The Great Flare Debate: How Long Should Flares Last?

If you’re like me, you have a few flares in trunk just in case you break down or come across a car accident at night, but how do you know when you should change them out? Should they be changed out every year, every couple of years, do they last forever?

Road flares do not expire and are intended for use during roadside emergencies. They are not approved for use on boats. Marine flares expire 42 months after the date of manufacture per the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Coast Guard.

How Long do Flares Last Before They Expire?

When we talk about flares, it’s important to understand the difference between road flares and marine flares.

Road flares are designed to be stored in vehicles and used during roadside emergencies. They usually do not have an expiration date.

Marine flares are a completely different story than road flares. The U.S. Coast Guard requires marine flares to have an expiration date set at 42 months after their date of manufacture. They’re also required to be on boats and only recommended for ground vehicles.

LED flares are a modern invention that use batteries and super bright LED lights to signal for help. They’re a good alternative to traditional flares if you don’t want to deal with pyrotechnics in your trunk.

The Potential Dangers of Out of Date Flares

Flares are a pyrotechnic device. This means that they have a chemical compound inside of them that is designed to burn when they’re ignited. All pyrotechnic devices have an inherent level of danger associated with them, even if it’s very low.

Once a flare starts to age, there are several things that can possibly happen to them.

The most likely event is they just won’t work or they won’t burn for as long as they’re supposed to burn for. This may seem like it’s not that big of a deal until you sit back and realize that when you’re lighting a flare, you’re probably having a very bad day already.

On the road, you may not be able to signal to others that you’re stranded there increasing the likelihood of getting hit by a passing car.

On the water, it’s much worse!  You could be lost at sea just hoping to see an aircraft or another boat to signal to. Now if you have an old flare that doesn’t work, you risk not being able to signal to rescuers! This has got to be one of the most terrifying situations to be in.

Aerial flares are usually suspended in the air by parachutes so they can burn at altitude for as long as possible. Old aerial flares can sometimes not properly deploy their parachutes when they’re fired. This means you only get a couple of seconds of burn time instead of the full burn time. That’s if the flare even fires at all.

The worst possibility is that an expired flare could have tears, holes or other weaknesses in its outer packaging. In this case, it’s possible for the flare to direct the flames and hot gasses out of that weakened area instead of out of the end. I haven’t personally seen this happen but I have read several accounts of old flares acting this way.

I would suggest inspecting your flares on a regular basis and getting rid of any that look like they’re damaged. Certainly check the flare out before lighting it if you have time.

Can a Flare Explode?

If you’re worried about a flare exploding, you don’t need to worry, they aren’t likely to explode even if you go out of your way to try to make it happen.

The chemical composition of flares is specifically designed to make them burn bright and for a long time. The chemicals used in them don’t lend themselves to causing a detonation.

There is a possibility that this burning composition could burn through a weakened area in the packaging, but they aren’t going to explode.

How Should You Store Flares

One of the best ways to extend the life of your flares is by storing them properly. Extreme heat, cold and exposure to moisture can cause flares to break down faster than normal. This is a little problematic since most places that flares are stored are hot, cold or wet.

Store your flares in the original packaging, away from flames and heat sources. The packaging will keep the flares dry, extending their life significantly.

The real storage problem comes with the temperature. Many manufacturers recommend keeping them between 40 and 90 Fahrenheit. If you’re storing your flares in a vehicle, this can be really tough.

There really isn’t a good workaround that I know of other than not leaving your flares in the vehicle. I always leave them with my road kit and haven’t had a problem, but you should understand that very high or low temperature can decrease the life of the flare.

You don’t have to worry about the flares igniting though. Most require something around 400 degrees Fahrenheit to start burning.

How to Dispose of an Expired or Old Flare

NEVER throw an unfired flare into the trash.

If you have expired flares on your boat, you have a couple of options. Some people suggest keeping the old flares and just adding new flares to your flare box.

The logic behind this is you will still have current flares to use if you need them. Then, if things are really going bad, you have the expired flares to try if you need them. I lean toward taking this route. More is better in my mind.

If you have old road flares, you can do the same thing. Add a couple more new flares and keep the old ones just in case.

There will eventually come a time that your flares are just too old to really keep around or get damaged. In this case, it’s smart to know what the best way to dispose of them is.

Old handheld flares can be lit in a remote area away from combustible items. This lets them burn without causing any concern or starting a fire.

If they’re damaged or you don’t want to try to light the old flares, you should call your local public works office, police department, or fire department to see what you should do with them.

Many boating education schools take old flares as donations for use during training events.

Getting rid of old aerial flares isn’t as straight forward. You shouldn’t just go into a remote area and fire your flares to dispose of them. This could end up being misinterpreted as an actual emergency!

For aerial flares, the best route is to contact your local boating education school or police department, fire department or public works office.

Related Questions

How hot does a flare burn? Flares burn at temperatures up to 2900 degrees Fahrenheit (1600 degrees Celcius). The exact temperature that a flare burns at depends on the manufacturer and what it’s intended to do.

How long do flares burn for? Road flares and handheld flares are designed to burn from 10 – 60 minutes. Most flares made for civilian use burn between 10 and 30 minutes. Aerial flares burn for 25 – 30 seconds since they only need to burn as long as the parachute can keep them in the air.

How far away can flares be seen? The distance that flares can be seen depends on the type of flare and terrain and weather conditions. Hand-held flares can be seen from 3 miles away on the ground or up to 25 miles from the air. Aerial flares can be seen from 25 miles away as long as the weather is good.

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