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Guide to Choosing an Inflatable PFD | Expert Advice

Why choose an inflatable life jacket?

Traditional life jackets use inherently buoyant materials, such as foam (or Kapok), to keep the wearer afloat. Inflatable life jackets, as their name indicates, use inflatable bladders to provide buoyancy.

Inflatable life jackets are less bulky than traditional life jackets and more comfortable to wear. When not inflated, the bladder is compact and lightweight. Inflatables come in a variety of performance ratings. Many are USCG approved while some carry European certifications instead. The specific USCG rating of life jacket is determined by characteristics such as its amount of buoyancy, in-water performance and type of inflation mechanism. See all inflatable life jackets here.

Advantages of Inflatable Life Jackets:spinlock inflatable life jacket

  • High visibility when inflated
  • Ability to have an integrated strobe light, spray hood, and AIS locating device inside the PFD’s housing
  • Turns most wearers face-up faster than traditional life jackets
  • Some will keep most unconscious users face up
  • More comfortable than foam life jackets, and more likely to be worn
  • Superior in-water performance

Disadvantages of Inflatable Life Jackets:

  • USCG does not recommended for children under 16 or people under 80 lbs
  • Require inspection and maintenance
  • Do not aid against hypothermia
  • Need to keep rearming kits on board

The top five considerations when choosing an inflatable PFD are:

1. What activities will you be doing?

Inflatables are exceptional for almost all sailing, boating and many water activities.  A few exceptions where inflatable life jackets are not ideal are:

  • In water activities – Activities where you expect to be in the water. This includes, dinghy sailing, PWC (personal watercraft), windsurfing, and kayaking.  You are better off having the buoyancy of a traditional foam flotation PFD when you could be repeatedly entering the water, and repeatedly need flotation.
  • High speed activities – If thrown from a boat while traveling at high speed. Inflatable life jackets are not for high speed impact with the water.

2. How much flotation will you need?

Life jacket buoyancy is measured in pounds or Newtons. When shopping, pay attention to the numbers provided.

22 lbs (100 Newtons) of buoyancy is the standard minimum. It is sufficient to keep most people afloat with their mouth comfortably above the water.

For offshore and coastal sailing, where sea conditions can be severe and rescue can take longer, 33 lbs. (150 Newtons) is the recommendation.

3. Should it Automatically or Manually inflate?

Inflatable life jackets come in manual or automatic inflation styles.  Automatic styles inflate when wet or submerged under water. Manual inflation requires jerking an inflation tab or handle attached to the CO2 cartridge.

Automatic inflation can be important in life saving if an accident occurred leaving you in the water.  If you are unconscious in the water, manual inflatables are of no use.

If you are in a situation where you want to control whether or not the vest inflates, and expect to be conscious, manual inflatables may be an option for you.

4. What type of inflation system should it have?

  • Manual – requires you to consciously pull an inflation tab or handle to activate the CO2 cartridge and inflate the vest.
  • Automatic with Bobbin – Automatically inflates when in contact with water.  These use a paper capsule that releases the firing pin when it becomes wet.
  • Hydrostatic Automatic – Automatically inflates when submersed in water (water pressure activates the CO2 cartridge).

5. Will you require a harness or no harness?

If you ever anticipate sailing offshore, at night or in seas where you may use a tether to attach yourself to a jackline or pad eye, even just once, purchase an inflatable life jacket with a built in harness and tether attachment point.  Generally it adds only a little more to the cost.

BROWSE ALL INFLATABLE LIFE JACKETS

inflatable life jackets

Continue reading for more inflatable life jacket details on:

 

USCG Approved or not USCG Approved

The USCG certification process can be costly, so some manufacturers, particularly those in the European market, do not seek USCG certification even though their products may meet the agency’s set standards. These same products often carry certification by the ISO (international Organization for Standards) or CE (European Commission).

5 categories for USCG approved PFDs
  • Type I: Offshore Life Jackets. Best for all waters; open ocean, rough seas, or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming.  Though foam types are bulky, inflatables ones are not.  They have the most buoyancy, reflective tape, a bright color and can turn most unconscious people face up in the water.
  • Type II: Near-shore Vests. Calm inland waters, where a quick rescue is likely, is the intent of these PFDs. They will turn some unconscious wearers to the face-up position but not all of them. Foam Type II’s are bulky, but less so than foam Type I’s.
  • Type III: Flotation Aids. These are suitable for most sailors where there is a chance for a quick rescue. They offer freedom of movement and the most comfort for a conscious person. Foam type III’s are designed so wearers can put themselves in a face-up position, but they may have to tilt their head back to avoid being face down in water.  Inflatable type III’s generally float a person head back.
  • Type IV: Throwable Devices. Cushions or ring buoys are designed to be thrown to someone in trouble and provide backup to a PFD. They are not for non-swimmers, rough waters or the unconscious. The USCG does not require these for dinghies, canoes, kayaks.
  • Type V: Special-use Devices. These are specialized PFDs for specific activities. To be acceptable by the USCG, they must be used for the activity specified on the label. Varieties include sailing (w/harness), kayaking, water skiing, windsurfing, hybrid vests and deck suits.

