30 Tips for Maintaining your Safety Equipment

With winter approaching, it's that time of year when we need to think about maintenance and repair. Anti-fouling, engine servicing, renewing paintwork and general cleaning may be at the top of your list, but have you considered your safety equipment?

Given that lives could depend on your safety kit functioning correctly, it's well worth making sure that it is all in serviceable condition. Here are some tips for what to check.

Life Jackets

1. Storage
Lifejacket InflatedNever put your life jacket away damp. Open it out, rinse off any salt in fresh water. If it is auto-inflating, make sure you remove the auto-bobbin or auto-capsule first! Allow the jacket to air dry, then re-fit the bobbin and repack it.

Out of season, the life jacket should be partially inflated to remove any creases in the material, and stored on a non-metal coat hanger.

2. Check the gas cylinder
The screw-in CO2 gas cylinder in your lifejacket can work itself loose and should be checked for tightness every month. On automatic lifejackets, check the expiry date on the automatic firing-capsule or bobbin, and replace as recommended by the manufacturer.

3. Check for corrosion
Check the CO2 cylinder for corrosion every 3 months. Rusty cylinders should be replaced and not used. Also check any areas of material that were in contact with the rusty cylinder as the fabric may have been damaged.

4. Check the webbing
Lifejacket ServicingCheck the webbing every 3 months and the stitching that holds the webbing together. A life jacket with a coloured thread that strongly contrasts with the webbing makes it much easier to spot worn stitching. Also check zips, buckles and other fastenings.

5. Check for Leaks
Over the winter inflate the life jacket manually with a hand pump. Using a hand pump will avoid moisture from your breath building up inside the life jacket.

Leave it inflated for 24 hours to ensure there are no leaks. Repack the jacket according to the manufacturer's folding instructions.

Liferafts

1. Check Service Dates
Visually check the outside of the container or valise for the next service due date. If it is due over the winter period, then book the liferaft into your local service centre as soon as possible.

You don't have to get it serviced straight away. Most good service centres will allow you to forward book your service and will even allow you to drop the liferaft off so that they can fit you into their service diary. You can then be assured that it will be ready for the date you need it back.

2. Inspect the Container or Valise
Liferaft Visual InspectionIf the liferaft is not due for service, you should still always visually inspect the outside of the container or the valise for damage.

A valise model liferaft is more prone to wear and tear and susceptible to damage if roughly handled. Check the carrying handles and the body for worn or split seams, and always examine the bottom to ensure that it has not been left sitting on a sharp edge or an errant screw while in its storage locker.

3. Check the Hydrostatic Release and Cradle
If you have a container model liferaft stored on deck secured with a hydrostatic release unit, check the expiry date on the label.

Most models have a two-year service life, and should certainly be replaced if they have expired more than a month ago.

If the release needs replacing then do not buy a new one until the liferaft is put back on the boat again next spring. This will avoid you wasting several months of its service life.

4. Winter Storage
Removing your liferaft from the boat over the winter is certainly worth the effort.

If possible keep it stored in a warm, dry place. Before you 'winterise' it, wipe it down with ordinary detergent and warm water. This will remove the build up of any salt and grime and will help you identify any areas of wear that might need future attention.

For valise model liferafts, storage in a warm dry environment will also help prevent mould and mildew build-up on the bag that often occurs when they are left in damp lockers for prolonged periods.

Distress Flares

1. Check Expiry Dates
Most manufacturers tend to date their distress flares to expire at the end of December, so your pre-winter inspection is a good time to check them. If any have expired or appear to have deteriorated through damage or through being left in water, then quarantine them immediately in a separate container.

2. Ensure Safe Disposal
Distress FlaresDisposal of expired distress flares can be a real problem. You should definitely not throw them overboard as they frequently get washed up on beaches in a poor condition and could easily harm a curious child if picked up.

The Coastguard is now very reluctant to accept expired flares at their offices and the Police will only accept distress flares that have been abandoned in a public place. The best advice is to contact a Liferaft Service Station which will have proper storage and disposal facilities. They may charge you a few pounds for the service, but it's by far the safest option.

