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Ok, I bought a rope, so now what?

After you’ve made your rope selection, which is a whole other process that will have a blog post on here soon, what do you do with your rope? What do you do after you’ve done all your research and made the best choice for your rope needs? The things to do to maximize your rope’s life are not all that hard to figure out. Here I’m going to break down what you should do from when you receive the box with your rope in it to when you remove it from service in just 6 steps.

Step 1: Read the instructions! It may sound like a crazy concept, but the first thing you should do is read the instructions that came with your rope! There’s a fair bit of time that goes into the writing of PMI’s rope instructions and there’s a lot of information contained in there. I know some of it is so small you’ll need a magnifying glass, but it’s worth the effort! Many questions that are consistently asked about rope care are answered in the instructions. So get out your magnifying glass and get to reading!

Step 2: Make sure it’s what you ordered, that it wasn’t damaged in shipping and unroll it. You should verify that the rope wasn’t damaged in shipment; it’s not unheard of to have a forklift driven right through a box or to have something spilled on the box during the shipment process. Then you should verify that it’s actually the rope you ordered and that all the paperwork is for the rope you received. PMI includes a rope history card/rope inspection log, a rope card and instructions with all of our ropes. After you have verified that it’s not damaged and the rope you ordered, you can pull the rope out of the box and unroll it to prevent it from getting kinks. Set the spool up on a pair of chairs using a broom handle, pipe, etc and unroll the rope by spinning the spool . If you sit the spool flat and pull the rope off it will kink up and you’ll have to un-kink it later, this can be a lengthy and tedious process so avoid it all-together by unrolling your rope.

Step 3: Inspect your rope. Yes, you should do a full inspection of your rope as soon as you get it. This allows you to be certain that the rope isn’t damaged at all and gives you an initial entry in your Rope Inspection Log to start from. The person who should be inspecting the rope is the Qualified Inspection Person per your Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). That means it’s the person who is responsible for the rope, is knowledgeable on lifesafety rope and its inspection, and has the authority to have the rope pulled from service if necessary. The Qualified Person should be trained in rope access/rescue and they should be familiar with the rope manufacturer’s instructions for care and inspection.

The inspection process can be time consuming but is very important. The way that I recommend is holding the rope to make a bight that goes between your hands and moving it through your hands in a slow shuffle. This allows you to look at every inch of the rope for damage, continuity, uniformity, core damage, cuts, abrasion, etc. Look at, feel and smell the rope for anything unusual. You can use the Rope Inspection Checklist published by the Cordage Institute or the manufacturer’s instructions for more detail on how to inspect your rope. Make sure you document the results of your inspection. You should inspect your rope after every use, after every cleaning, before any training operation and before emergency use if possible. You should also inspect your rope on regular, scheduled intervals even if it hasn’t been used.

Step 4: Avoid doing things that will damage your rope while in use. There are a few things that you want to avoid when handling your rope. These are things that most rope users are generally aware of, but it never hurts to refresh your memory! First off, avoid abrasion when using your rope. Use edge protection when it’s necessary to run the rope over rough surfaces or sharp edges. Also don’t run moving ropes over stationary ropes (a moving rope can cut right through a stationary rope). Avoid overloading your rope, so know your rope strength and be mindful of it when using it. Avoid stepping on your rope because if the floor is rough or dirty it can rub dirt into the rope or be abrasive. Also, it shows some disrespect for other’s lives when you are stomping on their life safety rope. Ultra Violet light can cause some damage to ropes as well. The current materials used are more resistant to UV light than they were years ago but it’s a good idea to avoid exposing them to UV light for long periods of time. Be sure that your rope is compatible with the gear you’re using. Check your pulleys, descenders, ascenders and prusik cords for the rope sizes and diameters that they’re made for. Avoid chemicals at all costs because even the fumes can damage the rope and there won’t necessarily be any visible signs of damage. Finally, avoid heat when using or storing your rope as extreme heat can melt a rope and lessen the strength. Be aware of the ambient conditions your rope will be used in or stored in, for example using a rope in fire rescue or storing a rope in the trunk of a black car in Florida. Knowing the temperatures that your rope is built to withstand is essential to caring for your rope. The most common ways a rope is overheated is speed-rappelling or losing control of the system and high temperatures in storage. Most situations won’t exceed the high-temperature working limit of the ropes that PMI produces, but avoiding excessive heat is essential to maintaining a long life for your rope. Here’s a chart with the high-temperature working limits for many popular rope materials:

