Why You Use So Much Air
...and What to Do About It
By Lynn Laymon
When I top off my car’s gas tank it seems like an eternity before the fuel gauge moves off the full mark. Three-quarters of a tank later, however, when the needle reaches one-quarter of a tank it’s as if the next time I look it’s sitting on empty. Does that happen to you?
Some divers, especially inexperienced, infrequent ones, experience that same increased-consumption sensation when their air supply begins to run low. Once they dip into the triple digits below 1,000 psi tank pressure seems to decrease more rapidly.
The fuel tank that appears to go from one-quarter to empty in just a few miles is a function of gauge calibration. Dissimilarly, however, when a diver’s air supply seems to be disappearing faster the closer he gets to running out, there is a good reason why.
Understanding Air Consumption
Air consumption is an interesting phenomenon. The more a diver huffs and puffs, the quicker his air supply is depleted. Air supply is expressed in pounds per square inch (psi), or bar (unit of pressure), but when you get right down to it, divers are more interested in how many breaths are in the tank or how long it is going to last. Of course breaths per tank is not a constant measurement, because divers do not breathe at the same rate.
The amount of air a diver uses begins with the diver’s physique. Generally speaking, the larger the diver, the more air he or she consumes. Smaller divers tend to use less air. This is not always the case, but the majority of the time it holds true.
If two divers sit on shore breathing from same-size, equally filled scuba cylinders, after a few minutes both will have reduced the psi remaining in their tanks, but one will have used more air than the other. Air consumption is an individual matter; even out of the water, each diver uses his air supply at a different rate.
Having established that fact, let’s go diving. The deeper in the water column a diver descends, the more air he will use. This is because as a diver descends the ambient pressure the pressure that surrounds him increases. As all divers learn during their initial scuba certification, at 33 feet (10 m) the ambient pressure is double what it is at the surface; at 66 feet (18 m) it’s three times greater than at the surface.
Consequently, at a depth of 33 feet (10 m) divers consume twice as much air as they do on the surface. At 66 feet (18 m) they consume three times as much as when sitting on shore breathing from the regulator. So, our air consumption is affected by depth the deeper we dive, the more air we will consume.
The third factor that affects a diver’s rate of air consumption is physical exertion. The harder a diver works while underwater, the more air he will use. I use the word work in the context of the physical demand that is placed on the diver’s body. The greater the demand, the more air the diver will require to sustain normal body functions.
Physical demand is created in a number of ways. Similar to walking rapidly versus moseying, swimming fast as compared with leisurely taking one’s time exploring the reef places more demand on a diver’s body and thus requires more air.
Swimming against a current is comparable to running uphill. Struggling to free a stuck anchor is like changing a tire on a car. Improper body alignment not being streamlined increases drag and resistance in the water. All of these activities place greater physical demand on your body and thus require more air, whether you are on land or at depth.
Physical demand affects each of us differently. An Olympic athlete may not find any of the above tasks physically demanding, but on the opposite end of the spectrum a person in poor physical condition may find that even the slightest task raises his breathing rate.
A diver’s physical conditioning is important, but even the best-conditioned athlete must face the psychological side of diving. This, too, can have a profound effect on the amount of air a diver consumes.
Think about the last time you were nervous over something. Nervousness triggers a host of physiological responses, including an increase in pulse and respiration rates. Divers who are apprehensive and nervous use more air than someone who is confident and relaxed.
The last major factor that influences a diver’s air consumption is what I call “the fidgets.” A diver with the fidgets is constantly exercising his buoyancy compensator’s (BC) inflate/deflate mechanism. Add air, let it out. Add air, let it out. Establish neutral buoyancy, become slightly negative, become too positive, etc. The more a diver fidgets with his buoyancy control, the more air he is going to waste and therefore, the more air he uses. Constantly clearing a mask also uses additional air.
The key things to remember about air consumption: 1. Everyone does not consume air at the same rate while using scuba; 2. The deeper you go, the more air you use; 3. The greater the physical demand on your body while diving, the more air you’ll use; 4. Physically fit divers tend to use less air than those who are out of shape; 5. If you are apprehensive about using your air quickly, you probably will; 6. Fidgeting away air wasting it contributes to poor air consumption.
Many divers don’t worry about air consumption. When they begin to run low on air they simply surface and end the dive. But wouldn’t it be fun to stay down longer to surface because you are nearing the no-decompression limit instead of because you are running low on air? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to stay with the guided group for the entire dive, and not be the one who cuts the dive short because he has depleted his air supply? The vast majority of divers would prefer to stay down longer, if at all possible.
Well, it is possible. Taking control of air consumption should be a priority for every diver as soon as possible after becoming certified.
The first step in taking control of your air consumption is determining your surface consumption rate (SCR). SCR is how much air you breathe while resting on the surface.
