New Jersey Scuba Diving
A lot of manufacturers have left the market in the last 20 years, but the recommendations below still hold true for whatever brand you are looking at. A regulator is a hunk of brass filled with springs, o-rings, and fiddly bits, and the basic design will probably never change.
A regulator is usually among the first pieces of dive gear that a beginner will buy. Often, with a little help from your sales representative, you will be coaxed into buying much more in this department than you really need, and skimping or putting off purchases in other areas that would benefit you much more. This is a shame, since much of the other gear you buy will make much more of a difference to you when you are actually in the water. Before you dismiss this statement as heresy, please consider my reasoning:
Why have I placed regulators so far down on the list of priorities? Isn't this the single most important piece of equipment you have? The one your life depends on? Yes it is. And because of this, all the manufacturers have worked very long and very hard to improve their regulator designs. The result is that today every major manufacturer produces excellent regulators, and as long as you stay away from the real cheap ones, it is hard to go wrong. Regulators are a lot like personal computers nowadays - in the end there's not much difference, despite all the hype and marketing. For this reason, I don't think that your choice of regulator is as important as your choice of many other parts of your diving kit, and I have placed it rather low in the list of priorities.
A regulator is divided into two pieces: the first stage, which goes on your tank valve, and the second stage, which goes in your mouth. The first stage throttles the tank pressure -- 500-3500 psi -- down to intermediate pressure -- ambient + ~150 psi. Intermediate pressure is also known as low pressure (LP) as opposed to high pressure (HP) which is inside your tanks. The second stage reduces this pressure down to ambient, for breathing. The first stage also supplies intermediate pressure air to your various inflators, and high pressure to your pressure gauge, although this is just a pinhole's-worth.
First stages come in several forms. Your main options are generally:
- balanced or unbalanced
- piston or diaphragm
- sealed or unsealed
Manufacturers will try to make a big deal out of these and various other features. Here's what I think:
- balanced or unbalanced - Today only the very cheapest regs are unbalanced designs. Breathing performance will suffer, and any reg that cheap will likely be deficient in other areas. There is no reason to buy an unbalanced first stage.
- piston or diaphragm - This doesn't much matter, there are good designs that use both systems - worry about other things.
- sealed or unsealed - This refers to whether or not water can enter the first stage. If water can enter, then so can sand and grit, which will inevitably cause a malfunction, probably while you are in the water. Also, for cold-water diving ( not ice diving, just cold water, say 45°F ), the water inside the first stage could actually freeze, with the same result. Do not buy an unsealed regulator for use around here. In fact, don't buy one, period. Sealed designs are generally more expensive to buy and maintain, but it is worth the extra cost. Some regulators ( Genesis, Sherwood ) accomplish the same effect without technically being sealed. This is just as good, maybe better, because the design is simpler.
Another thing to look for in a first stage is ports - size, number, and placement. Many regulators have one LP port specially for your main second stage, which supposedly flows more. Sometimes it is even a different size than the others. I don't really care for this idea. Look for as many LP ports as you can get, at least four, for hooking up all the extra coldwater gear that is used in the North Atlantic. Another nice feature is multiple HP ports, which allows some selection in the placement of your gauges. Some regs have swiveling ports and other do-dads. Maybe convenient, but also adds extra o-rings, complexity, cost, and failure points.
Finally, there is the question of DIN or yoke fitting. The regs you learned on were almost certainly yoke-type, with a horseshoe-shaped bracket with a knob at the back to attach to the tank. This is the commonest type in the U.S. and neighboring areas, both for purchase and rental. However, if you think you might ever have pretensions of becoming a technical diver, you may want to invest in DIN-type fittings, which screw directly into the tank valve. Deciding up front can save the expense of converting over later ( both tank valves and regs. )
DIN hardware is more expensive than yoke. It is also more troublesome to setup and break down, and, in truth, is little more reliable than yoke hardware. The DIN O-ring is rated for higher pressure than a yoke O-ring ( mainly by virtue of simply being bigger. ) However, on every regulator I have seen, the DIN conversion kit is clearly a grafted-on afterthought, containing many more hidden internal O-rings than the equivalent yoke kit, mostly of the small fragile variety. This pretty much negates the advantage of the one O-ring you can see. Modern yokes have robust and beefy construction, unlike old ones, and are capable of handling the same pressures as DIN fittings, although they are not officially rated for it. Yoke O-rings will wear out prematurely under excessive pressures, but so what ...