Horseshoe Lifebuoys and Lights

1. Inspect the Cover
Exposed to the weather throughout the year, the horseshoe lifebuoy has a tough life! The cover is most obvious part that deteriorates first.

Check the zip, stitching and seams. The thread used in many of the cheaper budget models often degrades noticeably after prolonged exposure to UV light (sunlight).

2. Examine the Foam
Horseshoe LIfebuoy & LightIt is also worth checking the integrity of the foam inside. Budget life buoys tend to use hard polystyrene foam which becomes brittle over time and can crack, particularly after freezing frosts. Flexible foam cores that consistently bend whatever the temperature are a better option.

3. Check the Lifebuoy Light
Most lifebuoy lights are powered by several D-Cell batteries and operate using a tilt switch that turns it on when the light is flipped the right way up.

We always recommend stripping the light down completely, cleaning all the components (including battery contacts) and then re-assembling it in the Spring with fresh batteries.

Avoid storing it with batteries inside. They often get forgotten and can sometimes leak. When you screw the lens cover back on, grease the O-ring with some silicone grease. The O-ring should keep the water out but many boat owners get frustrated every year when they see water pooling in the base of the lens after it has been installed its bracket outside. So don't forget to grease!

Life Saving Equipment

Throw Lines and Slings
Rescue SlingEven if you have never deployed your throw line or rescue sling, winter is a great opportunity to get them out.

By unpacking them, you not only get to inspect them for decay and wear but you familiarise yourself with what they look like and can practice repacking them ready for use.

Danbuoys
Danbuoys are often just as neglected as horseshoe lifebuoys.

You often see tattered flags flapping in the breeze and the floating line all tangled up and stuffed behind a stanchion. The best advice is to completely disassemble the danbuoy, clean it up to make sure it still extends freely and don't forget the small light at the top. This usually operates using AA batteries. But if these have been installed for more than a year or so, then they may have leaked.

The light is usually activated by a trip-line that clips to your backstay. Pull the line that is attached to the pin and makes sure it works. It can sometimes be a fiddle re-inserting the pin, so removing the batteries first will help.

Jonbuoy MOB Recovery Module and Inflatable Danbuoys
Both the Jonbuoy MOB Recovery Module and the Jonbuoy Inflatable Danbuoy should really be inspected by an authorised service station as you would a liferaft.

Manufacturer Ocean Safety recommends that both items are serviced every 12 months.

Handheld Fire Extinguishers

1. Inspect Manufacture Dates
Handheld Fire ExtinguishersAlthough handheld fire extinguishers on leisure boats do not have any official expiry dates, many manufacturers recommend that you replace them after five years.

All fire extinguishers should have a month and year of manufacture printed on the side, so check to see how old your models are.

2. Contents Gauge
Even very small 1kg fire extinguishers should have a contents pressure gauge mounted on the valve.

Extinguisher Contents GaugeIf your extinguishers do not have this, then consider replacing them. It is the quickest way to check that your fire extinguishers are in a serviceable condition.

3. Check the Weight
Most people do not realise that the weight on the outside of a fire extinguisher actually only refers to the weight of the contents. For example, a 1kg dry powder fire extinguisher contains 1kg of dry powder.

The actual total weight of the extinguisher when in a serviceable condition will more than likely be around 2kg. Many reputable safety equipment suppliers will put a sticker on the outside giving you the total or gross weight when the extinguisher is supplied new.

Extinguisher Service TagYou can then weigh the extinguisher every winter to check that the weight has not gone down, and therefore possibly leaked.

4. Look for Corrosion
Corrosion is the most common reason for a fire extinguisher being condemned.

Remember that a fire extinguisher is a highly pressurised steel cylinder. Any weakness, especially near the neck or valve can potentially be very dangerous.

Any corroded or old extinguishers can usually be dropped off at your local council's recycling depot.