While sailing in US waters, there must be a USCG approved PFD for every person on board.  If you choose to wear a non USCG approved inflatable PFD, you must also have aboard a foam (not inflatable) USGC approved PFD.

NOTE: Inflatable life jackets satisfy the Coast Guard requirements of “one per person” only when worn. So if you are boarded and your inflatable PFD is in the locker (and you don’t have another USCG approved non-inflatable), you’re in violation.

USCG Approved PFD Buoyancy Requirements

Flotation is measured in pounds (US) or Newtons (Europe).  The more air in the inflation bladder the more pounds of flotation is provided, and the higher your head rides above the water.  The USCG requires the following for approved inflatable PFDs:

Type of PFD                                      Min. Adult Buoyancy lbs. (Newtons)
Type I – Inflatable                            33.00 (150)
Type I – Foam                                   22.0 (100)
Type II   – Inflatable                         33.0 (150)
Type II – Foam                                 15.5 (70)
Type III – Inflatable                         22.0 (100)
Type III – Foam                                15.5 (70)
Type V   – Hybrid Inflatable            22.0 (fully inflated) – 7.5 (deflated)
Type V – Special Use Device –      22.0 to 34.0 (100 – 155)
Inflatable
Type V – Special Use Device –        15.5 to 22.0 (70 – 100)
Foam

From the information above you can see that approved inflatables provide much more flotation than traditional foam ones, making their in the water performance superior.

Manual or Automatic Inflating?

Manual inflating PFDs require you to pull on an inflation handle or tab to activate them.  Ideal in situations where you expect to be in the water, and want to control when and if the vest inflates.

Automatic inflating PFDs will automatically inflate once you are in the water.  They are the best choice if you do not expect to be in the water and want the security of knowing your vest will automatically inflate if you do go into the water.  This is especially important if unconscious.  These vests can also manually inflate requiring you to pull on an inflation handle or tab to release the CO2. 

Inflator Types

  • Manual Inflator – requires you to consciously pull an inflator tab or handle.  Styles can be found with or without an indicator that shows if the CO2 canister has been discharged or not. Be sure re-arm after every inflation and regularly inspect.
  • Automatic Inflator – Automatically inflates when in contact with water. These include indicator(s) of the status (red/green) of the inflator mechanism that can vary from style to style, and can include the status of the auto firing mechanism, and/or the status of the CO2 canister. These use a paper capsule that releases the firing pin when it becomes wet. Typically engineered to that water has to flow up inside of the cartridge to reach capsule. This prevents accidental inflation. The engineering of automatic inflators has advanced decreasing the number of accidental inflation due to humidity or spray.
  • Hydrostatic Automatic Inflator – Automatically inflates when submersed in water (water pressure activated). There is a single system indicator (red/green) to tell you if the inflator mechanism is charged and ready to fire.

All inflatable life jackets have a backup oral inflation tube to add air or deflate the bladder.

A a minimum, all inflation types have a red/green indicator to tell you if the CO2 cylinder has been used.  Service the inflation system when the indicator is red.

Identifying Types of PFD Inflators

Halkey roberts 1 hydro

1. Halkey Roberts Pro 1F Hydro Manual/Automatic Inflator

  • Auto inflator uses a paper bobbin with a CO2 cylinder
  • UL recognized USCG 1F component
  • Red/Green service indicator window

Halkey roberts 1f

2. Halkey Roberts Pro 1F Manual/Automatic Inflator

  • Auto inflator uses a paper bobbin with CO2 cylinder on a bayonet
  • UL recognized USCG 1F component
  • Red/Green service indicator window

halkey robers alpha

3. Halkey Roberts Alpha Inflator Manual/Automatic Inflator

  • Auto inflator uses a paper bobbin with CO2 cylinder
  • UL recognized USCG Code 6F
  • Red/Green service indicator clip (green clip falls off after manual firing)
  • Red/Green service indicator base (indicates red after unit automatically fires)

