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November 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Stay Clear of Exploding Tanks

how to evaluate tank safety on dive trips overseas

from the November, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Around 2:30 p.m. on August 26, a loud explosion in Cozumel sent people running for cover. But it wasn't a bomb that went off, it was an exploding scuba tank. Juan Enrique Canché Ku was filling tanks in an outdoor area near Scuba-Cozumel, the on-site dive shop at the Scuba Club Cozumel resort, when one exploded. Dive shop manager Henry Ernesto Zapata López told the local newspaper that when he ran toward the compressor, he found Canché Ku, 34, covered in blood with his right leg torn off. Two hours later, Canché Ku died; his doctor said death was due to shock, traumatic amputation and extensive lesions in the soft tissues. Tank splinters had pierced and ripped his body too drastically for him to recover.

Unfortunately, tank explosions are not an uncommon occurrence. We've written about several. For example, in our January 2013 issue, we wrote about a staffer at the Amigos Del Mar dive shop on Belize's Ambergris Caye who was fatally disemboweled by the shard of an exploding tank he was filling in the compressor area.

"Well over half of the air tanks we
used for shore diving with Scuba Club
Cozumel were leaking from the valve
stems and showed signs of corrosion."

Scuba Club Cozumel is a popular destination for hard-core divers, but the way they managed their air tanks had been questioned by one of our readers before the explosion. Seth Patterson (Brownsville, TX) stayed there for the first time in July and was concerned about how bad they looked. "We did 22 dives in six days between four of us, so we went through 88 tanks and fills. I would say well over half of the air tanks we used while shore diving were leaking from the valve stems and showed signs of corrosion. They were very poorly maintained."

Hydrostatic testing, the checking of a scuba tank's strength, is strongly regulated in First World countries -- places like the U.S. (the Department of Transportation writes the rules), Australia and European countries, -- but what about in the developing countries where divers prefer to go? Are they regularly tested? Do government rules exist to regulate that process? And what should divers do -- if they can do anything -- to keep from being caught in the crossfire of an exploding tank?

Of course, it's not fair to blanket all overseas dive shops with the assumption of loose rules and laxness. But dive industry veterans agree that tank-check rules get laxer the farther you go from a First World country. Undercurrent contributor Bret Gilliam, who has run multiple dive operations in the past, gives a Caribbean example: "There aren't many problems at U.S. Virgin Islands because they're governed by U.S. law. The British Virgin Islands next door are also pretty good. But the farther you go, the more the rules decline. Roatan, the Bay Islands, forget about it. And once you go to the Asia-Pacific area -- Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Thailand -- there's virtually no control over anything." Without control and oversight, one has to hope that the operators are responsible, because not even the agencies are running a tight ship.

Dive agencies, like PADI and SSI, have tank inspection requirements on the books for their affiliated dive shops and resorts, but according to Mark Gresham, CEO of the cylinder inspection firm PSI-PCI, they could do a much better job enforcing them. "The agencies don't care [about rules and regulations being followed], they only care when there's an accident," he says. "PADI's five-star resorts have no requirements for any of their staff to be trained as an inspector; same for SSI. I have had several conversations over the years with both of them to get a consensus on enforcing tank inspections and tests, but it never seems to catch hold." Undercurrent contacted both PADI and SSI for information about their tank inspection and testing rules and enforcement, but we didn't hear back from either. Apparently, they don't like our snooping.

Gresham was in charge of investigating the Amigos del Mar explosion, and he also looked into the Scuba Cozumel explosion. "What frustrates me about the Cozumel incident is that there is a U.S. DOT hydrotester in Cozumel, but that cylinder was not in hydro, nor had it been inspected."

He says testing tanks in the tropics is driven by two things: availability of testing facilities, and a dive shop owner's willingness to pay to send tanks there. "In the Caribbean, you find both ends of that spectrum. I find tanks 10 years out of hydro in some places there, and we're not talking remote. In Belize, for example, they carry both U.S. and European cylinders, but that doesn't mean they always follow the standards for the specific cylinder type. In the Philippines, I've seen dive operators using tanks with air leaking out of the crown, but then I've seen other places using cylinders that are in great condition. The problem with the dive industry is that you often have a guy who has been testing tanks for 25 years and assumes that because he's been doing it for 25 years, he knows how to do it right."

Of course, good quality dive shops, no matter where they are located, will check their tanks regularly and having them inspected routinely. They recognize the danger, havoc and ultimate cost of a failed tank. We asked some random dive operators in far-flung places how they check tank strength and durability -- however, of the dozen that we asked, only five replied to us.

Kay Wilson, owner of Indigo Divers in St. Vincent, says she pays a pretty penny to ship her tanks to Barbados for routine hydrotesting. "The cost is approximately US$90 per tank, and the tanks are gone for just under a month. At one point I had 80 tanks, so the average annual cost to keep them maintained was $1500. The cost of running a dive business is high, and there is always a temptation to cut non-essential expenses. Small islands have it even harder as they are heavily taxed with the additional costs of high import duties and shipping. It is also unlikely that a hydro station will be close at hand, and the governments in most small island nations lack the resources, or understanding of the industry, to ensure compliance. Therefore, dive operators have two choices: use integrity and ensure their tanks are maintained or forgo the testing procedure."

