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.

How Cold Can Scuba Regulators Become?

The Arctic science diving season is in full swing (late May). Starting in September and October, the Austral spring will reach Antarctica and science diving will resume there as well.

Virtually all polar diving is done by open-circuit diving, usually with the use of scuba. Picture046

As has often been reported, regulator free flow and freeze up is an operational hazard for polar divers. However, even locations in the Great Lakes and Canada, reachable by recreational, police and public safety divers, can reach excruciatingly cold temperatures in both salt and fresh water on the bottom.

Sherwood Fail

Decades ago a reputed Canadian study measured temperatures in a scuba regulator, and found that as long as water temperature was 38° F or above, temperatures within the second stage remained above zero.

Recent measurements made on modern high-flow regulators at the U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit show that the thermal picture of cold-water diving is far more complex than was understood from the earlier studies.

NEDU instrumented a Sherwood Maximus regulator first and second stage with fast time response thermistors. The regulators were then submerged in 42°, 38°, and 34° F fresh water, and 29° F salt water, and ventilated at a heavy breathing rate (62.5 liters per minute), simulating a hard working diver.

In the following traces, the white traces are temperatures measured within the first stage regulator after depressurization from bottle pressure to intermediate pressure. That site produces the lowest temperatures due to adiabatic expansion. The red tracing was obtained at the inlet to the second stage regulator. The blue tracing was from a thermistor placed at the outlet of the “barrel” valve within the second stage regulator box. Theoretically, that site is exposed to the lowest temperatures within the second stage due to adiabatic expansion from intermediate pressure to ambient or mouth pressure.

Regulators were dived to 198 ft (60.4 meters) and breathed with warm humidified air for 30-minutes at the 62.5 L/min ventilation rate. The regulator was then brought to the surface at a normal ascent rate.

To make the breathing wave forms more distinct, only one minute of the 30-minute bottom time is shown in the following traces, starting at ten minutes.

The first two tracings were at a water temperature of 42° F. In the first tracing, bottle pressure was 2500 psi, and in the second, bottle pressure was 1500 psi. (For all of these photos, click the photo for a larger view.) 42 2500 SM2

Color code

Color coding of thermistor locations, all internal to the regulator.

42 1500 SM2



When bottle pressure was reduced from 2500 psi to 1500 psi, all measured temperatures increased. The temperature at the entrance to the second stage oscillated between 0° and  1°C. At 2500 psi that same location had -1 to -2°C temperature readings.






The next two tracings were taken in 29° F salt water. The coldest temperatures of the test series were in 29° F water with 2500 psi bottle pressure.

29 1500 SM2

29 2500 SM2










As a reminder, 32°F is 0°C,  -22° C is equal to -7.6° F, and -11°C is 12.2°F. At a bottle pressure of 2500 psi, the temperature inside the second stage (blue tracing) never came close to 0° C. So we’re talking serious cold here. No wonder regulators can freeze.

Frozen Reg 1_hide


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This material was presented in condensed form at TekDiveUSA 2014, Miami. (#TekDiveUSA)