Eating Crow – Safe Water Temperatures for Scuba Regulators

CrowScientists and engineers love to argue, and unlike the case with politicians, compromise is not an option. Technologists speak for nature, for the truth of a universe which does not speak for itself. But when a technologist is wrong, they usually have to eat some crow, so to speak.

Stephen Hawkings, the famous cosmologist, freely admits his brilliant doctoral dissertation was wrong. Crow was eaten, and Hawkings moved on to a better, arguably more correct view of the universe.

Now, on a much less grand scale, this is my time for eating crow.

There has been quiet disagreement over the water temperature above which a scuba regulator is safe from free-flowing or icing up. Those untoward icing events either give the diver too much gas, or not enough. Neither event is good.

Based upon an apocryphal Canadian government study that I can’t seem to put my hands on anymore (government studies are rarely openly available), it has long been believed by the Canadians and Americans that in water temperatures of 38°F or above, regulator icing problems are unlikely. That temperature was selected because when testing older, low flow Canadian regulators, temperatures inside the regulator rarely dropped below 32°F when water temperature was 38°F.

Regulator ice
U.S. Navy photo.

As shown in an earlier blog post, in 42°F water and at high scuba bottle pressures (2500 psi) in instrumented second stage regulators (Sherwood Maximus) second stage internal temperature dropped below zero Celsius (32°F) during inspiration. During exhalation the temperature rose much higher, and the average measured temperature was above freezing. Nevertheless, that regulator free flowed at 40 minutes due to ice accumulation.

Presumably, a completely “safe” water temperature would have to be warmer than 42°F. But how much warmer?

My European colleagues have stated for a while that cold water regulator problems were possible at any temperature below 10°C, or 50°F. However, as far as I can tell that assertion was not based on experimental data. So as we began to search for the dividing line between safe and unsafe water temperatures in another brand of regulator, I assumed we’d find a safe temperature cooler than 50°F. For that analysis, we used a generic Brand X regulator.

To make a long story short, I was wrong.

To understand our analysis, you must first realize that scuba regulator freeze-up is a probabilistic event.  It cannot be predicted with certainty. Risk factors for an icing event are diving depth, scuba bottle pressure, ventilation (flow) rate, regulator design, and time. In engineering terms, mass and heat transfer flow rates, time and chance determine the outcome of a dive in cold water.

At NEDU, a regulator is tested at maximum anticipated depth and ventilated at a high flow rate (62.5 L/min) for a total period of 30 min. If the regulator free flows or stops flowing, an event is recorded and the time of the event is noted. Admittedly, the NEDU test is extremely rigorous, but it’s been used to select safe regulators for U.S. military use for years.

Tests were conducted at 38, 42, 45 and 50°F.

Next, an ordinal ranking of the performance for each regulator configuration and temperature combination was possible using an NEDU-defined probability-of-failure test statistic (Pf). This test statistic combines the number of tests of a specific configuration and temperature conducted and the elapsed time before freezing events occurred. Ordinal ranks were calculated using equation 1, Eqnwhere n is the number of dives conducted, E is a binary event defined as 0 if there is no freezing event and 1 if a freezing event occurs, t is the elapsed time to the freezing event from the start of the test (minutes), and k is an empirically determined constant equal to 0.3 and determined to provide reasonable probabilities, i is the index of summation.

Conshelf XIV pic 2
Click for a larger image.

Each data point in the graph to the left represents the average result from 5 regulators, with each test of 30-min or more duration. For conditions where no freezing events were observed at 30 min, additional dives were made for a 60-min duration.

As depicted, 40-regulator tests were completed, using 20 tests of the five primary second stages and 20 octopus or “secondary” second stages. Regression lines were computed for each data set. Interestingly, those lines proved to be parallel.

A second stage of a typical scuba regulator. The bite block is in the diver’s mouth.

The “octopus” second stage regulator (the part going in a scuba diver’s mouth) differed from the primary only by the spring tension holding the regulator’s poppet valve shut. More negative mouth pressure is required to pull the valve open to get air than in the primary regulator.

The test statistic does not provide the probability that a given test article or regulator configuration will experience a freezing event at a given temperature. However, it does provide the ability to rank the freezing event performance of regulator configurations at various temperatures.

Our testing reveals that in spite of my predictions to the contrary, for the Brand X regulator our best estimate of a “safe” water temperature, defined as Pf = 0, is roughly 53°F for the standard or “primary” second stage regulator and 49° F for the octopus or secondary regulator.

For all practical purposes, the European convention of 50°F (10°C) is close enough.

Eating crow is not so bad. Some think it tastes a little like chicken.

Separator smallEquation 1 came from J.R. Clarke and M. Rainone, Evaluation of Sherwood Scuba Regulators for use in Cold Water, NEDU Technical Report 9-95, July 1995.

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