How To

Gear Maintenance : Proper Cleaning of Scuba Equipment

This is the first of six pages that will help you understand how to clean your equipment, and what factors and subtle considerations can help you reduce your trips to the repair counter. So let’s get started.

To keep your equipment functioning in top order, you must maintain it properly and clean it properly. From the moment that you arrive home with your brand new equipment, the first thing you need to do is to verify (again, even though you did it at the shop) that everything is working properly. The second thing you need to do is to determine where and how you will do your gear cleaning. You set this up before you do your first dive with your new equipment so that you will be ready to deal with the cleaning when you get home after a day of diving, all tired and worn out.
All gear should be cleaned with fresh water as soon as possible after diving. Do not let the gear dry out after contact with salt water. Instead, keep the gear damp until you can get it to fresh water. When salt water dries, it leaves a hard deposit that is difficult to remove or re-dissolve. I realize it may be late at night by the time you get home after a trip up the coastline, or a day out to the outer islands, and it is tempting to put off cleaning the gear. But immediate and proper rinsing of your equipment is crucial to its health and welfare (and therefore your health and welfare as well!). For those of you that are still renting gear, you should seriously consider getting into the cleaning habits suggested in this article. Also, ask yourself – would you be happy renting out the gear in the condition in which you returned it after you last used it? Remember that if you are diving frequently, the gear that you check out may be the gear you used on your last dive!

Besides intentional or unintentional abuse (the human factor), there are three important environmental factors (the three “S’s”) that influence the condition of your equipment: 1) salt water; 2) sand/silt; and 3) sun. First, salt water forms salt crystals when the salt water dries out. These salt crystals actually occupy more volume than they did when dissolved in water, and thus expand upon formation, a very serious side effect that is damaging to your equipment (more on that later). Second, sand and silt get into your regulator’s first and second stages as well as your BCD inflator, causing undesirable leakage problems. Finally, sun heats up and dries out your gear (in addition to causing the colors to fade), compounding the problems that are brought about by salt and sand.

Concerning your cleaning station – it should be an area that will allow you to flush fresh water through your equipment, and that will safely drain away the sand and salt water. You also need to be able to hang up your dripping, wet, rinsed equipment while it dries. If you live in an apartment, you may have to use your shower stall. If you live in a house, you may be able to dedicate an area in your yard for your cleaning station. I have an area off to the side of my house that serves this purpose. I have a 30 gallon plastic trash-can that has been modified to use for rinsing gear. I have drilled a 3/4-inch hole near the bottom (which just so happens to be the same size as a wine cork) for drainage. I just cork off the hole and fill the trash can with the garden hose, and I am ready to rinse gear. I also bought a plastic stand-alone sink (it stands about three feet high and has a basin that is two foot by two foot) from my local hardware/ home improvement superstore. I use this to fill with water and wetsuit cleaner, a soapy solution that preserves the life of your neoprene rubber. However, you do not want to get wetsuit cleaner in your BCD, more on that in the next chapter. Only your wetsuit and neoprene accessories should be cleaned in the wetsuit cleaner. Everything else should just be rinsed in fresh water, or at most, a dilute, mild soap solution. And finally, never use your clothes washing machine to clean your wetsuit, even the “delicate” cycle is too rough on the seams and stitching.

How To Clean Your Buoyancy Compensation Device (BCD)
Despite how carefully you use your BCD, water will get inside the BCD every time you dive. If not drained out, the water inside your BCD will increase after each dive, and eventually could fill a significant portion of your BCD. The BCD works properly – if and only if – you can put air into it. If the BCD is filled with water, it will not function properly and you will have difficulty in attaining neutral or positive buoyancy.

So, how does water enter the BCD while diving? Typically, you hold the BCD deflator hose above your head and press down on the deflation button to release the air from your BCD so that you can remain neutral while ascending. However, when the air bubbles out, water seeps into the BCD. Small amounts of water enter during every dive. After multiple dives, the amount of water in the BCD adds up and becomes significant. Excessive water inside the BCD, especially salt water, is something you want to avoid.

To prevent unnecessary build-up of water inside your BCD, you need to get into the habit of emptying the water out of their BCD after every dive. After every ocean dive, it is important to not only empty the salt water but also to clean out salt residues from inside the BCD.

If you only do a few dives a year in the ocean, and you do not clean out the inside of your BCD, the salt water that gets into your BCD can crystallize into a rock-hard residue. This is a serious condition that can destroy your BCD. Jocko (the Rental-Repair guru where I teach) has huge salt chunks taken from ruined BCD’s. He is more than happy to show these chunks of salt (we’re not talking table salt – these chunks were bigger than king size candy bar). If you come into the shop with chunks like this, Jocko will give you a blistering sermon on gear cleaning. However, if you faithfully follow the advice on BCD cleaning below, you can avoid Jocko’s brimstone and hellfire sermon on proper BCD cleaning techniques.

