Check Expiration Dates on Auto-inflate PFDs

Every inflatable personal floatation device has its own distinct inspection regimen.


Planning for an upcoming season of sailing or a summer cruise involves a review of all the ship’s safety equipment, and many essential safety items have components that expire or need to be replaced at regular intervals regardless of whether they were used (MOB light batteries, for example). The need for these expiration dates and their impact on sailors wallets are a topic for later debate. In this post, I’ll offer some images depicting common inspection points to add to your routine.

Clearly, having an inflatable personal floatation device (PFD) on board is worthless if you haven’t maintained it to ensure proper operation. And maintenance, in the case of many of today’s inflatable PFDs and PFD-harness combos, means ensuring that the components are not expired. Before starting your inspection, check with the manufacturer for the protocol that they recommend, and review the owners’ manuals. Most manufacturers will have a website or blogpost describing the inspection protocol. Here, for example, are the inspection routines that Mustang, a leading manufacturer of marine safety equipment recommends for its PFDs:


  1. There are no rips, tears, excessive abrasion or holes, all seams are securely sewn, and the cover, straps and hardware are still strong.
  2. Oral-inflation dust cap is in the stowed position
  3. The PFD is not twisted
  4. All zippers, closures and waist buckle are secure
  5. Your inflator status indicator is green. Some PFDs have more than one status indicator! Refer to your product manual if you’re not sure
  6. The inflator pull-tab is hanging on the outside
  7. Bobbin Check


  1. Oral Inflation Valve Test: Fully inflate the PFD using the oral inflator, and then hold the valve under water. If bubbles appear, deflate the PFD and re-inflate it again.
  2. Leak Test: To test for air leakage, orally inflate your PFD until firm and then let it sit inflated for 16 hours. A PFD with a leak in it will not hold its firmness and should be replaced.
  3. Bobbin Inspection and Replacement: Your inflatable PFD may use a bobbin activation system. This is a yellow “pill” with white powder inside. When the white powder dissolves, it activates a pin that punctures the CO2 cylinder and inflates your PFD. Inspect the pill to make sure it’s still intact and replace the pill if it looks compromised.


  1. Perform a thorough Visual Inspection
  2. Perform the Oral Inflation Valve Test
  3. Perform the Leak Test
  4. Clean the inflatable PFD
  5. Check for dirt and corrosion and replace all corroded parts
  6. Record “Annual” in permanent ink on the PFD service record label

For the leak test, most manufacturers advise that the PFD should be inflated and left overnight. If there is any noticeable sign of air loss, inflate the PFD again and immerse it in a bath with soapy water and look for any bubbles indicating a leak. Except for tiny bladder leaks (not at seams) when there is no other repair option, don’t try to repair your own PFD.

Check Expiration Dates on Auto-inflate PFDs
Photo by Ralph Naranjo

Halkey-Roberts inflators have a green indictor (above) illustrating that the CO2 cylinder has made a positive connections.


Check Expiration Dates on Auto-inflate PFDs
Photo by Ralph Naranjo

Every owner should know how to quickly access the oral inflation tube (above). Sometimes this inflator is not exposed unless you manually unzip or open the PFD. Mustang recommends checking oral inflation every two months.


Check Expiration Dates on Auto-inflate PFDsAny older inflatable PFD that shows deterioration should be replaced or sent back to the manufacturer for evaluation (above).

Check Expiration Dates on Auto-inflate PFDs
Photo by Ralph Naranjo                                                                                                                                             

Each bobbin carries a manufacture date (March 2001 in the bobbin above). When the bobbin is immersed, the white ring of soluble material disintegrates and triggers the inflation process. A bobbin free of any visible physical defects or deterioration should be good for 3-4 years after this date (the expiration date is sometimes also printed on the packaging). As they age, bobbins can become more susceptible to accidental auto-inflation triggered by rain, spray or waves, so it’s smart to adhere to a 3-year replacement schedule. Some auto-inflators like the Hammar type (below) have expiration dates (not manufacture dates) printed where you can see them.