  • Polyester: 275°F high temperature working limit
  • Nylon: 250°F high temperature working limit
  • Polyolefin (polypropylene, polyethylene): 150°-200°F high temperature working limit
  • Aramids (Kevlar, Twaron): 350°F high temperature working limit
  • HMPE (Spectra, Dynema): 150°F high temperature working limit

Step 5: Clean your ropes regularly and store them properly. When cleaning your ropes, be sure to do so according to the manufacturer’s guidelines (read your instructions!). PMI recommends using cold water and mild soap to clean your rope (PMI Rope Soap is a good, mild soap to use). Avoid using hot water or detergents as they can decrease the flexibility of the rope and decrease its life. Air-dry your rope, out of the sun, and record the cleaning in the Rope Inspection Log. You can use commercial rope washers (like the PMI-Bokat Rope Washer) to clean especially dirty ropes.

Storing your ropes is important to extending your rope’s lifetime. The best way to store your rope is to bag it. Bagging keeps your ropes clean and out of direct sunlight as well as helping to keep them dry. If you don’t want to bag, or you can’t, coil your rope and keep it in a cool, dark, clean space. If possible, don’t store coiled rope or rope bags on concrete because a little water on concrete can be slightly acidic and ruin a bag or your rope.

Step 6: Retire your rope. The ever-present question of when to retire your rope will never be answered completely but there are some things that you can look for that mean that you definitely should retire your rope. Retiring, or destroying, your rope can mean anything from marking it, chopping it up into little pieces or recycling it (you can send your old ropes to PMI and we’ll recycle them for you!) If the rope doesn’t pass inspection it should be removed from service immediately and altered in such a manner that it couldn’t be mistakenly used as a life safety rope. “Not passing” can mean many things, some examples of things that would cause a rope to fail an inspection are: if more than half of the thickness of the sheath yarns has been broken (fuzzy rope), if there’s a reduction in the diameter, or if the rope is hour-glassed. Other things that can cause you to want to retire your rope are: if you suspect the rope’s strength has been compromised during use, if the rope has been subjected to uncontrolled or excessive loading, if the rope has been exposed to fumes or actual contact with chemicals, if the age of the rope is over 10 years, or if you lose faith in the condition of the rope. A good rule to follow is if you’re questioning whether you should retire a rope, you probably should – if in doubt, throw it out! The extra money spent to get a new rope is always worth the lives that could be risked if the rope is compromised.

Proper selection, care and inspection along with proper record keeping can extend the life of your rope, increase user safety and avoid future problems. For more detail about this topic, watch the webinar presentation I gave on it.

About the author:
Steve Hudson is a founder and the President of Pigeon Mountain Industries, Inc., a leading manufacturer of life safety ropes and equipment for over 34 years. He is co-author of High Angle Rope Techniques as well as other rope access and rescue related publications. He is active on ASTM’s F32 Search and Rescue Committee, NFPA’s Technical Rescue Committee and NFPA’s Committee on Special Operations Protective Clothing and Equipment, all of which are actively setting standards for rope technician equipment and/or training. Steve is Deputy Director of Walker County Emergency Management which oversees the county’s 911, Fire, and Emergency Services including the cave and cliff rescue team. Steve has served both as a National Cave Rescue Commission Regional and National Coordinator in the past and is presently the NCRC National Training Coordinator. He has taught at over 29 NCRC weeklong seminars and edited the first two editions of the NCRC Manual of Cave Rescue Techniques.

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