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Choosing the Best Decompression Gas

By Jon Kieren

gas blending room

There are many factors that need to be considered when choosing decompression gasses for a dive. The dive profile, logistics, environment/site conditions, and personal preference all come into play; how do these factors affect our decision? First, we need to take a brief look at why we use different gasses for decompression to begin with, and then how the factors previously listed affect our gas choices. For big dives with extensive decompression obligations, it’s often a balancing act between oxygen exposure and off gassing.

Why switch gas anyway? This takes a brief lesson in decompression theory to explain; we’ll focus mainly on the off gassing portion of the dive. The rate of off gassing is related to the partial pressure within the tissues of the body and the partial pressure of the gas being breathed. When the partial pressure of the inert gas (mainly nitrogen and helium) in the lungs (the gas we are breathing) is LOWER than the partial pressure of the inert gas absorbed in our tissues, the gas will move from the area of high pressure (our tissues) to the area of low pressure (our lungs) and be expelled when we exhale.

There are two ways we can reduce the partial pressure of the inert gas in our lungs. First, is by ascending and letting Boyle’s law take over. As the gas expands as we ascend due to reduced ambient pressure, the partial pressure of the gas drops. This works but is not the most effective method. If we ascend too far or too fast and the ambient pressure decreases too rapidly, bubbles can form causing decompression sickness. The second method of reducing the partial pressure of the inert gas in our lungs is to reduce the fraction of the inert gas in our breathing mixture. In order to reduce the fraction of inert gas in the mix, we increase the fraction of oxygen. By switching to an oxygen rich gas on the ascent, we reduce the partial pressure of the inert gas in our lungs and increase the rate and efficiency of off gassing. So, more oxygen=less inert gas=faster/more efficient deco. Got it?

Okay, so if a higher fraction of oxygen is better for decompression, why don’t we just use 100% oxygen for the entire ascent? It would sure reduce our decompression times by a significant amount, wouldn’t it? Well, unfortunately we have to be cautious of the pesky oxygen free radicals caused by breathing high partial pressures of oxygen. If these oxygen free radicals are left to cause damage faster than the body can repair it, oxygen toxicity can become a serious concern. In short, the higher the oxygen content in the breathing gas, the shallower it must be breathed. As an example; for sport and technical diving applications, the maximum operating depth of oxygen is 6 metres/20 feet; and the maximum operating depth of 50% nitrox is 21 metres/70 feet. Here’s where we begin our balancing act.

We now need to consider the other factors that will affect our gas choice. First of all is logistics. What gasses are actually available? Many technical dive facilities have their decompression gasses pre-mixed, so you may be limited to what they have available or are willing to blend (gas blending can be a time consuming process). Also, there are many places in the world where 100% oxygen is not available, or can only be filled to roughly 150 bar/ 2000psi, depending on the fill station’s equipment. Once you know what your options are, you need to look a bit closer at the environment you’ll be diving in and how you will conduct your last decompression stop.

Many divers will vary the depth they plan to conduct their final decompression stop based on the environment they will be diving in. In a perfect world, we would always conduct our last stop at 3 metres/10 feet. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. Rough seas and overhead environments may make it difficult or impossible to conduct your last stop at 10 ft, so it may need to be conducted a bit deeper at 6 metres/20 feet. Conducting this last stop on 100% oxygen could now be problematic as you will be exposed to a much higher partial pressure of oxygen for the duration of the final decompression stop. Add rough seas to this in open water, and it could be very difficult to remain at a safe depth on oxygen. This is an instance where reducing the oxygen content may be wise. While a lower fraction of oxygen will not be quite as effective as a decompression gas on this final stop, it can significantly reduce the diver’s oxygen exposure. If you are making multiple gas switches in order to maximize the partial pressure gradient for the entire ascent, you will also need to look at the environment to decide what gasses to carry. A good example of this would be a cave dive. If you were planning your dive to switch to 50% at 21 metres/70 feet, but you know that there is a restriction in the cave at 21 metres/70 feet making it difficult to conduct a proper gas switch, you have a few options. First, would be carry the same gas, but decide to switch to it at a shallower depth where there is not a restriction. This would work fine, but would not be as effective for your decompression. You could also choose to bring a different decompression gas. A leaner nitrox mix could be switched to a bit deeper, but would not be as effective for the shallower stops. A richer nitrox mix would be more effective in the shallower stops, but you would not be getting the advantages of a decompression gas until later in the decompression schedule. Using desktop/mobile decompression software makes running these alternative options quick and easy so you can see immediately how your choice will affect your decompression plan.

