Monday, 25 June 2012

Myths and Misconceptions on Waterproof and Breathable

Did you get wet this weekend?  Thinking maybe your rain shell might be in need of replacement? Or just not as good as the guy or girl who sold it to you six months ago, said it would be.  Before you charge into a store gun blazing, or completely give up, leaving yourself to get soggy whenever it drizzles…read this first. 
Like anything else, a good rain jacket requires a good amount of care and maintenance, that a good amount of us never show it.  Let’s break down what it means to be labeled WATERPROOF BREATHABLE, and how to care for these technical garments to extend their lives as long as possible.

The first time I went to buy a rain jacket on my own was six years ago.  I was moving to Hawaii during the rainy season.  I bought a windbreaker, not a rain jacket – it sucked.  Don’t make the same poor choices in judgment I did.
To be knighted waterproof you jacket needs to possess three major attributes.  All three of the following must haves have a ton of variations within their own right, and it is these variations that make a jacket more expensive, durable, packable or breathable than another.  So here they are, the three MUST HAVE’S of the Waterproof Guild.

1 – Membrane

The membrane is the barrier against all things soggy.  This day and age, 99.99 percent of all membranes are semi-porous, or “Breathable.” Gore-Tex is the most recognizable brand of membrane.  They kick started the rain jacket revolution when they took their technology, previously used only in the operating room as material for surgeon gloves, invented so the surgeons hands wouldn’t get wet from sweat while operating.  The Gore-Tex allowed the doctors sweat to escape through microscopic, laser punched holes through the glove, while blocking any blood or infectious material from entering the glove.  

How a Membrane works: Picture a chain-link fence.  You are facing the chain link fence holding a handful of marbles.  Throw the marbles at the fence…voila! The marbles go through the holes in the fence.  The fence is your membrane and the marbles, a sweat (vapor) molecule.  Now take a beach ball, stand in front of the same fence and throw the beach ball at said fence.  If you have visualized this demonstration correctly, the beach ball bounced off your membrane.  The beach ball is the, much larger than vapor, water molecule.      

It should be said that Gore is not the only player in the ever expanding membrane manufacturing game.  Other companies like Marmot, The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, etc, infinity, are all making their own proprietary membranes.  There are other companies making membranes for many brands to use as well, like E-Vent.  Gore is known to be the most resilient and best backed membrane out there, but it’s the most expensive too, and not necessary for your everyday rain coat.

Membranes also come in different thicknesses, chemical make ups and applications.  For instance, a three layer coat will have a one or two ply membrane, a physical material laminated to the jackets outer nylon. Three layer coats are the most durable and most breathable.  A two point five layer jacket will have a liquid version of the membrane coated to the inside of the jackets outer nylon and a textured finish to lift the membrane off the wearer’s skin, to enhance breath-ability.  Finally, a two layer jacket will have the same liquid applied membrane, with no textured finish.  Two layer waterproof breathables are the least expensive and least breathable versions of a membrane. When shopping for a rain jacket, ask the clerk if they know how many layers the jacket is comprised of.  If they do not know, check the hang tag, they often have all the details on display.     
So that’s membrane, in a shell. 

2 – DWR (Durable Water Repeller)

DWR is the stuff that makes the water or whatever you managed to spill on yourself, bead off your jacket.  It is a finish applied to the outer nylon of your coat.  Like everything in this world, DWR’s have a lifespan.  As time passes, your DWR will lose potency, also, the more you wash your jacket (which we will get to) the more the DWR washes off.  As you lose your DWR more water will sit atop your membrane, making the jacket less breathable, making your sweat stick inside your jacket, making you think your jacket is leaking.  The good news is there are inexpensive ways to reapply a DWR to your jacket.  Spray on and wash in methods are out there.  The most prominent brands for these products are Nikwax and Grangers.  Also, DWR’s are heat activated, so throw your jacket in the dryer for ten minutes once a month to revitalize your DWR.  Wash your jacket after every heavy use to get the sweat out.

3 –Sealed Seams

Where a stitch goes in, water can follow.  In order to fully seal your jacket, every seam must be covered with seam tape.  Some jackets will boast “fully protected target areas” or “critically seam sealed,” these are fancy ways of saying the jacket it not waterproof, but rather water resistant.  Another driving factor of price will be how well the jacket seams are welded or taped.  The smaller and lighter the tape, or the more seam welds* (*reinforcing the seam by overlaying sections of the jacket) the more it will cost.  Seam sealing is a timely and expensive process, which is why a lot of packets aren’t waterproof.  In order to cover every seam with tape would take forever and cost the consumer, usually, more than they are willing or need to pay for the product.

How to care for your shell

As mentioned earlier the membrane in your shell is full of tiny, tiny holes.  These holes are designed to let sweat in its vapour form, out of your jacket.  If you wear your jacket while it is pouring out and it is hot out as well, you are going to sweat a lot.  Some of your sweat may cool and turn to liquid before it can escape as vapor through the membrane. Once that sweat is in there you need to wash it out.  Your sweat, no offense, is acidic and can to nasty things to your rain coat, and love life, if not properly taken care of. 

The most common problem people encounter with shells is the delaminating of the membrane or seam tape from the coat itself.  This is usually due to a lack of cleansing that sweat out.  Acidy sweat sits on the membrane, hangs in your closet and eats away at the glue from the seam tape and breaks down the membrane itself. 
Shells are easy to clean, but you need to use the right soap.  Detergents based soaps, liquid or powder, can either clog or harm your membrane and are not recommended to clean your jackets.  Use a water based soap designed to work with membranes. Check out Grangers web-site for product info: GRANGERS

Once your shell is clean re-apply some DWR to it.  Wash it method is best, best spray on works good in a pinch too.  Read the product label to see if the DWR is heat activated. Most are, but not all are.  If it is heat activated, after washing or spraying, throw it in the dryer to re-activate and seal the DWR to the jacket. 
Wash your jacket at leat once a season and after every heavy use and you will greatly increase the life and worth of this valuable piece of gear. 

OK, that’s it.  I hope it doesn’t rain the next time you get a chance to go play outside, but if it does…your welcome.    


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