Check Expiration Dates on Auto-inflate PFDs
Photo by Ralph Naranjo

This Hammar inflator activates on hydrostatic pressure (above). Hammar recommends the inflator be replaced every five years, and provides a kit and YouTube video describing the process (below).


Remember that having an inspected and up-to-date PFD does not alone keep you safe. Many of the shortcomings or “quirks” of each jacket don’t become evident until you have actually inflated and used them in a simulated MOB scenario. For example, you should be able to instinctively reach and use your oral inflation tube should the PFD not inflate. This can involve manually opening the vest’s zipper or velcro closures. You should also be able to unclip your tether on a combined harness/ PFD when the PFD is inflated. Often, the usually easily accessible clip is buried beneath the bladders when they are inflated.

For more information on this and related topics:

— My previous blog post on the care and use of personal flotation devices describes a do-it-yourself pool test and inflation test, and highlights the evolving trends in PFD use.

— In the summer of 2018, marine safety expert and editor-at-large Ralph Naranjo looked into the auto-inflation trends in contemporary PFDs and how this might prompt us to revise our protocol for going overboard. Among the many useful conclusions of the study, he advised that sailors reach for the manual inflation pull-cord as soon as going overboard is imminent, rather than wait for the auto-inflation to activate.

— In the the July 2019 Practical Sailor report an auto-inflating PFD safety, Naranjo examines the utility of inherently buoyant PFDs and the role they play in personal safety for all sailors—from offshore cruisers to near-shore dinghy sailors. Although inflatable harness-PFDs are more likely to be worn at all times, recent accidents have highlighted their shortcomings in certain scenarios like breaking surf.

Check Expiration Dates on Auto-inflate PFDs
Practical Sailor has tested dozens of inflatable PFD harnesses over the years. Results are compiled in our eBook MOB Prevention and Recovery.

For a comprehensive study of survival gear and man overboard recovery check out our our downloadable ebook MOB Prevention and Recovery, available in our online bookstore.

Darrell Nicholson
Darrell Nicholson is Director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division and the editor of Practical Sailor. A lifelong thalassophile, he grew up sailing everything from El Toro dinghies to classic Morgans on Miami's Biscayne Bay. In the early 90s, he left a newspaper job to sail an old gaff-rigged ketch across the Pacific and has been writing about boats and the sea ever since. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at


  1. I read somewhere that a hand pump should be used to “orally” inflate a PFD for inspection. The reason given is that inflating orally by breathing into the tube introduces moisture into the bladder which can cause problems. Not sure about problems, but seems like a good idea to inflate with drier air, so I use a pump rather than blowing into the tube.

  2. There are some very informative videos on the US Sailing Safety at Sea pages online regarding maintenance of a wide variety of inflators. These are part of the US Sailing online Safety at Sea course, which covers 15 topics related to sailing offshore.

  3. No mention of checking the CO2 cylinder? Removing from the inflator assembly and visually checking the seal is good, but the better method is to weigh it on a food or postal scale. Most cylinders have a full weight spec stamped on them, if it’s underweight it should be replaced.

  4. Good call. I was going to post the same. Although, digging deeper, i have to wonder why they are considered to be expired after 3-4 years if they are fully intact and able to arm the vest making indicator green. Is it “expiration” as in best jf used by meaning it’s more likely the go off prematurely or is it that it will become hardened to the point that it will no longer go off when immersed? If it’s the former, then i’d so no need to replace but if it’s the latter then i would think they would stamp an expiration date instead of a manufacture date on the bobbin!

  5. Thanks for all the good information. I can attest to the reliability of a well maintained auto-inflate PFD. My 14′ jon boat capsized when I overcompensated on my 15hp outboard tiller and took on water over the gunnel. My fishing buddy and myself were very fortunate that we were not struck by the craft as it overturned. The PDF’s inflated as necessary. We were able to signal passers bye driving on a road about a half mile from us. There was about a forty-five minute wait for help to arrive and we were picked up without incident. If there was injury or hypothermia set in these PFD’s would have been the difference between life and death.