What are the differences between commercial and recreational life rafts?
The biggest difference is that commercial life rafts are built to a specification set by the US Coast Guard (in the United States) where the manufacturer of recreational life rafts can build whatever they desire. It really becomes an issue of "buyer beware". Many recreational life raft manufacturers use commercial specifications for major components but then choose to put their own equipment pack together. Others choose to play with some of the other specifications in order to meet what the market demands. Below I have listed some of the major areas where the rafts differ:
- Operating temperature range: Commercial rafts must be able to operate down to -20° and very few recreational rafts are able to meet this requirement.
- Crew size: Commercial rafts are designed for an average weight of 185 pounds per rated occupant. Better recreational rafts are designed to the old commercial specification of 165 pounds but I am not aware of any that have adopted the 185 pound criterion.
- Floor space: 4 square feet per rated occupant is the commercial standard. Many recreational rafts are much smaller.
- Fabric standards: Commercial rafts must be constructed from materials that meet specific specifications and are tested to ensure compliance. There are no fabric standards for recreational rafts (other than ISO-9650 models).
- Right side up inflation: Commercial rafts must demonstrate that when deployed they inflate right side up regardless of container orientation. The can be reversible so whatever side is up when the raft inflates will allow the raft to work properly and this design is common with Inflatable Buoyant Apparatuses. Few recreational rafts will inflate right side up if the container is not oriented properly.
- Equipment pack: Commercial rafts have an equipment pack whose contents are regulated by the USCG. Many of the items must themselves be USCG approved and flares must be of a SOLAS grade. Recreational rafts can have whatever the manufacturer decides in the equipment pack or they don't even have to have any equipment at all.
- Service requirements: Commercial rafts are designed, and required by the USCG when carried as a piece of required equipment, to be serviced annually. They are not vacuum packed so they tend to be wet for most of their life. Many recreational rafts have a recommended 3 year service interval and some are at 5 years. Most commercial brands have an excellent world wide network of service facilities. Manufacturers of recreational rafts who also produce commercial models also benefit from a robust service network. There are many brands of recreational rafts built in Europe that have no service network in the United States.
Does this mean that a commercial raft is better than a recreational raft? If your boat is large enough to handle the container size and weight I would answer that a top of the range commercial raft is better. If it won't fit on your boat or you could not launch it you are better off with a recreational raft where you have done your due diligence and have decided on a product that meets your requirements.
I guess the final question is how do you know what specifications a recreational life raft was designed to? You can ask the manufacturer at your local boat show or talk with an independent service facility that represents a number of brands. In either case know what you are looking for. Where are you going to stow the raft? How many people will be on board? Where are you planning on operating the vessel? Answers to these questions will help you make an informed decision.