1.  What are PFDs?

PFDs are personal floatation devices. They are designed to keep a person in a relatively upright postion to allow the person to breathe & not to have to tread water to stay afloat. They can be either closed cell foam jackets or inflatable jackets. In Australia, they are classified into 3 Categories. Type 1 PFDs, are intended to be used in water activities where early rescue may be expected. The outer fabric of Type 1 must be of safety colours. Type 2 & 3 PFDs with the same buoyancy requirements but are lower than PFD Type 1, are intended to provide flotation for short term immersion in sheltered water during daylight hours.The upper portion of the PFD Type 2 must be of safety colours. However there is no safety colours requirements for PFD Type 3 and there are to be used in supervised situations. For compliance to Australian Standards, the safety colours must meet the colour fastness to light on blue Wool standard of 4-5 and the colour fastness to seawater of 4-5 on a grey scale.

Although PFDs are meant to be used in sheltered waters & are intended to keep you afloat until help arrives, they may not be suitable for all situations.PFDs may not react the same way in rough situations as in calm waters. For children wearing PFDs, it is very important that they come under constant competent supervision.

As for the category of PFD to use, please check with your relevant marine authorities regarding regulations covering your chosen water activity.

2.  Why use a PFD?

We are built differently and generally most adults require 3.5kg to 5.5kg of buoyancy to keep their heads above water.Therefore most adults just require PFDs that provide the 3.5 to 5.5 kg of "upward lift" to keep them afloat until help arrives. All PFD types are able to provide that upward lift requirement. Apart from the weight of adults , it is important to note that there are other factors that determine the upward lift namely:-

- Body fat;

- Lung's size;

- The type & weight of clothing & the items in the pockets;

- Water condition;

- A person's physical condition.

3.  Choosing a PFD

- Make sure it is an approved product. Complies & meet does not mean approved;

- Seriously look at the design of the PFD from the aspect of how it is going to float you when you are knocked unconscious. Be aware that your centre gravity changes and you are more likely to float face down. A good design PFD will turn you over to face upwards at an inclined angle;

- For closed cells foam PFD, check whether the fabric housing the foam is coated. If it is, check for water filtration points. Poor and inadequate filtration points will affect the performance of the PFD;

- Check the label to ensure that it is intended for your weight & size;

- Ensure that the Type of PFD that is applicable to the water/ boating activity you intend to engage in;

- Try on the PFD to ensure that it fits properly and is comfortable on you. Note that PFDs are meant to be worn over the duration of your activity. The weight of the PFD is important to determine the comfort factor

4.  Test the PFD in water

- Wear the PFD according to the instructions given;

- Test it in water to ascertain how it performs because an approved PFD does not mean it will perform well for you. Likewise as highlighted earlier that all PFDs will provide the Upward Lift to float an adult but that does not mean that all of them will float you in a safe position. It is important to look at the design of the PFD and the type of fabric used.

- Relax your body to allow the PFD to perform;

- Make sure that your PFD offer you maximum performance in water in that it keeps your chin above water & you can breathe easily. If your mouth is not well above the water , then you have to get a new PFD ( better design) that can meet the above requirements or one with more buoyancy and a better design.

5.  Types of PFDs

  • Inflatables
  • Closed Cell Foam or Commonly known as Inherently Buoyancy Jackets
  • Hybrid
5.1.  Inflatable PFDs

- available for person weighing 40 kg & above.

Generally most inflatable PFDs for adults provide a buoyancy of 150 Newtons ie approximately 15kg of upward lift . They will float any adults without carrying additional dead weights. How an adult float in the water depends on the design of the PFD (see notes above).

The inflatable PFDs come either in Oral & Manual inflation or Oral & automatic inflation.There are pros & cons in either of the system. With the former (Oral & Manual inflation), if a person is unconscious upon impact in water, the PFD will not provide him with any assistance. However, if a person has an automatic inflation PFD, contact with water will activate the mechanism and the PFD will inflate & support the person's head above water. The downside with automatic is that the inflation system will activate whenever the mechanism is in contact with water.