To prevent BCD salt build up, you need to clean out the inside of your BCD after diving in the ocean. Here is the sort version of the cleaning instructions: Inflate the BCD, then fill it with water from your garden hose, and flush out the rinse water. Sounds simple, but there are some considerations.

Most BCD’s only have only one primary inflation valve and a shoulder vent (sometimes called an over-inflation release valve). Other BCD’s have additional secondary valves to help vent air, and are typically located on the back near the bottom of the BCD. These additional secondary deflation valves are commonly referred to as a “dump” valves, as they allow you to “dump” – or release – the air from the BCD if you are in a head-down position. When rinsing the BCD, it is best to fill the BCD with water through the primary inflation mechanism, then shake the BCD to mix the fresh water with the salt water, and finally flush out the rinse water through a secondary (dump) valve. This will help flush silt and salt away from your inflator and will help minimize leakage problems in your inflator.

When filling with a garden hose, you don’t need a jet of water. A steady stream is fine. If you have to wash your BCD in your bathtub, the faucet will do the job just as well. In either case, hold the hose/faucet onto the oral inflation opening, then depress the manual inflation button. You may have to force the inflator against the faucet to get a good flow into the BCD. Some water may spray sideways during this process, so do this where you can get wet and make a mess. On some BCD’s you can actually unscrew one of the valve covers and fill water directly into the BCD. If you choose to use this method, take care to not cross-thread the valve cover when you replace it.

Every time you drain your BCD, check to make sure that you have flushed it out with sufficient fresh water. Taste the water as it drains. If the water still tastes salty, you need to refill and repeat until the water tastes fresh. Some products allow you to add a cleaner solution to your BCD. Keep in mind that you need to rinse this out to benefit your BCD. Carefully read the instructions if you use such a product.

Still not sure what to do? Your equipment may be different from what I have described above, so if my instructions do not answer all of your questions, I would encourage you to bring your equipment into your dive shop and have it checked out by someone that can answer your questions. It is best to learn how to clean your equipment before you use it rather than try to figure it out afterwards.

The regulator represents the single most important component of your diving system – it provides you with air while you explore the underwater world. Consequently, the time and effort that you invest in maintaining your regulator has a direct influence on your own health and well being. Perhaps you only rent a regulator a few times a year. So maintenance issues for you will be related to what you should look for when you pick up your gear at the rental counter. For those of you that own a regulator, your concerns will be related to what you should do before and after your diving day to maximize the long-term performance of your regulator and how to minimize visits to the repair center.
But before we talk about what renters and owners should do, lets get down to the basics:

First of all, your regulator has a “dust cap” which should always be in place and covering the opening into the first stage inlet when not in use. The only time that the dust cap should be taken off is when you are placing the first stage on a scuba cylinder and then pressurizing the assembly for use. At the end of your dive, you should first get out of your wet gear and make sure that you won’t drip salt water into your regulator first stage when handling it. Remove gloves, hood, and pull your wetsuit down to your waist so that no water will accidentally drip off of you into the regulator. Towel off if possible. A small dish towel can be used to dry off your hands and other sources of salt water. Once you are dry, depressurize the regulator, remove the first stage from the cylinder, and observe the condition of the dust cap. If it is wet, dry the dust cap with that dish towel, then put it into its proper place, and screw down the yoke screw to seat the dust cap on the first stage inlet. Some folks think that it is O.K. to use a blast of air from the scuba cylinder to chase away wet droplets on the dust cap, but unless you know what you are doing, an air blast from the regulator only results in vaporizing the salt water and scatters it all over your first stage inlet. So avoid the use of a blast of air from the scuba cylinder. It causes more problems than it solves.

So now that you know that it is bad to let salt water into the first stage, how do you know if this has happened? Well, every time you get ready to put the regulator on the scuba cylinder, look down inside the first stage inlet. Every first stage inlet has a filter. It is usually a disk or tapered cylinder of metal micro-beads (known as “sintered” metal). When it is clean and new, the sintered metal will have a silver or gray tint. If it has come in contact with salt water, it will start to corrode, and corrosion can be either a white powder or a green deposit. However, a discoloration in the first stage inlet is not necessarily an indication of a problem with regulator maintenance, it could also be rust (red discoloration from a steel cylinder corrosion) or an alumina corrosion (a white deposit from an aluminum cylinder corrosion), but that is an issue that we will address in future article. For now, let’s stick with regulators. Just remember that if there is discoloration inside your first stage inlet, take it to the service department to find out what’s going on.