halkey robers 3f

4. Halkey Roberts 3F Manual Inflator

  • Uses a CO2 cylinder on a bayonet
  • UL recognized USCG 3F component
  • Red/Green service indicator window

uml mk5

5. UML MK5 Manual/Automatic Inflator

  • Auto inflator uses a paper bobbin
  • Approved ISO 12402 Part 7 Standard
  • Red/Green service indicator clip (green clip falls off after manual firing)
  • Red/Green service indicator base (indicates red after unit automatically fires)

uml pro sensor

6. UML Pro Sensor Manual/Automatic Inflator

  • Auto inflator uses a paper bobbin
  • Approved ISO 12402 Part 7 Standard
  • Red/Green service indicator window (red after manual or automatic firing)
  • Second Red/Green service window (indicates red after CO2 cylinder fires, green when new )

uml pro sensor manual

7. UML Pro Sensor Manual Inflator

  • Approved ISO 12402 Part 7 Standard
  • Red/Green service indicator window (red after firing)

hammar

9. Hammar MA1 Hydrostatic Manual/Automatic

  • Automatically inflates using a water pressure sensor (4” or more under water)
  • Use code 1F
  • Red/Green service indicator clip

 

Attachments & Accessories

Reflective tape

Being visible in the water can make all of the difference during a man overboard rescue.  Reflective strips on your inflatable improve the chance those using a search light or flashlight will locate you.  The more placed higher and on your inflatable bladder the better.

If an inflatable life jacket does not already have reflective tape, add it using after market, inflatable approved, self-adhesive strips.

Crotch Straps

Crotch straps keep the life jacket  from riding up in the water into your chin and face.  By keeping the vest down in place, your body, and more importantly head, will ride higher in the water.  If your vest has a built in harness, crotch straps will keep it well placed and provide better body support (load distribution) should your harness have to break your fall.

If your inflatable life jacket does not already have crotch straps, you can purchase manufacture specific ones separately.

Safety Whistle

whistle

The majority of inflatable life jackets come equipped with a safety whistle. If the vest does not come with a safety whistle, it is wise to add one.  Being heard is often just as important as being seen.

Spray Hood

Spray Hoods are attach to inflatable life jackets in severe weather situations, where waves, spray or rain is intense.  They reduce the amount of water in the wearer’s face which can make breathing difficult. Hoods store conveniently in a small pouch that attaches to the waist belt on our inflatable PFD or pack into the deflated bladder.  The hood secures in place once the PFD fully inflates. Additionally, they generally incorporate high visibility materials to make the wearer more visible in the water.  Spray hoods are strongly recommended for offshore sailing.

Strobe Lights

Strobes are extremely helpful for locating someone in the water at night, especially when seas are rough.  Some inflatables come with a strobe light included, but most do not.  Typically styles attach with an elastic strap around the inflatable bladder and pack inside the vest with the deflated bladder; or an integral strap is available on the bladder for attachment.

LUME-On

This is a product developed and distributed by Spinlock, a UK company.  Lume-On consists of two flat pieces that self-adhere to the underside of the inflation bladder.  The light is water activated to illuminate the bladder of an inflatable life jacket making it easier to see during rescue. This is standard on some Spinlock inflatables, but can attach to any brand of inflatable PFDs.  Spinlock does state that it is up to you to determine if using their LUME-On is appropriate for your inflatable and recommends checking with the manufacture.

Harness & Tethers

If you ever anticipate sailing offshore, at night or in seas where you may use a tether to attach yourself to a jackline or pad eye, even just once, purchase an inflatable with a built in harness and tether attachment point.  Generally it adds only a little more to the cost.  Soft loops are lighter and more comfortable than stainless ‘D’ rings.

Don’t assume a boat you will be sailing on will have tethers available for you to use.  You should have and bring your own.  Double tethers are advisable, as you can always stay attached to the boat with the first clip, while you change your connection point to the boat with the second clip as you move about.  It is important to have a quick release shackle at the harness connection point or a safety cutaway knife to separate you from the boat in an emergency or man-over board situation.

AIS (Automatic Identification System)

Personal AIS units are easy to install on your inflatable life jacket. AIS units are generally water activated, although some are manual, and have integrated GPS to broadcast your exact location to nearby vessels that are receiving AIS.

Spinlock Packs

For storage, Spinlock offers chest and belt packs that attach to their inflatable life jackets with toggles.

BROWSE ALL INFLATABLE LIFE JACKET ACCESSORIES

Flying with an Inflatable PFD

In the US, the TSA has relaxed its rules around flying with and Co2 cartridge inflator over the years.  Generally you can have them in your carry on or checked luggage.  Check this TSA page for the latest.

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