If you’re part of a military or police agency, then your day to day may involve wearing a Kevlar® vest. We rely on this highly versatile, high-strength material to provide protection from ballistics. However, even impressive Kevlar has a service life, and it should be cared for properly to ensure that the material strength isn’t compromised. Today, we’re going to take a look at what Kevlar is, and how it should be taken care of to ensure that it remains strong throughout its service life.
Understanding the Material
To better understand how to care for your Kevlar vest, let’s first take a look at how Kevlar is made, and what it’s made of. Kevlar is a plastic, created from hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. This plastic is created by combining chemicals, and the raw material created (which is a liquid), can then be pulled through a “spinner” which creates a fibrous material. The spinner also orients the chemical compound into “rods” which are strong along the length of the rod. These rods are adhered to each other perpendicular to each other by shared hydrogen bonds. Thus, Kevlar is strong along both axes, making its tensile strength extremely strong, especially for the weight and flexibility of the material. In fact, Kevlar is about five times as strong as steel (at least in tensile strength), pound for pound, and it’s far more flexible.
Tips to Keep Your Kevlar Intact
Now that you have a basic understanding of what Kevlar is made of, we can dig into a few tips to keep your material from wearing down to the point that it is no longer an effective form of protection. Follow the tips below to extend the life of your Kevlar vest.
Be Mindful of the Manufacturer’s Service Life
Kevlar vests and ballistics materials are rated to last for a certain amount of time. After so many years, the integrity of the Kevlar may be compromised, which means that it might not have the stopping power it was designed to have — a bullet is more likely to break through old, out-of-service Kevlar than newly manufactured Kevlar, though it still may appear to have integrity. Take a look at the manufacturer’s recommendation for the service life for your Kevlar. Many vests and ballistics materials have a service life of five years. Do not use Kevlar after its service life is up, and dispose of Kevlar appropriately.
Follow NIJ Standards
If you’re part of a military or police agency, take note that The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has provided a publication, Guide to Body Armor, which lays out standards surrounding body armor procurement, use, and disposal for law enforcement and military applications. In their guide, they describe their standards for the disposal of body armor:
“When body armor is no longer serviceable, the agency must dispose of it in a responsible manner that should also prevent illicit use. If armor is disposed of in a landfill, unauthorized parties may obtain the armors; also, materials may not be biodegradable. Many materials used in manufacturing body armor are either fire retardant or inherently fireproof, so they cannot be incinerated. Certain material suppliers have ongoing recycling programs for out-of-service armor. Some body armor companies offer a “take-back” disposal. The agency should contact its armor supplier/manufacturer to see if quotes are provided for such services. You may also contact the NIJ CTP regarding possibly donating the armor for research purposes. […] When an agency disposes of unserviceable armors, it should require and obtain a record of disposition from the organization used to dispose of the armor. At a minimum, the disposition should list the armor by serial number, disposal method and disposal date. This chain of custody document should be retained by both the agency and the disposing company as a formal record of disposition.”
Keep Your Kevlar Dry
The integrity of Kevlar may be compromised if the Kevlar gets wet. Avoid getting vests or other body armor wet, if possible. If you do come into contact with water, the material will be weaker until it dries out. And, if Kevlar is exposed to water often enough, the fibers of the material may eventually weaken and break down. It’s best to allow Kevlar to dry out if exposed to water (you can take soft armor out of its carrier to enable it to dry).
Take note, certain types of Kevlar are waterproof, making them ideal for exposure to wet environments. You may have a type of Kevlar that has been treated (such as laminated Kevlar), in which case, you won’t have to avoid water as mentioned above.
Do Not Clean Ballistics Kevlar
While you may be tempted to wash old vests and ballistics materials, be wary that washing Kevlar can damage it. Instead, only wash the carrier for the soft armor, instead of the armor itself. You can remove these panels, and disassemble the plates and straps in order to clean the carrier piece by piece. Your carrier may have an owner’s manual or a tag with cleaning instructions.
Keep Kevlar Out of Sunlight
Ultraviolet (UV) ray exposure can break down the fibers that comprise Kevlar, weakening the armor qualities of the material. Be sure to store your Kevlar soft armor away from sunlight (a closet is fine), and use a carrier material that helps to block some UV rays while you’re wearing the protective material.
Store Materials Properly
While Kevlar is flexible, it isn’t as flexible and resilient as most articles of clothing that we wear. Be mindful that Kevlar can hold a shape more easily if it is folded, which means that soft armor should be stored in order to avoid creases or folds that can change the shape of the armor. Follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer of your body armor to ensure that you don’t accidentally change the shape of the soft armor. You could end up with unnecessary gaps in your body armor if the Kevlar is misshapen.
Dispose of Vests That Have Been Damaged or Shot
Once soft body armor has been shot, it shouldn’t be used as a protective material again. Bullets may or may not penetrate Kevlar, depending on the circumstances, but regardless, they will leave the material damaged. The surface of the Kevlar will be compromised, leaving the wearer more exposed to danger, should another ballistic strike the surface.
In addition, Kevlar that has been exposed to a puncture, stabbing, or any other strong forces should not be reused as a protective material.
What to Do With Expired Kevlar
As mentioned, the NIJ has put forth standards for Kevlar ballistic material disposal, outline how to safely dispose of body armor that has expired or is no longer safe for use. Here at Fiber Brokers International, we specialize in the destruction and recycling of body armor, including Kevlar vests and ballistics materials. We provide all necessary documentation as you ship your ballistics materials, and we’ll provide a certificate of destruction, proving that your materials are no longer in service. From there, you can be sure that your body armor will never be used again (at least as body armor), so it cannot end up in the hands of criminals. Destroyed body armor materials are then recycled to make a variety of products, which means that your Kevlar won’t end up in a landfill. If you’re curious about our Kevlar destruction and recycling services, or if you’d like to get started, don’t hesitate to reach out to us — we’re here to help!
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