Diving a Rebreather in Frigid Water: Canister Concerns


As evidenced by Under the Pole diving expeditions, rebreathers are being used in some of the most isolated and frigid places in the world. Some of those dive missions are surprisingly deep (111 meters, 330 feet) and long, about 2 hours.

That gives me cause for pause.

I suspect most divers are aware of the 1/3 rule for gas consumption on an open circuit (scuba) cave dive. You should use no more than 1/3 of your air supply on the way in, leaving you with 1/3 for the trip out, and 1/3 of your gas supply available in reserve. Sadly, even that amount of reserve has not saved all cave divers.

Now that cave divers are using rebreathers, the rules, at least for some, have changed. Some savvy rebreather cave divers use the rule of doubles: Always have twice as much oxygen, twice as much diluent, and twice as much canister as you think you’ll need. That plus an open-circuit or semi-closed circuit bailout should keep you safe — in theory.

Gas supply is easy to measure throughout a dive; there is a pressure gauge for all gases. But what about canister duration? Most divers assume they will have more canister duration available than gas supply; which means they don’t need to worry about canister duration. That would be a good thing, if it were true. After all, how many manufacturers provide expected canister durations for various work rates and water temperatures? Maybe, none? Or certainly very few.

I would be very surprised if manufacturers could say with certainty that during a two hour dive in -2°C (28°F) water, at depths to 111 meters that the scrubber can provide double the duration needed. That would be four hours in -2°C water, at all potential diver work rates.

Some of you may say, “Under-the-ice-diving is not like cave diving, so the doubles rule is too conservative.” I invite you to think again. Under polar ice, is there ready access to the surface? Not unless you’re diving directly under the through-ice bore hole the entire time.

In the U.S. Navy experience, obtaining useful data on canister durations from manufacturers is difficult. Duration data as a function of temperature is practically nonexistent. Therefore I will share the following information gleamed from scrubber canister testing in extreme environments by the Navy. While this blogger cannot reveal canister durations for military rebreathers, the information on the coefficient of varation (COV) is not protected. (There is no way to figure out what a canister duration is based solely on the COV.)

The following 4-minute video gives a good introduction to the coefficient of variation.


All rebreather divers should know that canister performance declines in an accelerating manner as water temperature drops between 50°F and 28°F. But what your rebreather manufacturer may not know is that the innate variability of canister durations also increases as water temperature drops. The Navy has found that trend in all types of rebreathers.

So, while canister durations drop considerably in cold water, you’re also less certain about what your canister’s endurance is going to be, because of the increase in duration variability. When canister duration drops and variability increases, a diver’s margin of safety becomes a gamble. Personally, I don’t like to gamble under water.

Coefficient of variation (COV, mean duration divided by the standard deviation) of a typical rebreather. Each data point is the mean of five canisters (n=5).

In the U.S. Navy, published canister durations take into account mean canister performance, and variability. That is accomplished through the use of 95% prediction intervals. The greater the variability in canister duration, the lower the published duration.

This method of determining safe canister durations has been in use by the U.S. Navy since 1999. However, I do not know if manufacturers use similar statistically-based methods for publishing canister durations. If they or you do not take duration variability into account as you dive cold, you may be in for a shock. Due to the nature of statistics, you may have 9 deep, cold dives with no CO2 problems, but find yourself in bad shape on the 10th dive.

If you did have a CO2 problem, it wouldn’t necessarily be anyone’s fault: it could just be a result of canister variability in action.

So, diver beware. Give yourself plenty of leeway in planning rebreather dives in frigid waters. After all, you do not want to become a statistic, caused ironically by statistics.

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If you have an interest in understanding the derivation of the prediction interval equation and its application, two videos of lectures by Dr. Simcha Pollack from St. John’s University may be helpful. Part I is found here, and Part 2 is found here.

Thanks to Gene Hobbs and the Rubicon Foundation, NEDU’s original report on the use of prediction limits to establish published canister durations is found here.

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