If you’re considering buying an inflatable boat, be it a dinghy, pontoon boat, kayak, or just an inflatable raft, you are probably curious about its lifespan, so in other words, how long you can expect your boat to function safely.
This is especially important if you are considering buying a used inflatable watercraft.
Average lifespan of inflatable boats
It’s hard to give an average lifespan, because there are several factors at play that will shorten or lengthen it.
Here are the factors that can lengthen, or reduce the lifespan of an inflatable:
- age of boat
- material used (PVC vs Hypalon)
- hand glued vs machine welded seams
- amount of UV rays the boat was exposed to
- how the boat was stored when not in use
If I have to give a number, I would say the average life expectancy of a properly kept inflatable boat is 10-15 years.
There are extremes as well:
- If a boat is not kept properly, it won’t last beyond 2-5 years.
- On the other hand, I have seen boats 20+ years old functioning beautifully.
How to tell the age of a used inflatable boat?
If you are looking to purchase a used inflatable boat, it is important to know the age of the boat to make sure it doesn’t fail on you in a year.
Inflatable boats with a Hull Identification Number (HIN) will reveal their year of manufacture. More info on HIN here.
The number is usually found in the stern (usually affixed to the upper right corner of the rear of the transom) and can be engraved on a plate or stamped into the boat material.
The HIN is a 12 character serial number that reveals a lot about a boat:
- The first 3 characters are the manufacturer’s identification code.
- The middle 5 characters are the boat serial number.
- The last 4 characters are the date of certification for the boat.
The US Coast Guard maintains a database of Manufacturer ID codes.
The code is also handy for checking whether the boat has had any recalls.
Hypalon vs PVC boat lifespan
Inflatable boats are made out of rubber. Everyone knows that.
But there are 2 kinds of rubber used to manufacture inflatable water crafts:
- Hypalon (a trademark for a synthetic rubber compound owned by DuPont)
- PVC (a synthetic plastic polymer)
The glue used on Hypalon vs PVC inflatables is also different, as each material type can only be glued by a specific type of glue.
Why does this matter?
PVC and the glue used to stick the pieces of PVC together are very sensitive to UV rays. PVC loses elasticity under UV radiation, which means that PVC inflatables used in areas of abundant sunlight will not last long. 4-7 years at best. A PVC boat will not last more than 2 years if used in a place with lots of sunlight and left uncovered. If you live in tropical climates like Florida, I would not recommend you spend much money on a PVC dinghy.
The glue used on Hypalon is not as sensitive to UV radiation as PVC glue, and the Hypalon material itself is not effected by UV rays at all.
And while both Hypalon and PVC seams can fail, PVC boats fail at a higher rate.
Glued vs welded seam lifespan
The different sections of an inflatable boat are either hand glued together, or machine welded together.
Freshly glued or welded rubber will create a seam which is stronger than the base fabric, which is great.
So what is the difference?
- Glued: a glue is applied to the rubber pieces by hand, which glues them together creating a chemically induced bond.
- Welded: a machine welds (melts) the 2 materials together.
With welding, the 2 pieces of rubber are effectively melted together, so they become one. A thermo-welded seam is a permanent bond with high pressure tolerance. This means the weld can last indefinitely.
With glued parts, the glue will get tired after a while and let go. How long before the glue fails? It depends on the type of glue used, and the conditions the boat was used and stored in. It can be anywhere from 2 to 20 years.
Returning to boat materials, you should also know that Hypalon can only be glued, while PVC can be glued or welded.
If you are buying a used inflatable boat, you will want to check whether the glue is holding strong. Check for lifting around the glued areas:
If you see any inconsistencies, seams starting to lift away, the glue is failing.
It should be evident that higher quality boats will use higher quality glue. The glue used with $35 PVC inflatable raft will not last as long as one used with a Zodiac.
How to increase lifespan of an inflatable dinghy?
Perhaps the single most important factor that will determine the lifespan of an inflatable watercraft, be it a dinghy, raft, pontoon boat, a kayak, or even a SUP, is how it is cared for by the owner.
Keep the following advice in mind, and your inflatable boat will provide many years of faithful service:
- Clean your boat after use, especially after salt water.
- Do not leave your boat out in direct sunlight when storing. This is perhaps the most important rule of thumb with inflatable water crafts.
- Humidity and heat will lead to PVC glue failure. Store it in a well ventilated, dry place when folded up, not a closed box.
- Mind how you fold the boat.
How old is YOUR inflatable boat?
It would be great if you, dear reader, would share how old your inflatable boat is, or how long an inflatable you had lasted.
If it falls into an extreme (less than 10 years or more than 15 years), please describe how you kept it, what could have led to the extremely short/long lifespan of your boat.