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May 2004 Vol. 30, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Weight Integrated BCDs

worth the hassle for traveling divers?

from the May, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When weight integrated buoyancy compensators were first introduced, they were seen as a breakthrough in comfort and relieving the strain of a weight belt on the lower back. Now that they've been on the market for some time, however, experience has shown some serious shortcomings, particularly for divers -- and dive operators -- in tropical waters.

As Dave Dillehay of Aldora Divers in Cozumel puts it, "The best rationale for integrated weighting is to relieve the load of a very heavy weight belt, as one would have when diving cold water with thick wet suits. On the other hand, with the high pressure steel tanks we use at Aldora Divers (at least 4 lbs heavier than aluminum tanks), the normal load our divers carry on a weight belt is 4 to 6 lbs. That is a simple burden to bear, and we don't recommend the use of integrated BCDs. But we do accept them."

Integrated BCDs are meant to be used with soft weights for added comfort. But most operators only stock solid lead weights. So the traveling diver has two choices: bring your own weights or try to cram the dive operator's solid weights into your BCD pouches. Some buoyant divers, or those who wear thick wetsuits even in tropical waters, may have to carry additional weights in BCD pockets without quick release capabilities. This jerry-rigged system could also throw off a diver's trim.

If you bring your own soft weights, besides schlepping the added pounds along with your other dive gear, you may run up against the airlines' reduced weight allowances of 50 pounds per bag. Dillehay told Undercurrent, "In the last few months we have had many divers report that they had to pay hundreds of dollars in excess weight charges. One diver in particular from Seattle brought 40 pounds of soft weights for himself and his wife and ended up paying more than $200 in excess weight fees for the round trip."

Then, when you get to your destination, other problems may arise, the most common being lost weight pouches. Pauline Fiene of Mike Severns Diving in Maui notes, "Whether due to poor design, old Velcro, or improper loading, divers seem to lose them more than they do traditional weight belts." Losing integrated weighs at depth can lead to dangerous rapid ascents.

Of course, weight belts have their own problems. By contrast, says Marc Pothier of Little Cayman's Paradise Divers, "I have seen divers jump into the water, play with their weight belts, and wind up dropping them over the wall. No damage to the divers (they were still on the surface), but a lost weight belt for us. Only a few times in 10 years have I seen someone lose a weight belt at depth though. When that happened, the diver had always been 'adjusting it' when they lost it."

In an emergency, divers need to be able to ditch the weights. "In a panic situation, it is only the repetitive acts that get performed well," Dillehay points out, adding, "I don't believe that weight dumping procedures with integrated BCDs get practiced enough, and in a panic situation they may be forgotten." Curmudgeon Fred Calhoun, who's been diving since 1953 and has captained a scuba charter vessel in Massachusetts, agrees with Dillehay's observation. In his little book Doing Scuba Right, Calhoun says, "actual ditching of the weights must be experienced; adroit doffing and donning of the weights must be mastered; proper ballasting must be achieved." The bottom line for Calhoun: "The ballast belongs with the suit (on a belt) not with any inflatable scuba harness."

Integrated weights can also be a pain for dive operators -- quite literally. "In general," says Fiene, "they are more of a hassle for a dive operation in setting up, keeping track of, lifting the added weight, and people forgetting them on the boat."

A Kona divemaster who wishes to remain anonymous says, in no uncertain terms, "they are a pain in the butt -- or should I say more accurately, a pain in the back! The smaller, simpler ones are not too bad, but these huge monstrosities that are loaded with extra bands, D-rings, clips, etc., are truly difficult to work with; they take longer to set up and add a lot to the weight we are handling. We put the gear together, lift it from the rack, carry it a few feet to the diver, help put it on, take it off, change it, lift it again, and then break it down. A heavy BCD, tank, and regulator is probably 55 to 60 lbs. Add a pony bottle (blessed few), and we're handling 70 to 80 lbs. of gear umpteen times day. Our divers generally come up with tank on, but when someone can't and we have to lift it out of the water, there is no 'correct' way to do it! It seems that the biggest people (horrendously overweight and out of condition) have the hugest BCDs, need the most weight, and expect us to haul it and them out of the water. My crew has the right to refuse to handle outrageously heavy gear and politely request that the owner handle it. I stand firmly behind them on this."

One diver brought 40 pounds of soft weights for
himself and his wife and paid more than $200 in
excess weight fees for the round trip to Cozumel.

Given all these potential problems, perhaps the best advice regarding integrated weights is to leave them home.

Some divers from cold-water locales are now buying lightweight BCDs like the Mares Aria or the Sherwood Silhouette for their tropical travels. They're easier and lighter to pack and simpler to set up. Because they generally require less lift capacity (12 to 24 lbs. vs. 20 to 40 lbs. for recreational divers in full cold-water wet suits), these are more streamlined, creating less drag underwater. Several models, such as the Aeris Atmo Sport, can be customized to an individual diver's liking with quick-release weight pouches, extra pockets, and other touches. Even some integrated BCDs, like Zeagle's, can be customized with such accessories, so you could pack one without the weight pouches and use it as part of a weight distribution system, along with a weight belt, trim weights, and other ballast.

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