All divers should make it a habit to check the first stage inlet filter prior to any dive, and to mate the first stage to the scuba cylinder and confirm the cylinder pressure. You should also connect the regulator to the BCD using the inflator hose and check the inflation/deflation mechanism.

Now let’s talk about post dive procedures. It may be a while between the end of your last dive and the time that you will be able to clean your gear. Keep your gear damp, especially your regulator, until you can properly soak and clean your gear. Never let it dry out in the sun. Post dive cleaning of your regulator includes a soak in warm, fresh water. Pull the hose protectors back from the first stage connections to make sure salt water residue is removed from where the hoses connect to the first stage. Never soak your regulator in the soapy solutions marketed to clean your BCD or wetsuit. Instead, just use warm fresh water from your household tap. However, do not soak the regulator for more than an hour or so. Tap water contains many undesirable minerals (just look at the end of your faucet or showerhead if you do not believe me) and these minerals can leave deposits that are harder to remove than saltwater residues. When lowering the regulator into the rinse water, put the second stages in first, and always keep the first stage above the second stages. Never depress the second stage purge button once it is underwater, unless it is connected to a tank and pressurized.
Even if you are renting, you should get in the habit of cleaning the rental equipment prior to returning it to the rental counter. The good habits you develop will help you keep your equipment functioning properly once you purchase your own system. Keep in mind that the gear that you cleaned may be the gear that you rent the next time you go to the rental counter. And finally, most shops require a cleaning deposit – if you want to get that deposit back you need to make sure you’ve properly cleaned the gear before returning it.

O-Rings and How to Prevent Flooding
Every diver relies on a single tiny o-ring every time he dives. It is the valve o-ring that creates the seal between the cylinder valve and the first stage of the regulator. Without this tiny o-ring, you aren’t going in the water. So, your spare parts kit should contain at least one replacement o-ring so that you can avoid loosing a dive. If you are renting your cylinder, you can get an assortment of o-rings so that you will have the right one, no matter what kind of cylinder is presented to you by the rental counter. Basically, there are three different o-rings that are in use on commonly used scuba cylinders that mate to a yoke style first stage All three are about the same size but vary slightly in diameter or thickness, so if you don’t have the right one, you aren’t going diving. DIN valves are different, in that the o-ring is on the first stage rather than on the cylinder valve. So if you have a spare of each one of these four o-rings, you should be able to keep yourself in the water. A great place to store spare o-rings is the valve cover. The valve cover is usually attached to the valve handle by a string. Just put an o-ring on this thread and then attach it to the valve handle, and your spare will be right there when you need one.

The best time to inspect your o-ring is when you take your cylinder to the dive shop to be filled. Most dive shops submerge the cylinder in a water tank while filling is performed. This is a good time to look and see if there is any air leaking out of valve while it is being filled. Although this is a pretty good indication of the condition of the o-ring, you should also visually inspect it and make sure there are no cuts, tears, or other damage that would shorten its life.
The cylinder valve o-ring is the only o-ring that should NOT be lubricated. It makes the o-ring very slick and will increase the likelihood that it will slip out when you pressurize the first stage.

O-rings are used for many things besides cylinder valves, such as in regulators, dive lights, dry boxes, underwater cameras, video housings, and more. These o-rings must be kept clean and lubricated to function properly. The proper lubrication to use is silicone lubricant made specifically for diving. Cheap silicone lubricant is available for sporting equipment, but it may not be hypoallergenic. Any lubricant that goes in to a regulator needs to be hypoallergenic so that it will not cause a bad reaction in your lungs. The silicon grease or spray that you by at the dive shop will be hypoallergenic.

