This article could have dealt with Boyle’s law, partial pressures, oxygen toxicity, and how rebreathers work. Unfortunately, it would be three times as long and could (probably would) prove to be boring. Therefore, I chose a more direct approach. I have designed a single day of recreational diving and compared the experience of three divers equipped with different scuba devices ranging from a common open circuit aluminum 80 ft3 tank using air, an identical tank but one equipped with 32% nitrox, and finally the recently introduced Hollis Explorer semi-closed rebreather.
The Dive Scenario
The day’s diving takes place from a boat that is positioned in an area with a wide variety of depths ranging from walls with maximum depths over 30 metres / 100 feet to reefs as shallow as 18 metres / 60 feet. The Captain of the boat has decided there are to be three no-decompression (NoD) dives separated by two hour surface intervals and are to include a mandatory safety stop of five minutes at 3 metres / 10 feet. He also insists that the divers surface with no less than 35 BAR / 500PSI in their tanks.
This boat does not have a compressor, and it follows that all of divers must bring the tanks necessary for the three dives. The first dive is a multi-level dive beginning at 30 metres / 100 feet followed by a 15 metres / 50 feet second depth option. The second dive is also a multi-level dive to a maximum depth of 24 metres / 80 feet with a 12 metres / 40 feet second depth option. The third dive is to be at a single depth of 18 metres / 60 feet. In order to be able to visit the three sites that the Captain has chosen in the time allotted, he insists that for the first two dives the divers not exceed a 60 minute bottom time.
The Divers and their Equipment
Bob, by far the oldest of the three, carries on board three aluminum 80 ft3 tanks filled with air (21% oxygen). He has been diving for over 40 years, and he has developed the particularly low value of air consumption (SAC of 0.5 cu ft/min)2. Mike has three new aluminum 80 ft3 tanks that are prefilled with 32% enriched air mix and sport Nitrox labels. Ordinarily he has a considerably higher SAC, but for this exercise we have made his the same as Bob in order that we can see what Nitrox brings to the table. Nick, by far the youngest, has a brand new Hollis Explorer semi-closed rebreather that is equipped with a steel 28 ft3 tank filled with a 40% nitrox mix, and he too has two backup tanks similarly filled with 40% nitrox. Nick has a SAC of 0.75 cu ft/min, which represents a more common value among recreational divers.
All of the divers are equipped with dive computers, and with one exception, all have been programmed to reflect a predetermined value of oxygen content. The exception is Nick’s Explorer that has been designed to optimize the dive time by choosing a value of the oxygen fraction in the breathing gas such that the no-decompression limit (NDL) equals the capacity of the device. This of course is subject to the maximum operating depth (MOD) dictated by an accepted value of PO2 = 1.4 atm. In addition, the dive time based on the canister life of the Explorer is limited to 120 min.
The First Dive
The results of the first dive are shown in Table 1, where TBT refers to the total bottom time. The dive times that were controlled by NoD limits are labeled as ND, by scuba capacity as CAP, and 60 for the Captain maximum specified bottom time.
As can be seen, Bob, the traditional open circuit air diver, was seriously disadvantaged at the first depth of 30 metres / 100 feet where the other two divers have significantly greater bottom times. Note that if Nick with a more common SAC had been using the open circuit rig, his TBT would have been less than 30 min.
The Second Dive
After a 120 minute surface interval, the Captain has moved the boat to a new dive site where the maximum depth is 24 metres / 80 feet. Again Bob is at a disadvantage at the first stop. However, it is interesting to note that Mike who gained eight minutes over Bob at the greatest depth, lost five minutes in total bottom time. Nick with the Explorer greatly surpasses both Bob and Mike at the first depth even with the imposed 60 minute TBT.
The Third Dive
Finally the boat is anchored above a reef that has a constant 18 metres / 60 feet depth, and the Captain has told the divers that they no longer need to adhere to the maximum 60 min bottom time. All of our divers have switched to their clean tanks, and Nick has renewed the Explorer’s canister absorbent. The result is that with no constraint on bottom time, as can be seen in Table 3, Nick has more than twice the bottom time with the Explorer over the open circuit divers.
We don’t see dramatic differences during the first two dives largely because of the boats 60 min bottom time limit. However, Mike by using Nitrox has had more time at the greatest depth as well as Nick using the Explorer. It is worth remembering that Nick has an average diver’s SAC of 0.75 cu ft/min whereas Bob, the elder, and Mike by caveat was granted the same low SAC rate of 0.5 cu ft/min. Finally, on the third dive where the Captain removed the 60 min bottom time cap, the Explorer had more than twice the bottom time as the open circuit divers. It is worth noting that while the Hollis Explorer is semi-closed, during the entirety of these dives the exhaled gas never reached 10% of that of the open circuit divers.
Based on this example, the Hollis Explorer rebreather has a significant advantage over open circuit divers even those with exceptional breathing control that is 2/3 the SAC of the average diver such as Nick. The Hollis Explorer is not accurately characterized as “no bubbles.” However, the undeniably aesthetic appeal of quiet that is less than 10% of open circuit divers is of considerable potential value to any diver in addition to the increased ability to interact with wild live.
In 1989, the term “dive computers” was first coined to describe expensive and exotic devices that were known by no less than 27 different names. Less than ten years later, the term was common place and the majority of divers dove with one. I will be surprised if another ten years go by before the same cannot be said of the expensive and exotic devices known as … rebreathers, and for recreational divers, rebreathers similar to the Hollis Explorer have the potential to be the standard for the future.
1 This article is an updated version of an original article by the author that appeared in the magazine Discover Diving in February 1997.
2 Surface Air Consumption
The original article can be seen, where it was published on TDISDI's website, here.