Non-O2-rated O-rings are available at Home Depot for pennies each. There's nothing magical about scuba O-rings; just take one down to the hardware store, match up the size, and stock up. These may not be quite the same specifications as the ones you pay a dollar each for at the dive shop, and may not last quite as long, but for the price, they don't have to. It might sound a little dangerous to knowingly substitute a lower quality part, but in this case, it's really not. 99% of O-ring failures occur when you first turn on the tank valve, and thus will occur in the boat or on the beach, not in the water. This is a minor inconvenience, nothing more. Oxygen-compatible O-rings are harder to find, although some specialized industrial supply houses carry them.
There are a variety of choices you can make here, mainly concerning adjustability. High-end second stages come with one, two, or even three adjustments. Some are actually useful, others are pure marketing nonsense. With thick gloves on, you may not even be able to work them in the water. All user-accessible adjustments have a much narrower range of operation than the internal adjustments that a technician can make. My experience is that if a reg is malfunctioning, the user adjustments will be useless to stop it. On the other hand, ifyou're a gadget person who likes to fiddle with things, some of the adjustments actually can make a noticeable ( although not essential ) difference in breathing. On the theory that extra moving parts are extra failure points, I would avoid adjustable regulators, but that's not really possible anymore. With most manufacturers, the non-adjustable regs are the bottom of the line, and you don't want that, so buy a good reg, and if it has a few useless bells and whistles, live with them.
Something that I think is more important than silly adjustments is field maintainability. If you drag a second stage in the sand ( like most octopuses have done to them ) there is a very good chance you will have problems with it. If your second stage can be disassembled outside of a dive shop, you can probably get it working again back in the boat, and not lose your second dive. Usually, all you have to do is pop off or unscrew the cover, pull out the diaphragm, and rinse the body out with water. Some regulators require special tools and training to do even this. Before you buy, see if you can get it apart easily in the shop, or ask the salesman to show you how. ( Yes, I know you're not supposed to try to repair a regulator yourself, but the truth is we all do it when we have to. )
Don't let the mouthpiece sway your choice of regulator. There are lots of different designs on the market, some good, some bad, and it is trivial to install almost any mouthpiece on almost any reg. Buying a reg for the mouthpiece is like buying a car for the tires, yet almost every manufacturer makes a big issue out of it in their sales pitch. I like the patented "Comfo-Bite" mouthpiece from Aqualung ( right ) so much that I picked up some extras and stretched them onto all my other regs.
A "same-source" octopus is an extra second-stage regulator that attaches to the same first stage and air supply as your main regulator. Your own same-source octopus is only useful to your buddy, and then only if you are together. The only same-source octopus that will be of any use to you in an emergency will be your buddy's, not your own, and again, only if you are together. In the tropics, where you can see your buddy 100 ft across the reef and the likelihood of getting separated is slim, this scheme can work very well.
However, in the low visibility conditions of the North Atlantic, counting on your buddy to be there with your emergency backup air supply when you really need it is courting disaster. You can not and should not rely on any air source that is not on your own back.
The same-source octopus is merely an economy measure that avoids the expense of an extra first stage and tank, at the price of reducing the safety benefits of the device to near nil in many circumstances. If anything, a same-source octopus may actually increase your own personal risk by doubling the chance of a second stage regulator failure or free-flow. For true safety, you should carry a separate independent air source, such as a pony bottle or second tank and regulator, so that it will be of use to both your buddy, and more importantly, to yourself.
One design that at least minimizes some of the handling problems of the conventional octopus is the integrated BC inflator. Not only is the combined inflator/regulator always handy when you need it, but when it inevitably free-flows, you can simply pop off the quick connect on the air hose. Then reconnect the hose, and hopefully it will work again. If not, just leave it disconnected, and use the oral inflator, or your drysuit inflator if you are using one.
If you ever actually have to use one of these to share air, remember to give away your main regulator, and breathe off the octo yourself, since it has a much shorter hose. Chances are, by this point your "buddy" has already snatched your main regulator away anyway. A drawback of the integrated designs is that they all seem to use non-standard quick-release hose connectors. This means that your inflator hose will only fit your inflator, or one just like it. The usual reason given for this is that the standard connector doesn't flow enough to breathe from. Sounds like BS to me, but there's nothing you can do about it.
Apart from the general guidelines above, I don't recommend any particular brand or model of regulator over any other. I have used many different regulators that all worked well enough. I don't think it matters. Just remember - you get what you pay for.
With regard to octopuses: if you are on a budget, buy a better ( ie: sealed first stage ) regulator without an octopus, rather than a cheaper one with it. A same-source octopus typically adds $50-$100 to the initial cost of a regulator, plus $15-$25 annually for "service", and is completely useless. Should you later need true redundancy for local diving, do it right and get a pony bottle and second complete regulator.
