It’s been over three years since I posted a cautionary tale about oxygen sensors in rebreathers, and the calamities they can cause. Since then, the toll of divers lured to their death has been steadily mounting. In one week alone in April 2016, at almost the same geographical latitude in Northern Florida, there were two diving fatalities involving rebreathers. It is an alarming and continuing trend.
I know a highly experienced diver who starts each dive by looking at his diving equipment, his underwater life support system, and asking it that title question: How will you try to kill me today?
This deep cave diver, equally at home with open circuit scuba and electronic rebreathers, is not a bold cave diver. He is exceptionally cautious, because he is also the U.S. Navy’s diving accident investigator. He has promised me that his diving equipment will never end up in our accident equipment cage.
He and I have seen far too many of the diving follies where underwater life support systems fail their divers. But the crucible in which those fatal failures are often born are errors of commission or omission by the deceased.
Carelessness and an attitude of “it can’t happen to me” seem all too prevalent, even among the best trained divers. Divers are human, and humans make mistakes. Statistically, those accidents happen across all lines of experience: from novice divers, to experienced professional and governmental divers, and even military divers. They all make mistakes that can, and often do, prove fatal.
It is exceedingly rare that a life support system fails all by itself, since by design they are robust, and have either simple, fool-proof designs, or redundancy. In theory a single failure should not bring a diver to his end.
Are oxygen sensors trying to kill you? That depends on how old they are? Are they in date? Ignoring the expiration date on chocolate chip cookies probably won’t kill you, but ignoring the expiration date on oxygen sensors may well prove fatal. Complex systems like rebreathers depend upon critical subsystems that cannot be neglected without placing the diver at risk.
Oxygen sensors are usually found in triplicate, but if one or more are going bad during a dive, the diver and the rebreather can receive false warnings of oxygen content in the gas being breathed. We have seen a rebreather computer “black box” record two sensor failures, and it’s CPU logic deduced that the single working sensor was the one in error.
The controller’s programmed logic forced it to ignore the good sensor, and thus the controller continued to open the oxygen solenoid and add oxygen in an attempt to make the two dying sensors read an appropriately high O2. Eventually, the diver, ignoring or not understanding various alarms he was being given, went unconscious due to an oxygen-induced seizure. His oxygen level was too high, not too low.
Unlike fuel for a car or airplane, you can have too much oxygen.
Oxygen sensors do not fail high, but they do fail low, due to age. Rebreather manufacturers should add that fact into their decision logic tree before triggering inaccurate alarms. But ultimately, it’s the diver’s responsibility to examine his own oxygen sensor readings and figure out what is happening. The analytical capability of the human brain should far exceed the capability of the rebreather CPU, at least for the foreseeable future.
Oxygen addition solenoids hold back the flow of oxygen from a rebreather oxygen bottle until a voltage pulse from the rebreather controller signals it to open momentarily. The oxygen flow path is normally kept closed by a spring inside the solenoid, holding a plunger down against its seat.
But solenoids can fail on occasion, which means they will not provide life giving oxygen to the diver. The diver must then either manually add oxygen using an addition valve, or switch to bailout gas appropriate for the depth.
Through either accident or design, divers have been known to invert their solenoid spring and plunger, thereby keeping the gas flow open. In that case, oxygen could not be controlled except by manually turning on and off the valve to the oxygen tank. Of course, knowing when oxygen is too low or too high would depend upon readings from the oxygen sensors.
Suffice it to say that such action would be extremely reckless. And if the oxygen sensors were old, and thus reading lower than the true oxygen partial pressure, the diver would be setting himself up for a fatal oxygen seizure. It has happened.
Assuming a solenoid has not been tampered with, alarms should warn the diver that either the solenoid has failed, or that the partial pressure of oxygen is dropping below tolerance limits.
But as the following figures reveal, if the diver does not react quickly enough to add oxygen manually, or switch to bail out gas, they might not make it to the surface.
The three figures below are screen captures from U.S. Navy software written by this author, that models various types of underwater breathing apparatus, rebreathers and scuba. In the setup of the model, an electronically controlled, constant PO2 rebreather is selected. In the next screen various rebreather parameters are selected, and in this case we model a very small oxygen bottle, simulating an oxygen solenoid failure during a dive. On another screen, a 60 feet sea water for 60 minutes dive is planned, with the swimming diver’s average oxygen consumption rate set at 1.5 standard liters per minute.
On the large screen shot below, we see a black line representing diver depth as a function of time (increasing from the dashed grey line marked 0, to 60 fsw), a gray band of diver mouth pressure, and an all-important blue line showing the partial pressure of inspired oxygen as it initially increases as the diver descends, then overshoots, and finally settles off at the predetermined control level of oxygen partial pressure (in this case 1.3 atmospheres). Broken lines on the very bottom of the graph show automated activation of diluent add valve, oxygen add solenoid, and over pressure relief valve. Long horizontal colored dashes show critical levels of oxygen partial pressure, normal oxygen level (cyan) and the limit of consciousness (red).
The oxygen solenoid fails 53.7 minutes into the dive, no longer adding oxygen. Therefore the diver’s inhaled oxygen level begins to drop. Rather than follow the emergency procedures, or perhaps being oblivious to the emergency, this simulated diver begins an ascent. As ambient pressure drops during the ascent, the drop in oxygen pressure increases.
In this particular example, 62.5 minutes after the dive began, and at a depth of 13.5 feet, the diver loses consciousness. With the loss of consciousness, the diver’s survival depends on many variables; whether he’s wearing a full face mask, whether he sinks or continues to ascend, or is rescued immediately by an attentive boat crew or buddy diver. It’s a crap shoot.
So basically, the rebreather tried to kill the diver, but he would only die if he ignored repeated warnings and neglected emergency procedures.
What about your rebreather’s carbon dioxide scrubber canister? Do you know what the canister duration will be in cold water at high work rates? Do you really know, or are you and the manufacturer guessing? What about the effect of depth, or helium or trimix gas mixes? Where is the data upon which you are betting your life, and how was it acquired?
Sadly, few rebreathers have dependable and well calibrated carbon dioxide sensors; which is unfortunate because a depleted or “broken through” scrubber canister can kill you just as dead as a lack of oxygen. The only difference is a matter of speed; carbon dioxide will knock you out relatively slowly, compared to a lack of oxygen.
But if you think coming up from a dive with a headache is normal, then maybe you should rethink that. It could be that your rebreather is trying to kill you.