After looking at all of the scenarios above, sometimes it just comes down to personal/team preference. Many divers and dive teams choose to use a standardized set of decompression gasses. This policy helps keep things simple and consistent. If a diver always carries 50% and oxygen for decompression, then they are always making gas switches at 21 metres/ 70 feet and 6 metres/20 feet. This standardized method streamlines the dive planning considerably, is consistent, and works well for many applications.

While this is not a complete discussion on decompression gas planning, it’s a good example as to what type of considerations we need to take into account when choosing our deco gasses. These points, along with others, are covered in depth in the TDI Decompression Procedures, Extended Range, Trimix, and Advanced Trimix courses and course materials. For more information on these courses, please visit TDI courses section

Don’t Trust Your Gas Blender – Analyze Every Tank

by Jon Kieren

Girl analyzing a nitrox tank

Photo Courtesy of Andy Phillips

People make mistakes, it’s human nature. I make them all the time. I’m sure that even after this article has been edited several times and published someone out there will find at least a couple of typos and call us out on it. A typo is one thing. However, a simple mistake in the blending process can result in a diver breathing a mix with significantly more or less oxygen than they had expected, causing serious injury or death. If we KNOW that people make simple mistakes so often, then why do so many nitrox divers today NOT analyze their gas before diving? There are two primary reasons: either they don’t understand why it’s so important (a topic that is covered in every nitrox course), or they have just become complacent. This article will discuss both scenarios and how to avoid them.

Why is it so important to analyze your breathing gas? Simply, it can kill you if it’s wrong. If the oxygen content is less than the diver had expected, they can end up with unexpected and unknown decompression obligations.

Example – You make a dive to 30 metres/100 feet assuming you’re breathing 32% nitrox. You spend 39 minutes on the bottom and surface with no decompression obligation. Unfortunately, the nitrox tank you were diving was accidentally filled with air (21% oxygen), and in reality you just blew off 26 minutes of decompression. A significant error that is almost sure to result in Decompression Sickness. This situation can be made significantly worse by conducting repeated dives.

What if the oxygen content is HIGHER than you expected? Should be better off then, right? As far as decompression obligations are concerned, yes. However, a far greater risk in diving nitrox is Oxygen Toxicity and can cause severe convulsions (not a good situation underwater).

Example – Using the same dive as above, assuming you were on 32% nitrox at 30 metres/100 feet, your partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) would be close to its upper limit at about 1.3 ata. If that nitrox mix was in fact a 50% nitrox mix, your PO2 would now be over 2.0 ata and would be considered extremely dangerous.

The examples above are not the only concerns of breathing the wrong gas at the wrong depth; a thorough nitrox course will cover the others, as well as how to avoid them. So if you have to be Nitrox certified to dive nitrox, and the risks and proper procedures for avoiding those risks are covered in the course, why do people still end up breathing the wrong gas? The simple answer is: complacency. Over time, divers become complacent with their gas analysis procedures and start to skip it altogether, which means they end up in the water with absolutely no idea what they are breathing. Pretty scary.

Normalization of deviance is a term used by astronaut Mike Mullane (*Mullane 2014) to describe the process of complacency in safety procedures. In brief, it explains how humans have the tendency to take shortcuts due to different factors including time, peer pressure, etc. Once this shortcut is taken and nothing bad happens, the brain will incorrectly assume that the shortcut is “safe”. This shortcut now becomes the norm, and we have completely eliminated a critical step in a procedure. This applies to diving at every level. How many times have you seen divers jump in the water without doing a proper predive check? It is taught and its importance stressed in every open water course, yet it gets skipped every day because so many divers have “gotten away with it” they assume it’s safe to dive without making predive checks and then eliminate it from their procedure. Unfortunately, it also results in emergencies from divers forgetting to turn on their air and inflate their BCDs.