Some random notes on regulators: ScubaPro always gets top marks in comparative tests, yet they have not significantly changed many of their basic designs in thirty years ! ScubaPro generates the strongest opinions of any manufacturer - people either swear by them, or swear at them.
Both ScubaPro and Dacor tend to use non-standard hoses and fittings, which can be a maintenance and compatibility issue. Not all brands of second stage are interoperable with different brands of first stage, which can be a definite issue with integrated octopus/inflators.
DIR requires a seven foot hose on your primary regulator. The purpose of this is to allow two people to squeeze through a small passage one at a time while buddy breathing. This is surely a lifesaving idea in cave diving, but it is unnecessary in open water. In open water, there really is no need for the super-long hose, as in an air-sharing situation at least one of you will be holding on to the other to avoid being separated in the waves and currents.
DIR goes into great detail about how hoses should be routed for streamlining, all of which makes sense, but is honestly not all that critical in open water. The long hose gets wrapped back under the tanks and then around the neck. Those that do it don't seem to mind, but I would not like to get all tangled up like that myself; I will stick with a short hose. If you already own the "correct" regulators, then you might as well rig up the DIR way (except for the long hose) but if not, I would not go out and spend a pile of money replacing everything for only minimal benefits. Once or twice I have had a hose catch on something in a tight space, and it was no big deal to back up a few inches and unsnag it.
DIR specifies that in an out-of-air situation, you donate your primary regulator ( the one in your mouth with the seven-foot hose ) and switch to your backup. An out-of-air diver is likely to snatch it away anyway, so in this case DIR is simply codified panic. I have a better idea when it comes to air-sharing: don't dive with idiots. Not that I wouldn't do everything possible in a rescue situation, but if you can't plan your dive and manage your air supply, then I'd rather not be in the water with you. Harsh perhaps, but realistic. See Buddy System Refuted.
Hose protectors are those funny rubbery tubes that fit over the ends of your air hoses. Their purpose is to prevent the hose from being bent sharply at the connector, which will eventually cause it to fail. However, they are practically impossible to put on. Here's a hint that makes it easy:
Soak the hose protector for a few minutes in not-quite-boiling water. This will make it much more soft and pliable. Then fish it out and jam it onto the hose quickly before it cools and hardens. Be careful not to get water in the hose orifice. Maybe I'm slow, but it took me quite a while to figure out this simple trick.
Some people claim that hose protectors promote corrosion of the metal hose fittings beneath. My experience is that if you clean your gear properly after every dive, this is not an issue, and in any case, the soft rubber of the hose is far more at risk than the hard stainless steel of the connector.
Another use for a hose protector is as a cap for a spear point.
Annual Servicing & Warrantees
The "Regulator Tax" and the Buddy System
You should probably just skip this section
The scuba industry has successfully convinced the diving public that annual servicing of regulators is essential for your safety. Actually, at $50-$100 per regulator per year, annual servicing of regulators is far more essential to their bottom line than it is to your safety. Am I so cheap that I would risk my life to save less than $100 ? Not really.
All this is mixed up in business, economics, liability, and the fallacious buddy system. As you know, in the buddy system your buddy is theoretically your backup emergency air supply under water, insuring not only against out-of-air situations, but also against equipment failures, and therefore you need only one tank and regulator. In keeping with this theory, you are sold a wholly inadequate breathing system with no built-in redundancy at all. Then, to try to reduce the inherent danger of diving with such a system, or perhaps just the legal liability in promoting it, you are then "required" to have it "serviced" at least once a year, whether it needs it or not. In fact, this is the icing on the cake for the industry, since such servicing is far more profitable than sales ! The real purpose of all this is to lower the entry cost of diving by several hundred dollars, expand the customer base as rapidly as possible, and maximize revenues, and all this is done at the expense of true safety. In an industry that professes to be obsessed with safety at all costs, this hypocrisy is almost beyond belief. ( I'm not saying your local dive shop is evil, but he'll go right along with the industry standard because everyone else does, and he needs to make a living. )
I have found no correlation between annual servicing and regulator performance ( and my regs probably see a lot more and harder use than yours. ) In the best of cases, a reg that works fine will come back from service working fine, which really doesn't prove anything. On the other hand, I have had recently-serviced regs malfunction on me, and I have had old regs soldier on for years in perfect order without any "servicing" at all. I have seen many regs "bench-tuned" so fine by a tech who obviously never dives that they are unusable in the real world. I have even had perfectly functioning regulators come back from "service" damaged and inoperative. ( Did they think I wouldn't notice? ) In my experience, if your reg is working as it should, then you are taking a bigger risk having it serviced than simply continuing to use it. Would you have your automobile engine completely torn down and rebuilt every year for no good reason? You risk having the job done wrong.
