The United States Coast Guard requires signal flares to be replaced every 42 months. For a piece of safety equipment you hope to never use, that’s not a very long shelf life. Are expired flares dangerous, or is the risk simply in firing a dud? And what am I supposed to do with old flares once they expire? – Tim Whitaker
In addition to fire extinguishers, personal floatation devices and sound signaling devices, recreational boaters operating vessels over 16 feet in length are also required to carry approved visual distress signals for both day and nighttime use. This could include a distress flag and electric light that flashes the SOS pattern, but most boaters prefer pyrotechnic devices. Handheld or aerial flares provide increased visibility when a real emergency is on the line and you need help to arrive fast.
…there are over 500,000 out-of-date flares generated each year by recreational boaters in Florida.
Similar to fire extinguishers, flares must be valid and unexpired, or you will receive a fine if boarded for a vessel safety check. More severe than a fine, the risk of having an inoperable signal flare when you need it most is of much greater consequence. Flares can be dangerous if mishandled and like expired ammunition or fireworks, there is a potential risk with expired flares misfiring, not igniting, or not burning to full luminous capacity.
Since flares must be replaced 42 months from the marked date of manufacture, and it is illegal to display any type of distress signal in anything but an emergency situation, the recreational boating community generates a whole lot of unusable flares. In fact, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection reports there are over 500,000 out-of-date flares generated each year by recreational boaters in Florida.
With so many expired flares, the question is what’s the best way to discard them? Many boaters choose to keep expired flares on board as backups, but it’s only recommended you keep flares that are just out of date, and discard flares that are beyond two cycle periods. In an emergency situation, you can never have too many flares. Depending on the type, flares may only illuminate for a few seconds to a few minutes. Because of this limited burn time it is wise to keep current and expired flares stored in labeled containers so you can quickly distinguish between the two.
Whether you discontinue flares immediately after expiration or keep a few on hand as backups, you’ll eventually have to throw them away and it’s important you do so in the proper manner. Since signal flares burn with intense heat, it’s recommended you take them to your local household hazardous waste collection center for proper disposal. You can also call your local Coast Guard Auxiliary or Power Squadron and inquire if there’s a need for flares for training purposes. What you should never do is simply throw them in the trash.