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There are three main features to look for in inflatables; automatic, manual and oral inflation.
Automatic PFDs / Lifejackets
Automatic inflation relies mostly on a dissolvable bobbin that has a spring/pin arrangement. The water dissolves the bobbin and the spring powered pin punches the CO2 canister for inflation. There is a matter of maintenance for this, considering the marine environment that the PFD is put in as well as it's subsequent storage. Many see this complication of spring/pin as the weak link in the system. This is the reason that EVERY automatic has a Manual Cord and Oral Tube
Manual PFDs / Lifejackets
The Manual arrangement is simple; you pull a 'rip cord' and the vest inflates. To supply more air, you use the oral tube supplied.
Oral Tube PFDs
The oral tube fulfills two functions. The first is that many manufactures have a C02 cylinder that does not fully inflate the air bladder. The air bladder may hold 40 pounds of buoyancy lifting air, but the cylinder may only supply the USCG minimum for the Type class 22.5-34 pounds. The oral tube allows you to top up the bladder. The second instance for the oral tube is rarer; there are products that only have an oral tube so that you can inflate the item when you know you are going on the water. There is no USCG approved device that uses an oral tube only.
Considerations - How to decide which Inflatable Lifejacket (PFD) is for you
Finally, there is one more feature separate from the inflation to consider. Type V PFDs can also have harnesses, especially beneficial for sailors. For those unfamiliar with this, you wear a harness and use a leash to clip into a protection point (often in the cockpit) or to go forward to, clipped onto a jackline to do work up forward.
Automatic PFD vs. Manual PFD
Automatic is supposed to inflate on contact with water - and it takes green water, not just spray, to make it inflate. An automatic inflation type V could save your life if you were knocked unconscious while going overboard. An automatic inflatables could also inflate inconveniently if you are sailing in a HobyCat, plunge through a wave while on the bow or any other time you get water dumped on you.
The manual inflatable requires you to be conscious and aware of what you are doing to pull the release for the cylinder. This is the most reliable of the two inflatables and requires less servicing.
Harness or Not
You may want an inflatable PFD with a harness if you are working on deck, sailing offshore or just simply wish to stay attached to your vessel because you are single-handed or are in rough weather.Most power boaters and inshore sailors choose an automatic inflatable PFD. Most offshore sailors choose a manually inflatable PFD. Many sailors, solo mariners and a small number of power boaters will choose an inflatable PFD with a harness. There are inflatable PFDs with removable harnesses.
Not Recommended for Some Activities
Because of the unique nature of Inflatable PFD's, they are not universally recommended for all water sports activities.
Finally, they require regular user checks and maintenance and are available in adult sizes only.
Inflatable Lifejacket (PFD) Choices by Manufacturer
Stearns Inflatable Lifejackets (PFDs Personal Flotation Devices) by Coleman: Stearns’ innovative history steams from 60 years in the marine safety industry and is ranked #1 in the worldwide market share with its personal floatation devices line. Stearns manufactures a wide variety of USCG approved devices for nearly ever water sport and user. Beyond inflatable PFD's, life vests, life jackets, float coats; Stearns offers an Industrial Product line of Ice rescue suits, immersion suits and more.
Mustang Inflatable Lifejackets (PFDs Personal Flotation Devices): Since the first float coat in 1967 Mustang Survival has been a mainstay in the industry. Mustang has been a design leader and innovator, extirpating the tradition of the Kapok filled life jacket and heralding in what was the floatation revolution. Mustang Survival's products include offshore sailing gear, rescue and dry suits, Ice Rider snowmobile gear as well as a complete selection of PFD's for nearly ever user and water sports activity.
Go2marine carries inflatable lifejackets (PFD's) from Revere Survival Products, Stearns, Sospenders, Hodgman, Mustang Survival and Stormy Seas. Products include; inflatable PFD's and Floatation Life Vests for Recreation, Professional, Military, Security and Rescue.
History of PFDs
PFDs have come a long way from their first origins. Some of the early forms of Personal Flotation were simple blocks of wood or cork and can be traced back Norwegian seaman. The design of the modern life jacket comes from the United Kingdom. Captain Ward of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution created in 1854 the cork vest to be worn by lifeboat crews.
The "Mae West" is the original design version of what is now the Type I offshore life jacket. The rights to the original Mae West life vest, designed by Andrew Toti were sold in 1936 to the US War Department ; for the sum of $1600. Used during World War II, the B-4 was invented with rubber inflatable bladders by James Boyle.
Modern inflatable life vests were designed in the 1980's but not to receive USCG approval for use by recreational boaters until 1996. Over the past decade, there have been a number of improvements. The USCG drew a line on age though. You must be 16 years of age to wear a type V PFD.
Features and functions of Inflatable PFDs
One size fits all - well almost. You will need to be 16 and a minimum of 80 pounds to wear an inflatable PFD. The Coast Guard also takes the position that non-swimmers should not wear this type of PFD.