When lubricating an o-ring, make sure you are working on a clean, dry surface. The o-ring must be free of lint, hair, or any other contamination that could allow water to seep around the seal. First, remove the o-ring from the groove in which it is seated. Do not use a sharp tool that could damage the o-ring when removing it. Use the corner of a credit card or a similarly blunt tool to extract the first part of the o-ring, then carefully lift the o-ring out, and avoid excessive stretching. Next, clean the groove of residual lubrication, silt, sand, or other debris. One way to do this is to take a cotton swab, cover the cotton with an inch square of paper towel (to prevent a cotton strand from getting in the groove), and carefully wipe out the groove. Also clean any other surfaces that the o-ring will come in contact with when you re-install it into the groove. Next, apply lubricant to the o-ring. There should only be just enough lubricant on the o-ring to form a thin layer all the way around the o-ring surface. The o-ring should be shiny and there should be no build up or clumps of lubricant. On my camera o-ring, I lightly drag the o-ring between my thumb and the first bend in my index finger. This helps distribute the lubricant over the entire surface, and it also allows me to inspect the surface for damage or lint. Once you are sure your o-ring is clean and free of any lint, then re-install it. It is always recommended that after servicing an o-ring, your equipment should be submerged in fresh water and checked for leaks. Salt water is highly corrosive, so if the part leaks in the salt water, a lot of damage can be done. It is best to first test the seal in fresh water, which will be less of a problem should a leak occur. And it will allow you to catch and remedy the situation early on, rather than find out about it half way through the dive.

Finally, on sensitive equipment such as cameras and videos, you should first enter the water and have your camera/video passed down to you. This is a much better for your equipment and is much easier on the o-ring seal. A hard impact on the water can actually break the o-ring seal and cause flooding, so leave the camera/video on board when doing a giant stride, and have it handed down to you instead. Dive light o-ring seals are designed quite differently that camera/video o-rings, and are much more robust, making them less susceptible to loss of seal when entering the water. However, in all cases, you should carefully check your equipment during the first few minutes of your descent to make sure you haven’t started to flood your gear.

Save-A-Dive Kit
Just recently, I was preparing for a dive with an Adventures in Diving Class (Advanced Class). After doing the pre-dive BWRAF drill, I put my mask on my face and stretched the strap over the back of my head. All of a sudden, SNAP! went the strap, and I had a mask with a broken strap. This was quite unexpected as the mask was less than a year old. A quick inspection revealed that enough of the original strap remained, and after re-threading it into the mask and repositioning the slack on the opposite side, I could still do the dive. I did so, despite the fact that the mask felt lopsided the entire dive.

After returning to the boat. I decided that it was time to get out the “Save-A-Dive” kit and use the “back-up” strap to replace the busted strap I had just done a dive with. However, the replacement strap was thicker than the original, and did not work well with the old snorkel and mask clips. But, eventually, I did get it to work, and it was fine from that point forward. My “Save-A-Dive” kit did what it was intended to do, which was to keep me in the water when I had an equipment problem.

There are two types of Save-a-dive kits: the first is the “all-in-one” type that you can buy at the dive shop; the second is the type that you assemble on your own using parts specific to your needs. For beginning divers, the all-in-one is a wise purchase. These kits will keep you in the water with generic replacement parts when you are in a pinch. For advanced divers, your save-a-dive kit needs to have items specific to your equipment and your needs and should contain “manufacturer recommended” replacement parts.

For the beginning diver, the generic save-a-dive kit is a must. It comes in a convenient compact sized container, and has just about every conceivable item you’d need in the event that a strap breaks or if you loose an o-ring.
For a diver that has several years of experience, you need to assemble a save-a-dive kit that is more specific to your equipment and your needs. First of all, you should have a set of o-rings that will cover all your basic needs. Most dive shops carry several generic kits (Trident has kits that feature “20 of the most frequently used” o-rings). Make sure you have the right o-rings – if you are diving Enriched Air, make sure you have “Viton” o-rings. The next step is to meticulously inspect ALL of your equipment.  Inspect all the straps, clips, buckles, and snaps. To inspect a strap, hold it with both hands and gently stretch it. Replace anything that is cracked, dry, brittle, or damaged.

At this point, you want to consider preemptive measures. This can be costly, but absolutely necessary if you are diving a lot, especially if you are diving on multi-day boat trips. In this case, you need to go to the dive shop and have them order replacement straps, buckles, etc., specific to your equipment. In some instances, the shop may have to order directly from the manufacturer. Once you have procured the items, take off the original straps and buckles, and put the replacements on. You’ll know pretty quickly whether or not they will work. If they don’t work, take them back to the dive shop and find out why not. It may be that the manufacturer made a change recently and the replacement parts won’t work. This is important to know before you bust a strap, so you can get an appropriate replacement. If the parts do work, use them from that point forward. Keep the swapped out parts in your save-a-dive kit. After all, you know they work, since they came with the original gear. But before you store them away, clean them, coat them with silicone spray if appropriate, and store them properly (with no folds or bends) so they will be ready to use when you need them.
If you are an intermediate diver, consider getting the generic kit, then get fin straps and mask straps specific to your own equipment. Take the recommendations above and mix and match so that you can get happy with your personal Save-a-dive kit. You are responsible for yourself and your equipment – don’t let yourself down, keep your equipment ready to dive.