Both automatic and manual inflation systems are operated with a CO2 disposable cartridge or cylinder.With manual, the system is activated by pulling the cord with a knob in a downward motion. The action will trigger off the system. However with automatic, simply immersing in water will inflate the PFD.

Each time the PFD is inflated, the cartridge needs to be replaced with a new one. For the automatic version, the water dissolving capsule in the mechanism also needs to be replaced.

To deflate the PFD, just glently depress the tip of the mouth tube & press the bladder against your body . This action will reduce the volume of the bladder of your PFD.

Inflatable PFDs are not recommended for non swimmers unless worn inflated and not recommended for use where water impact is expected such as skiing, white water rafting & personal water use. However they are recommended for use in offshore cruising, racing and fishing.

Inflatable PFDs require more frequent maintenance than inherently buoyant PFDs.

5.2. Closed Cell Foam PFDs or Inherently Buoyant Jackets

The closed cell foam used is essentially a packaging foam able to withstand impact & non water absorption. These come in different TYPES( 1,2 & 3 ) & weight sizes. Types are visually differentiated by the safety colours requirements as illustrated on point 1. PFD Type 1 has a collar whereas TYPE 2 & 3 do not have a collar.

They actually offer the best protection. Although they are bulky and uncomfortable, they do offer better thermal protection than the inflatables.. The foam used in this type of PFDs can come in blocks or loose pieces. Apart from the nature of the foam, weight & design of the PFD also affects the comfort factor

Closed Cells Foam PFDs cater for varying weight sizes from children to adults. Please check the label to ascertain whether it fits your size.

5.3.  Hybrid

ie. an inflatable PFD sitting on a closed cell foam PFD.

As explained above, it is essentially an inflatable PFD attached to a closed cell foam PFD. This form of safety buoyancy device may not be suitable for all types of applications. Design plays an important part in terms of performance.

6.  PFDs and Children

With children, parents need to do the following:-

- Teach your children ( where appropriate) on how to put on their PFDs & test their PFDs in shallow water to see how the PFDs perform in water. In a family situation, mark each jacket with a person's name or where applicable differentiate them by PFDs colours.

- Supervision is very important & necessary. A PFD is no substitute for competent and vigilant adult supervision of children in and around water. Children because their body weights are distributed differently, are proned to float differently to adults.

- Before each family boating excursion, check the condition of the PFDs for deterioration, leaks etc. Repair or replace them where applicable.It recommended that repairs be performed by qualified technician.

- Check the weights of your children to ascertain whether they have out grown the expressed weight classifications of their current PFDs.

7.  Maintenance & Storage

- For inflatable PFDs , it is recommended that they are being serviced frequently.

- For all types of PFDs, do not use harsh detergents or solvent to clean them.

- Store them in an area with good ventilation.

- If wet, allow it to dry in open air before storing.

8.  Useful hints for an inflatable PFD

- Check whether it is an approved PFD .

- Wear the PFD to ascertain whether it provides the comfort & mobility you require. Remember that you have to wear it for the duration of your activity. Hence, the weight of PFD on your shoulder and around the neck is an important factor for comfort. The lighter PFD will provide better comfort.

- Open up the valise of the PFD to look at the bladder design. The volume distribution of the front & head of the bladder may provide you with an idea which way the PFD will float you.

- Check the thickness of the Polyurethane coating on the bladder and also the width of the weld bar used.

- Check whether the brand will provide after sale technical support.

- Check whether the PFD you intend to purchase is service & repair friendly. In many cases, a repair may cost as much as a new PFD.

- Check also cost of servicing and part replacements.

9.  Useful hints for Closed Cell PFDs

- Like inflatable, check whether it is an approved PFD & also the design.

- Wear the PFD to see whether it will provide the comfort & mobility you require.

-Test the PFD in shallow water to see it float you in a safe position. If it does not, get one that does.

10.0 Is my Foam PFD safe to use?

Does your PFD have any rips/tears/exposed foam ?

Has your PFD's conspicuous colour faded ?

Is the Zip corroded or stuck?

Are the Buckles or clips damaged/not functional and do not allow the PFD to fit the user correctly?

Are any webbing or belts damaged and do not allow the PFD to fit the user correctly?


If you answered YES to any of these questions then not to use the PFD and replace it.