With over 20 years actively in the armor industry and being in and around armor since I was a kid with my father’s armor company, I have seen some amazing things. I have seen brand-new body armor that would be completely ineffective due to modifications by end users, and I have also seen armor that was made in the late 1970s that looked brand new because the owner was extremely diligent about taking care of his armor.
The level at which you take care of your armor can greatly affect its reliability and its overall life. We as armor manufacturers have not always completely understood the effects of different types of use and care on the life and functionality of body armor. In the 2000s this started to become more of a prominent topic and ultimately lead to the release of the NIJ Standard 0101.06 standard which includes simulated conditioning during the compliance testing process.
We have always known that life-saving equipment should be properly cared for, but we have not always known exactly what to do and what not to do to maintain the lifecycle of our armor. In this article, I will go over a few key points to help you maximize the life of your armor and its potential functionality should it ever need to perform its job.
Storage of Body Armor
Not many people think about the storage aspect of their body armor. Most police officers just throw it in a closet or sling it in the trunk of the cruiser at the end of the shift, or an EMS Tech or firefighters might just throw it in the equipment bay on the side of a truck. Despite the importance of proper storage, many people don’t realize that improper storage can be detrimental to the performance of their body armor over its lifespan.
Throwing your armor in a trunk, closet, or equipment bay, may be the easiest thing to do but this can potentially expose your armor to heat, cold, moisture, and physical damage including wrinkles, cracking, and crushing of outer trauma and impact materials.
All body armor should be stored in a cool dry place with as little direct sunlight exposure as possible. When storing the armor, you should consider how the place it is in and what is around it could affect it. If possible, store your armor flat or on a hanger specifically meant for armor. The hanger is not recommended if you will be hanging it from elastic straps as this will decrease the life of the straps; this is a situation where I recommend you consult the manufacturer.
How these factors Affect Your Armor
Sun exposure can cause the materials in soft body armor to soften and harden repeatedly, which can result in creases or set wrinkles, especially if the armor is folded and your equipment or heavy objects are placed on top of it. It does not take much to permanently deform the materials in soft body armor. This is not only true for soft armor, but many hard armor solutions have materials on the wear face and the strike face to protect the armor or add performance factors that you wouldn’t think would be affected by improper storage.
Protective materials on the strike face are usually there to protect the ceramic underneath from getting broken or cracked from impacts such as being dropped. Some hard armor plates have foam on the wear face designed to protect the wearer from blunt force trauma in the event of a ballistic impact.
These materials can easily be deformed in high-heat environments. Heat, combined with improper storage or having other equipment loaded on it is not the only environmental factor that can affect the performance of your armor. Extreme cold can make the protective covering material brittle and susceptible to cracking and breaking over time.
The outside of your soft armor is like a shell; it protects the critical inner layers; many of which are extremely sensitive to light and water. When the outer shell is broken, it exposes the critical inner layers to environmental factors that can break the materials down and make them ineffective, and in turn may render your armor useless in a time of need. To avoid premature failure of your armor, keep it in a cool dry location and always store it flat, if possible, to prevent damage to the product
Cleaning Your Armor
In addition to proper storage, it’s important to care for your body armor by regularly cleaning it with a mild detergent or soap and water. Body armor, especially soft armor, should never be machine-washed, and other chemicals should never be applied. Even though chemicals such as bleach, ammonia, glass cleaners, and other all-purpose cleaning chemicals are effective in removing stains and killing bacteria, they should not be used as they can damage the protective materials that make up the armor.
Most soft armor carriers for soft armor are machine washable; the rule doesn’t change, and you should only use mild detergent or soap. Most manufacturers will recommend machine washing on gentle and tumble drying on low heat, but it is always recommended that you consult the manufacturer-provided instructions for the use and care of your product.
The Life of Your Armor
The manufacturer’s warranty determines the lifespan of your armor, with a minimum warranty of 5 years for NIJ-compliant product models, as defined by the National Institute of Justice. The warranty length of your armor is required to be printed on the label of all NIJ Standard 0101.06 compliant products. The warranty length of your armor is also listed on the NIJ Compliant products list under your manufacturer and model. The 5-year warranty is a guideline based on lab testing and conditioning of armor.
Over time, in your armor, especially soft armor, the fibers break down with movement and use, the cover becomes worn, wrinkles set into the armor, or the outer layers become damaged, which all add up to the potential for failure. The warranty is the guaranteed life span in which these issues should not be a problem, but as with anything, proper care is required. Other warranty lengths are available depending on the manufacturer and model, and this could be a potential factor to consider when choosing body armor. Please consider these facts if you know your armor is damaged, expired, or beyond its warranty period.
Let Your Armor Protect You
Proper use, care, and storage of your armor could save your life! If you have questions or concerns about the condition of your armor or if you notice any visible damage, you should consult the manufacturer or your sales provider to ensure that your armor is safe to wear.
Any armor is safer than no armor, but you should always be aware that your armor is designed to perform a specific task, and you should be aware of it can perform as intended. Regardless of whether you are law enforcement, military, EMS, or just a civilian trying to make sure you are protected, your armor needs to be cared for properly to make sure that it is ready when you need it.
About the Author:
John Atkins is an established manufacturing leader with over 20 years of experience in the body armor industry. With his background and education in technology and electrical engineering, he has been instrumental in developing innovative designs and manufacturing processes in the body armor industry. John has developed his skills in business management, manufacturing processes, system design, and implementation, as well as systems integrations to improve the development of world-leading armor solutions and related products.
John is enthusiastic about improving processes and products and following in his father’s footsteps, his mission is to enhance products worn by the front line. As the current COO of IntelAlytic, Inc., John, and his business partner will continue to contribute to the betterment of ballistic-resistant and related products on the market today. To stay up to date with John’s latest work and projects, you can connect with him on LinkedIn or visit www.intelalytic.com.