The same happens to nitrox divers. Maybe one day they are in a rush and forget to analyze their gas at the fill station. They get to the dive site and realize that they forgot to analyze but now do not have access to an analyzer. They are left with two choices, either not dive today or dive without analyzing their gas. The diver has been getting fills from that fill station for years and has never gotten the wrong mix, so they decide to dive anyway and assume the fill is correct. Nothing bad happens, so they now believe this shortcut is safe. “If I get my fills from XZY Dive Center, I know that it will be correct and I do not need to analyze my gas”. They have eliminated the most critical step in diving nitrox, and this is now the norm.

We know people make mistakes, and that’s why we have safety procedures in diving. These procedures help us catch the little mistakes before they create catastrophic emergencies. When diving nitrox, analyze every tank before every dive without exception. It could save your life.

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* Mullane, Mike. (March 2014). Stopping Normalization of Deviance.

Diving Etiquette – don’t be “that guy” (or gal)

by Jon Kieren

Untitled 11-14-10 copy

There is one on every dive boat, you know… “That Guy”.  The one who tries every possible way to ruin your hard earned, well deserved, fun and relaxing dive trip. We’ve asked our members for a list of qualities that defines “That Guy” and here is what they came up with.

  • That Guy who walks into the dive shop with a binder full of certification cards and exclaims loudly “pick a card, any card!” We are all very happy that you are passionate about continuing education. However, your Ice Diver, Altitude Diver, and Dry Suit Diver cards aren’t really necessary in the Caribbean.
  • That Guy whose gear bag “explodes” all over the boat as soon as he boards. One fin here, the other over there, his wetsuit draped over your tanks, his left bootie is on the swim platform while the right is on the bow, and his regulator is draped over the ladder to the bridge while he dunks his BCD in the camera bucket to get the strap wet. Dive boats get crowded fast, pack your bag so you can take one item out at a time while you set up, using the least amount of real estate possible.
  • That Guy who decides that since he’s going diving anyway, it’s not entirely necessary to shower while on vacation. Again, dive boats get crowded quick and it’s often hot and humid… this, combined with diesel fumes and you still reeking of last night’s bad decisions can have a serious impact on the sea sickness tolerance of your fellow divers. Clean yourself up, it’s better for everyone.
  • That Guy who insists his last dive trip was far superior to any diving anyone else has ever done. After every dive, That Guy complains that it wasn’t as good as his last trip to wherever, and recommends everyone on the boat visit that place on their next trip instead of coming back to where they are now. Not only is this disrespectful to the dive operation you are diving with, but also to everyone who just got out of the water thoroughly satisfied. Now they are disappointed they didn’t see dolphins dancing with whale sharks while the manta ray played the harp with the mermaid, they want more… and it’s your fault.
  • That Guy who “doesn’t need to log dives anymore” yet cannot remember how much weight he needs. If you jump in the water and can’t get down because you don’t have enough weight, write that down somewhere so you know for next time. There’s a really good spot to do it too… it’s called your logbook!
  • That Guy that everyone is always waiting on. If you take a little longer to get your kit on and get in the water, start getting ready a little earlier than everyone else. That way everyone isn’t bobbing around on the surface waiting for you to start putting your wetsuit on. Also, if you know you have better air consumption than the rest of the group, ask if it’s okay to get in first and drop down with your buddy before everyone else. This way, the whole boat isn’t waiting around for you to finish your tank meanwhile it’s lunchtime and the other guests and boat crew are hungry… you don’t want to make the captain miss his lunch, trust us.

This is by no means a complete list of “That Guy” characteristics but you get the idea. The next time you’re on a dive boat take a look around; if you can’t spot “That Guy”… guess what? It might be you! We would love to hear your favorite stories about “That Guy” so please tell us in a comment below!

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