Mike Bartick, general manager of the Crystal Blue Dive Resort in the Philippines, says he regularly keeps his tanks hydrotested, and the country, for the most part, ensures tanks are above par. "The Philippine Commission of Sport Scuba Diving inspects and approves tanks' air quality, and grants a seal of approval yearly to compliant dive operations. Specific tank maintenance varies from place to place, but we inspect tanks often, and our dive compressor staff maintains the tanks by cleaning them, re-lubricating the o-rings, re-seating the valves once or twice a year, depending on tank use, and performing visual inspections of tanks, which are numbered and monitored. For hydrotesting, tanks are sent to Manila. This is a convenience of being in Anilao -- our proximity to Manila is a big help for these types of operations."

Gresham says most dive operators in Indonesia follow Australian rules, which require hydrotesting every year. Dave Van Rooy, Undercurrent's Bali-based web master, attests that most dive shops there insist on regular hydrotesting. "I take my tanks to one place in Denpasar, and yes, they stamp them. As far as I know, all the dive operators supply good tanks. There are places here that might not be so picky, but generally better than you might expect."

Fiji's dive industry is covered by the country's Health and Safety Ddepartment's regulations, which require that all tanks be visually inspected at least once a year. Steel tanks should be hydro-tested annually, and aluminum tanks every five years. Fiji has no specific hydrostatic testing requirements, but Mike Agnew, managing director of Viti Water Sports near Nadi, also goes by Australian testing standards (his is the only testing facility in western Fiji). "For hydrostatic tests, we stamp the tanks with our initials and the date, add a visual inspection sticker, and again supply a certificate. Any tanks that fail either the visual or the hydrostatic test are rendered unserviceable; for us, that mean drilling through the neck of the tank. I believe these statements can broadly be applied to the three other main testing facilities in Fiji."

What about on liveaboards, where you're closer to the compressor than you would be if doing landbased diving -- and every boat may have a different take on tank maintenance, depending on its owner and the country it's registered in? Wayne Hasson, president of the Aggressor Fleet, says tanks all on his boats get visual inspections annually, are hydro-tested every five years, and get stamped. "Crew are trained to inspect, and every country we operate in has somewhere nearby to hydro-test. It some cases, we have to wait to get tanks returned, sometimes as long as two or three weeks, but that's not a problem, because we only send six tanks off at a time and use extra tanks we have on board."

Peter Hughes, president of DivEncounters Alliance, a group of independently-owned and operated liveaboards, says similar methods are used for visual inspections and hydrotesting, although it's a little different for one of the boats, the M/V Galapagos Sky, which Hughes co-manages. "We have those tanks visually inspected and cleaned annually, but we replace them every five years rather than hydrostatically testing them. We find this a better path to follow, considering the constant usage of the tanks in our situation."

Still, there are precautions any diver to can take to check a tank and be less suspicious that it's a ticking time bomb. Ken Kurtis, owner of the Reef Seekers dive shop in Beverly Hills, CA, runs regular group dive trips around the world, and he offers up some suggestions.

First, look at the hydro date. It should be less than five years old. Ask the dive operator if they do the hydros themselves or send the tanks out to someone? "Do they wait until five years or do them more frequently? Do they have a lot of tanks in play (so it's not a big deal if they need to pull some out), or do they have just barely enough to get by, which might cause them not to pull a tank out of service?" Take a look at their rental area and their compressor area, when they're not filling tanks. Do things look neat and clean? "How they take care of those areas is likely how they take care of the tanks too," says Kurtis.

And take a look at the tank itself, he adds. Is it clean, shiny and does it look well-cared-for, or are there pits and gouges? Is there corrosion on the valve? Does the valve handle turn freely? Bret Gilliam says you should be able to unscrew a scuba valve with sharp blow of your palm or butt of your wrist. "If they're so fixed in place you can't do that, the valve has not been off in years."

No matter where you dive, you don't know the actual viability of any tank at a given moment. So you have to put your faith in the operator and that they're doing things correctly. Most of them, of course, want to keep their customers safe. Gresham says a lot of prudent operations come to classes he offers at the scuba industry's big annual trade show, run by the Dive Equipment and Marketing Association. "Last year, we had dive operators from 21 countries in our tank inspection class."

Some operators, however, will not spend the money to test their tanks. Gresham says he recently consulted a dive operation in Mexico's Mayan Riviera area so that the owner and staff understood how to visually inspect and hydrotest their tanks. "This guy was doing his best to keep his cylinders safe, but he was getting pressure from the other local dive shops [for paying for my services]. They don't want to follow regulations because they don't want to spend the money."

For the traveling diver, perhaps the best advice is to steer clear of tanks when they're being filled, especially if you're in Mexico.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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