Scuba Cylinders
Scuba Cylinders, often called “tanks,” provide some unique maintenance and storage requirements. Most of you already know that the cylinder should not be left standing unattended and that it should be secured during transportation so that it will not roll around. For those of you that rent a cylinder rather than own one, this is probably all you need to know. For those of you who own or plan to buy, the following information will be useful in helping you extend the life of your cylinder.

First of all, storage: A common misconception is that the cylinder should be stored on its side. Actually, the cylinder should be stored standing up. The thickest part of the cylinder wall (besides the neck where the valve screws in) is the bottom. If moisture gets into the tank, a cylinder stored on its side would corrode at the thinner sidewall area. For a cylinder stored standing up, corrosion would occur at the bottom where the metal is thicker, and therefore the life of the cylinder will not be affected as much since corrosion in the thicker base will have less effect than corrosion in the sidewall. Since a standing cylinder is easy to knock over, you should choose a site that provides some support, such as the corner of a closet. If you store your cylinder in your garage, you should store it against the wall and brace it to reduce the chance that it will get bumped and fall over. Be creative, use storage boxes or your gear bag to support your cylinder. You can also mount some straps or a bungee cord to the garage wall to help hold the cylinder upright. In addition, your cylinder should be stored either completely full or nearly empty (100 psi or less). There are several reasons for this, the most important relates to safety. In the unlikely event that a fire breaks out, a partially filled cylinder is a potential bomb. A heated cylinder that is partially full may not rupture the burst disk before the cylinder sidewall or burst disk melts, and this may lead to a situation that would result in catastrophic cylinder rupture (read: explosion). This would be a distinctly dangerous hazard to the firemen that answer the fire alarm. All things considered, it is best to store the cylinder nearly empty, since corrosive effects are accelerated at higher pressures. So store the cylinder upright, nearly empty, and only fill it right before you plan to use it.

Secondly, cleaning: Dunking the cylinder in the fill tank at the dive shop is not enough. You don’t know how long it has been since the dunk tank water was changed, and a build up of salt water can occur from other cylinders being filled. You need to rinse with fresh, gently flowing water. Simply rinsing the outside is fine if your tank does not have a boot or a cover. But keep in mind that any cylinder cover or boot will hold salt water in intimate contact with the cylinder, concentrating the corrosive effects. It is best to remove the boot and cylinder cover to ensure that your rinse removes all the salt. Let the cylinder dry before replacing these items. Don’t forget to thoroughly clean the valve when rinsing your cylinder. Make sure you stream fresh water around and behind the handle, and also over the burst disk area. After rinsing, it is a good time to check the valve for On/Off resistance, and inspect the burst disk area and the o-ring to see if servicing is necessary.

You should have some type of valve cover to protect the valve from bump damage, and this cover will help keep the o-ring from falling out. The valve cover should be tied to the valve with enough string to make it easy to take it off or put it back on, but not so long that it creates a problem when dangling to the side while the regulator is on the valve. I also use the string as a convenient storage location for a spare o-ring or two. That way I don’t have to go rummaging through my gear bag when I need a replacement.

Internal corrosion is the cylinder’s worst enemy, so a yearly visual inspection, or “VIP,” should be performed. The hydrostatic pressure test, or “hydro,” needs to be performed every five years. However, if you frequently dive on charter boats, you may want to have the cylinder VIP’d more frequently. Boat compressors aren’t as good as the compressor at the dive shop when it comes to removing moisture from compressed air. Also, on a dive boat, salt water is everywhere and you need to be cautious of dripping wet divers who may drip salt water onto your valve, which could then be pumped into your tank when the boat’s crew fill it for you.

Finally, overfilling: Overfilling your cylinder stresses the metal and will shorten the cylinder life by fatiguing the metal. Aluminum cylinders should never be overfilled, and steel cylinders with the “+” rating can be overfilled by 10% during the first five years of the cylinder life. Keep in mind that aluminum cylinders reach their rated capacity at their working pressure, but steel cylinders reach their rated capacity at the 10% “+” overfill pressure. So in actuality, a steel 72 cubic foot cylinder filled only to the standard 2250 psi working pressure contains only about 65 cubic feet of air. An aluminum 80 filled to 2250 psi contains about 60 cubic feet of air (only 10% less than the steel!). Bottom line: avoid overfilling your cylinder so that you can get a few more minutes of bottom time. If you need more bottom time, purchase a larger cylinder instead of overfilling your smaller “tank.”

By Eric Frasco, PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer (Originally Published in 2004)
Copyright © 2003 – 2009 Eric Frasco, all rights reserved

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