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March 2005 Vol. 31, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Regulator Service

— is once a year too much

from the March, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In years of reporting on diving fatalities, Undercurrent has noted few, if any, cases involving regulator failure. Fred Good, proprietor of St. George’s Lodge in Belize, who by his own count has made 30,000 plus dives and led 150,000 divers, says that “In all the diving I have done and all the tens of thousands dives I have witnessed, I have seen only one regulator fail underwater other than by free-flowing, which of course is not dangerous per se.“

So, the basic design Cousteau and Gagnan patented more than 60 years ago still works well, even with the innovations of balanced pistons, extra low pressure ports, and downstream valves. Furthermore, today’s regulators use top-quality plastics and other corrosion-resistant materials for regulator casings and moving parts.

Still, there is hardly an industry voice that doesn’t call for annual maintenance, which is often defined as replacing every removable part in the first and second stage. Could it be that this is more essential to a dive store’s bottom line than to diver safety? Equipment servicing helps keep that traffic and money coming in.

To keep a regulator under warranty, manufacturers generally require it to be inspected and tuned annually. (Atomic Aquatics, maker of high-end titanium regulators, requires servicing after 300 dive hours or two years.) But, really, does a regulator actually need annual servicing?

Dave Farrar, owner of Gypsy — is once a year too much? Divers in Raleigh, NC, provides some perspective. “When regulators came out in the 50s,” he recalls, “diaphragms, valve seats and O-rings were made of rubber, which developed a memory after repeated usage that kept them from sealing properly. So the industry adopted the practice of annual maintenance, which remains in effect today, even though today’s compounds have much better wear time” — certainly beyond a year, in Farrar’s opinion.

Could other manufacturers the industry adopted the practice follow Atomic’s example and loosen their servicing requirements? Probably so, says Farrar, at least with the more expensive models, which incorporate top-of-the-line materials. But, parts durability is only part of the picture. How the diver treats the regulator is a more important determinant of the service cycle.

But servicing can be an iffy proposition, as many divers find out when the newly serviced regulators free flow or fail to perform on their first dive. Farrar points out that at one time or another, virtually every manufacturer has shipped a batch of defective parts, which actually can make regulators perform worse than before. Fred Good says that “The statement most often heard after regulators fail (free flow) is, “I just got this back from the shop!”

Some repair facilities recommend that you continue to overhaul a regulator yearly or after every 75 dives (especially if you like deep diving). But National Aquatic Service (Syracuse, NY) calls for inspection and maintenance on all components every six months or after as few as 20 dives a year. Fred Good has a simple formula to calculate the cost-effectiveness of annual servicing: “Divide the cost of the regulator by the cost of annual maintenance of the regulator at your shop (do not include the gauges, hose etc. because these are not included in the cost of service). Do not be surprised if this comes out to a number less than 7 and in some cases as low as 5 if you purchased a cheap reg. If the result comes to 5, that means that in 5 years you will have spent enough to purchase a second regulator if you had never serviced the first one at all. Adds Good, “It might be smarter to simply throw away your regulator and buy a new one every 5 years.”

Dive boat skipper and engineer Fred Calhoun dispenses unconventional wisdom in his book Doing Scuba Right. Calhoun also questions the need for annual overhaul. “There’s nothing wrong with such extreme care,”he says, “but it’s not necessary.”Speaking from 52 years in the dive business, Calhoun main tains, “I know of what I speak. Manufacturers will recommend an annual overhaul because they are prone to being sued, and they’re nervous as a result.”

Vance Harlow, author of the manual Scuba Regulator Maintenance and Repair, says, “while I personally feel the every year annual is usually overkill and mostly exists as a cash cow for the dive shops, it would be very difficult to come up with a firm one-size-fits-all recommendation to replace it.” He adds: “My personal regulators often go for 2-3 years, or longer, between servicing, but then I am in pretty good touch with how they are feeling.”Even divers who never plan to take a wrench to a regulator may find the section in Harrow’s book on pre-and post-servicing checks worth the price.

So Is Once a Year Necessary? . . .

All divers want their regulators to perform flawlessly. Because each diver treats his equipment differently, no servicing approach applies to everyone. On new equipment, various manufacturers’ parts-provision warranties have value and should be considered in determining service frequency. How often you use your regulator, how comfortable you are with longer service intervals, and your degree of “feel” for how your regulator is performing should also be considered in your choice of service intervals. The key word is “choice.” After making these assessments and listening to the experts, the choice is yours.

Next month, we’ll talk about where to get your regulator serviced, what you should expect, and how much you should pay.

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