Unnecessary servicing contributes little to your safety. Modern regulators are made of brass, stainless steel, ceramics, and plastics, and all of these materials will last for years under normal use. These same materials and parts last for decades under the hood of your car, where they are exposed to heat, cold, vibration, dirt, oil, gasoline, hydraulic fluid, and a list of other abuses that are far worse than clean dry compressed air. Buy and use only sealed first stages that are relatively impervious to sand, water, and contamination, and easily-disassembled second stages that you can clean yourself when necessary. Take good care of your equipment - rinse and store it properly, and it will function correctly for a lot longer than one year. Skip your annual servicing one year and use the money to buy a pony bottle setup, and you will enhance your own safety far more than any unnecessary "service" will ever do. And when your regulator finally really does need servicing, which someday it eventually will, make sure it is done by someone you know will do the job right.
Please note that I am not saying that regulator maintenance is unnecessary. All mechanical devices require periodic maintenance by qualified technicians. What I do think is unnecessary is to have your regulators serviced every year "just because." I bring my regs in when they need it, not simply because they are "due."
Finally, we get to the subject of manufacturer's warrantees, especially lifetime warrantees, and lifetime free service parts. These are all worth a lot less than you think, and are mostly designed to keep you on the annual service treadmill - warrantee void if you miss a year. Most regulator service kits consist of little more than a handful of o-rings and one or two metal bits that didn't wear out anyway ( and in fact, neither did the o-rings. ) Go to the hardware store and see what this stuff is really worth. The major cost ( and profit ) of servicing is the labor, and that's the thing you can trust the least.
Dacor once had the best-looking warrantee of any manufacturer, with lifetime free parts, and recently officially discontinued support for all their old regulators. How much do you think that's worth now?
Wow, I can't believe I put all that in print. Talk about scuba diving heresy, but after many experiences, good and bad, these are the conclusions that I have come to for sport diving. Privately, more than one certified regulator technician has agreed with me on this subject. Of course, I'm not talking about extreme technical diving, or cave diving, or anything else crazy like that where even a small problem can kill you. ( On the other hand, if I did do that kind of diving, I would feel even worse about trusting my life-support equipment to some boob in the back of a dive shop who took a six-hour course ! )
I never hit the water with less than two completely independent air sources, and neither should you. Should one of them fail in the water, the worst thing that will happen is that I will abort the dive using the other. In fact, even on shallow dives I have still a backup air supply - it's 20 ft straight up, and it's as big as the whole world. I am most distrustful of freshly-serviced regulators - I always put them through a testing period to make sure they still work, and would never take one on a dive or a vacation without a backup.
Here is something you probably shouldn't know:
On every regulator I have ever checked, the manufacturer's real second stage adjustment is accessible from inside the hose fitting on the second stage. Unscrew the hose from the second stage and look inside, and you should find a screwdriver-slotted hollow nut. Usually, turning this clockwise will "tighten" the regulator, and counter-clockwise will "loosen" it. Backing it out all the way will leave you with a disassembled regulator that probably only a dealer can put back together. This adjustment has ten times the range of the user adjustment, so great care is needed. Make only very small changes - 1/8 turn at a time, and test the results fully before trusting your life to it.
Regulator servicing is not rocket science. With no more than a pressure gauge and the correct parts kit, I have serviced both first and second stages myself, with excellent results. I am not encouraging anyone else to do this though, as I am quite a bit handier than most people. If you don't think you can do it, don't even try.
Here's some scuba nonsense:
Breathing dry air from your tank dehydrates you. Well, in theory, yes, but if you actually do the math, you'll find that the amount of water your respire is less than 1/10 liter for an 80 cft tank. ( Coincidentally, if you've ever used a breathing air compressor, you'll notice that it produces just a tiny dribble of water, even after filling dozens of tanks. ) That's not to say that you can't become dehydrated while diving, but breathing tank air will not be the cause of it if you do ! ( Actually, it is the cold that causes dehydration. Skin capillaries constrict to conserve body heat, which shunts blood to the body core. The kidneys mistakenly sense this as an excess of fluid, and begin removing water from the blood, resulting in dehydration. This is sometimes called immersion diuresis, although immersion is not required, just cold. )
Scuba Regulator Maintenance and Repair
Explains in detail how regulators work, how they are serviced, and how they are often not serviced. Things you should know about your equipment, even if you don't plan to do your own work.
I make no claim as to the accuracy, validity, or appropriateness of any information found in this website. I will not be responsible for the consequences of any action that is based upon information found here. Scuba diving is an adventure sport, and as always, you alone are responsible for your own safety and well being.
Copyright © 1996-2016 Rich Galiano
unless otherwise noted