The P Valve Struggle
By: Jon Kieren
Warning: Graphic language, reader discretion advised.
I somehow managed to make it through 5 years of technical diving without finding the need to install a P-valve in my dry suit. However, about halfway through my TDI Rebreather Full Cave Diver Course, I realized just how important this accessory would be if I was going to be making 4+ hour dives. Towards the end of a 3.5 hour training dive, we had just come out to the cavern zone and all I could think about was the excruciating pain in my bladder and rushing for the exit so I could drop my gear, get to the nearest tree, and relieve myself. At that moment, my instructor told me to tie off for a lost diver drill. All I could do was respond by raising the appropriate finger to him, shaking my head violently and signaling that we needed to abort. He responded with the shoulders shrugged and muttered through his loop “what’s wrong?” I pointed to my crotch, saluted “see you later” and made a dash for the exit. The whole way out I could hear him laughing hysterically, and I knew it was time to install a P Valve.
I left my suit with the manufacturer that weekend to install the accessory, and over the next week I started to research how this mysterious piece of equipment worked. It was overwhelming; pages and pages of forum threads on the subject, with only little bits of vaguely useful and often contradictory information scattered throughout. The process could have been made much simpler by just asking someone with experience, but how do you start that conversation? “Excuse me, can you please show me how to connect this tube to my penis?” Umm, no thanks. So I had no idea what to really expect, and when it came time to start trying things out, I was very grateful that my wife has a good sense of humor (and compassion).
What is a P Valve?
First things first, if you don’t know exactly what a P-valve is, it’s pretty basic. Essentially, it’s a tube that has a valve on one end that vents to the outside of your dry suit that allows liquids to pass from the inside of the suit to the outside. Simple enough. The other end is the interesting and intimidating bit. This is the end that connects to your “anatomy” and allows you to urinate without making a mess on yourself.
The connection happens by using an interesting piece of medical equipment, the condom catheter.
- Condom – I know what that is, and am familiar with using one. The condom is associated with pleasant and enjoyable experiences. I’m comfortable with this.
- Catheter – I know what that is, but have never needed to use one. The catheter is associated with extremely unpleasant circumstances, and honestly, the thought of using one horrifies me.
So then what is a condom catheter, exactly?
Well, it’s a mix of the two. It’s essentially a condom (good, familiar), that you glue on to your manhood. Wait…. WHAT!? Yes, that’s right; the condom is produced with a strong medical adhesive on the inside. When you roll it on, pretty much just like you would a condom, you are securely gluing it in place (this is extremely important, as you do NOT want the condom catheter to come off prematurely!). The “tip” of the condom is left open so it can be mated with the “tube” of the P-valve. When you pee, everything (hopefully) travels straight into the tube, and out of your dry suit.
OK, it’s not as bad as the typical catheter that you think of. Just roll the condom on, hook up the tube, and pee freely. Awesome, let’s buy some of these catheter things and go diving! Go ahead and Google “Condom Catheter”. Actually, I’ve already done it for you, just click HERE. As you will quickly realize, there are A LOT of options out there. Many different manufacturers, varieties, and yes of course, SIZES. Where to start? A quick search on the common diving forums will result in a few of the varieties and manufacturers preferred by divers. The “wideband” varieties are equipped with adhesive from almost the tip, all the way down. The “freedom” styles have a much narrower band of adhesive. More adhesive means a better hold… it also means more difficult to remove (more on that in a bit). You may want to consider the material the catheter is made out of. Some are latex, and some are silicone. If you have latex allergies, the decision is pretty obvious, but I have found the silicone to be more comfortable anyway. So it really comes down to personal preference. Personally, I don’t want to worry about whether the glue is wearing off of my catheter when I have a couple hours of deco to do, so I prefer the wide bands.
What size condom catheter do I need?
I want the best hold, I know that. Now, what size? Many catheter manufacturers produce a “sizing guide”, which is essentially a chart you hold up to your unit and see how you measure up. Guys, this is not a time to be macho. Nobody cares what size catheter you order (however if you’re really embarrassed, you can always keep an “XL” in your gear bag in case anyone ever asks to borrow one). I do suggest ordering a small batch of the size you determined, as well as one size up and one size down, and try each to see which you prefer. You want it to be snug, but the goal is not to strangle your buddy. You also want to consider the temperature and whether shrinkage may be a factor (yes ladies, it shrinks).
Like any new piece of dive gear, the excitement builds when your first box of catheters shows up on your doorstep. As you open the packaging and get a good look at your new device, the reality sets in. “What did I get myself into here?” It is a good idea to go ahead and give things a try and get sorted out well before your first attempt to use your P valve on a real dive. These first dry runs are intimidating, uncomfortable, and can be downright terrifying and painful (but very entertaining for your spouse).