Selecting an Inflatable Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Most personal flotation devices (PFDs) have a major design flaw: the bulky flotation material makes them so cumbersome and uncomfortable that few boaters actually wear them. And that’s a serious problem when someone falls overboard unexpectedly.

A good solution to this problem, albeit not a perfect one, are inflatable PFDs, which are much less bulky. This makes them easier and more comfortable to wear, and that encourages folks to wear them. But how do you go about choosing the correct type and style for the type of boating you do? That’s exactly what we’ll cover here, so read on for a bit of Inflatable PFD 101.

A belt-type inflatable. Simply pull the cord and a wearable PFD emerges. Photo courtesy of Onyx.

A belt-type inflatable. Simply pull the cord and a wearable PFD emerges. Photo courtesy of Onyx.

How They Work

All inflatable PFDs work when a cartridge of compressed carbon dioxide (CO2) is pierced, inflating a large chamber around the users neck and upper body. Some inflate automatically when submerged in water; the firing mechanism is surrounded by a jacket that quickly dissolves, releasing the CO2 pin. Others are manual, requiring the user to pull a ripcord to pierce the cartridge. 

Advantages and Disadvantages

Here are the primary advantages of an inflatable PFD:

  • They’re much more comfortable to wear than their big, orange, foam-filled brethren.
  • Most inflatable lifejackets also have more flotation (buoyancy) than regular lifejackets, and can be superior in their ability to turn a person face up in the water (from a facedown position).
  • They perform very well in the water, keeping most people face up in rough conditions.

And there are a few negatives to consider:

  • Inflatable lifejackets—manual and automatic—require careful inspections and servicing of the inflator module at a maximum two-year interval, but annually is better.
  • Inflatable lifejackets are not intended for use by children under 16.
  • Lastly, automatic inflatable lifejackets aren’t so great for activities that involve frequent water entry or immersion, such as watersports, kayaking, or paddling. A manual inflatable vest is a better bet for these activities.
An automatic inflatable life vest with integral harness. Note the D-ring attachment points. Photo courtesy of SOSPENDERS.

An automatic inflatable life vest with integral harness. Note the D-ring attachment points. Photo courtesy of SOSPENDERS.

Types of Inflatable PFDs

Belt or “fanny pack” type inflatable lifejackets are worn around the waist and generally are manually deployable. Once the vest inflates, the user puts it around his or her neck. Great for paddlers, kayakers, and watersports enthusiasts.

A rearming kit includes a new CO2 cartridge, paper bobbin, and retainer pin. Inflatable lifejackets require servicing at least every two years. Photo courtesy of SOSPENDERS.

A rearming kit includes a new CO2 cartridge, paper bobbin, and retainer pin. Inflatable lifejackets require servicing at least every two years. Photo courtesy of SOSPENDERS.

Other inflatable jackets are worn in place around the neck, with a strap around the back. They generally come in the aforementioned manual or automatic flavors, but also in configurations with or without an integral harness. A harness allows the user to be tethered to the boat to prevent going overboard in the first place. Automatic inflatables are great for powerboaters, sailors, and anglers.

U.S. Coast Guard Ratings

Things get a little confusing when it comes to inflatable lifejackets and their ratings. While most inflatable PFDs are rated as Type V, they also come with USCG performance ratings, which generally try to classify how capable the PFD will be in real-world conditions. For example, you might have a Type V automatic inflatable life jacket that provides Type II life jacket performance (better). A belt pack is also a Type V, but only provides Type III performancbecause the user has to put the life jacket on once it’s been inflated. The lower the performance type number, the better the inflatable jacket will perform in turning you over and keeping you upright in rough water.

A manual inflatable lifejacket. Photo courtesy of SOSPENDERS.

A manual inflatable lifejacket. Photo courtesy of SOSPENDERS.

 

What Counts?

The other rub with inflatable jackets is that some have to actually be worn for them to count as part of your onboard USCG-required inventory. Generally speaking, if your inflatable jacket does not have a newer type “1F” inflator, you have to wear the jacket for it to count. Jackets with a “1F” inflator can be stowed away. The unfortunate thing about this confusing rule is that most folks buy an inflatable jacket because it’s comfortable to wear, not to stow away unused.

 

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