small adult suits, orange bags for regular sized suits and green bags for jumbo sized suits. Mark your bagged suit by attaching a whistle, light, or other object on the bag handle so you can quickly identify it.
Most immersion suit manufacturers recommend a factory certified inspection once every two years and annually after five years. Contact your suit maker to get a list of their certified repair facilities.
Currently immersion suits do not have an expiration date. The life of the suit depends a lot on its care. But suits much older than 10 or 12 years should be inspected very critically. Suits that are 20 or more years old are certainly beyond their service life. Contact the manufacturer or your local Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Examiner if you have questions about the age of your immersion suit.
46 CFR 28.140 of the Code of Federal Regulations requires that you “[i]nspect, clean and repair as necessary” your immersion suit, in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines. So, take time now to examine your suit, and re-inspect it before every trip.
Practice donning your suit within 60 seconds during monthly emergency drills. Practice donning your immersion suit until donning is as quick and easy as putting on your pants in the morning. After all, your immersion suit is your “parachute” in case of an emergency at sea!