We recommend removing all but one fire extinguisher from the vessel over the winter to avoid unnecessary exposure to corrosive saltwater air. Leave one fire extinguisher that is in good condition in plain view, such as in the saloon, so you have at least one ready to hand while you are maintaining the boat over the winter.

5. Inspect Automatic Engine Fire Extinguishers
Automatically-activated engine fire extinguishers can be treated in much the same way as a handheld fire extinguisher.

Keep an eye on the contents pressure gauge. If appears to be consistently in the red then contact a marine fire extinguisher service agent for advice about refilling and repressurising the cylinder.

Automatic Engine Fire ExtinguishersBut do remember that the pressure gauge will give different readings depending on the air temperature. In cold or freezing weather during the winter the pressure may appear very low. However on hot days or just after the engine has been running, the pressure may appear higher.

Your instruction manual should indicate the expected pressure depending on the current temperature. If in doubt contact the dealer who supplied the extinguisher.

Most manufacturers should also put a sticker the outside giving you the total or gross weight when the extinguisher is supplied new. You can then weigh the extinguisher every winter to check that the weight has not gone down, and hence possibly leaked.

EPIRBS

1. Check for Battery Expiry
All EPIRBs are normally supplied with a five-year battery life. The manufacturer will place a small sticker on the back of each EPIRB or PLB that should indicate the battery expiry date. Remember, the expiry date will start from the date of manufacture, NOT the month that you bought it. It may have been sat on a chandlery shelf for 2-3 months before you took possession.

2. Use the Self Test Function!
EPIRB TestingAll 406 MHz EPIRBs and PLBs are required to have a test function. Check your instruction manual and go through the test procedure at least once a year, but ideally once a month.

Some models indicate a successful test using different-coloured LED lights with others using a high-pitched noise, or a combination of both.

Some users can have difficulty hearing the high-pitched noise on some models, so get someone else to check it with you if you are not sure.

3. Inspect the Bracket and Release Mechanism
Most large boat EPIRBS come with a bulkhead mounting bracket. Carefully examine the release mechanism and make sure nothing is catching or broken. You don't want your expensive EPIRB bouncing onto the deck when you hit a wave!

If you have CATEGORY-1 float-free model mounted outside, then check the expiry date of the hydrostatic release unit inside the housing. They will have a two-year service life and should be replaced as soon as they expire.

Gas Detectors and Smoke Alarms

1. Activate the Test Function
Most good quality LPG gas detectors should have a test button on the control panel. Check the instruction manual and make sure you go though the test procedure at least once a month.

2. Consider Your Master Battery Switch
On many boats, the gas detectors have been wired so that when the main battery switch is turned off, then the power to the gas detector is also switched off. This is a potential problem because you may develop a gas leak when you are away from the vessel, but when you return, the alarm will not alert you to the leak until you turn the master battery switch on again. Turning on an electrical switch is the last thing you want to do in the presence of gas!

We recommend every gas detector is wired so that it is not disabled when you turn the main battery switch off. If your boat is connected to shore power or has a wind turbine charger installed, then the gas detector will certainly not drain the batteries.

3. Disconnect the Gas Bottle
Another good tip is to always disconnect the gas cylinder from the gas pipe in the gas bottle locker. That way any gas leak should only occur in the gas bottle locker and should be drained away by the vent hole.

4. Test the Sensor
A simple and safe way to test the gas sensors is to take a small butane lighter, hold it right next to a gas sensor and without striking the flint wheel, press the button. This should release a small amount of butane gas and the alarm should activate within a few seconds.

Silence the alarm on the control panel and wait for the tiny amount of butane to disperse, then check to make sure the gas detector has re-set itself.

5. Test your Smoke Alarm
Installing a smoke alarm at home is very much the norm in many households. However installing them on a boat is still relatively rare unless the boat is used for charter.

We always recommend installing a small battery-powered smoke alarm just inside the doorway of each sleeping cabin, and just like at home, test them once month and replace the battery every year.

For further advice about maintaining your safety equipment inventory, contact the Safety Marine technical team on advice@safety-marine.co.uk or call +44 (0)2380 226300.

 

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