There are two ways to determine SCR. As described earlier, you can sit on shore or on board a boat and breathe from the regulator for a few minutes. Note the exact tank pressure and time when you begin this exercise and note the same when you finish. If the tank pressure decreased by 200 psi in 10 minutes of breathing, your SCR is 20 psi per minute: 200 psi divided by 10 minutes = 20. You have room for improvement.
The other and more common way to determine SCR is to go diving. Descend to 33 feet (10 m) and note the beginning tank pressure and time on a dive slate. Dive normally at a consistent depth of 33 feet for 10 minutes. At the end of the timed period note the ending tank pressure and the duration of the exercise (10 minutes) on the slate.
Back on the surface following the dive, subtract the ending pressure noted from the beginning pressure to determine air used during the period. Now, divide the air used by the number of minutes of the test. The quotient is how much air you used per minute at a depth of 33 feet, not your SCR. To determine SCR, divide by two the consumption rate at 33 feet. The answer is your SCR.
If you use 500 psi in the 10-minute test, your SCR is 25 psi per minute (500 psi ÷ 10 minutes = 50 psi per minute at 33 feet ÷ 2 = 25 psi SCR).
Calculating SCR by sitting on the surface breathing from the scuba unit gives you a resting consumption rate. Monitoring your consumption at depth and then mathematically calculating what it would be at the surface gives a more realistic reading because it reflects the additional air used when actually involved in diving activities.
There is nothing magical about monitoring usage for 10 minutes. Any period of time will work, but 10 minutes or longer provides a more accurate representation, and using 10 minutes facilitates the math.
There also is nothing special about 33 feet other than 33 feet represents the depth of two atmospheres, where pressure is twice what it is on the surface. Performing the consumption rate monitoring at exact atmosphere depths 33, 66, 99 feet (10, 20, 30 m) also facilitates the math; it is easier to divide by a round number than to calculate decimals.
Regardless of the depth you choose for your air consumption test, it is important to maintain that depth throughout the timed monitoring period and swim at a leisurely pace.
You Know Your SCR, So What?
Few experienced divers worry about air consumption as long as they are diving a familiar environment and using their normal equipment. They have completed the learning curve and have fine-tuned their consumption rates in every way possible.
But to new, inexperienced and infrequent divers air consumption should be a concern. That is where your SCR comes in handy. Simply knowing your SCR, however, is of little use unless you apply it to a real-life diving situation.
When I led dives in Molokini Crater in Hawaii, during the dive briefing we would explain that the guide and group would follow a carefully planned route that took them from the anchor line, across a sand channel, past a few coral heads to a ledge where a family of eels normally hung out. Then we would proceed to another slightly deeper ledge where four out of five dives we would encounter several white tip sharks. At the shark ledge we would turn around and make our way back to the boat.
We also explained that when the first diver reached 1,000 psi remaining in his tank, the entire group would reverse course and head back toward the boat, even if we had not yet reached the eels or sharks. Following that statement we could immediately tell from their expressions which divers normally used a lot of air. The thought of being the one who would cause the entire group to return to the boat before reaching the eels and sharks cast concern across a few faces.
This is a situation in which knowing SCR comes in handy. The maximum depth of the Molokini dive was 60 feet (18 m) and the planned bottom time 45 minutes. One of those concerned divers could have quickly done the math and determined that, “Yes, I can do that profile and still have 500 psi remaining upon surfacing” or “Whoa! I will be low on air 20 minutes into the dive.”
Here is how. If a diver knows his SCR he can estimate his consumption rate at depth. The maximum depth on this dive is 60 feet (18 m); that is just short of three atmospheres. At that depth a diver consumes three times more air than at the surface. Assuming a SCR of 30 psi, he multiplies his SCR by three and estimates that his consumption rate at depth will be about 90 psi per minute. So, how long can he stay down?
Assuming the tank he is using is the same size as used when he calculated his SCR, estimated bottom time is determined by dividing the tank pressure, 3,000 psi in this example, by his estimated consumption rate at depth of 90 psi per minute (3,000 ÷ 90 = 33). A rough approximation is that this diver will not be able to stay down beyond 33 minutes.
But wait. He doesn’t want to breathe the tank dry, does he? Since he has been instructed to surface with at least 500 psi remaining in his tank, that margin of safety should be deducted from the available air supply, before calculating how long his tank will last at 60 feet (18 m). The calculation looks like this: 3,000 psi 500 psi (safety margin) ÷ 90 = 27 minutes. This is how long he should be able to stay at 60 feet before reaching the 500-psi benchmark.
Using tank pressure (psi) to estimate how long the air supply will last is only valid if the tank being used is the same size (cubic feet) as the one used when calculating DCR and SCR. If it is a different size, estimated air time must be calculated using cubic feet per minute (CFM) (see sidebar).
We have determined that this diver will not be able to dive with the group. Or, based on the parameters presented in the briefing, he will cause everyone to reverse course and return to the boat when he reaches 1,000 psi, about 22 minutes into the dive. It must be noted, however, that this diver’s estimated consumption rate is based on a constant depth of 60 feet; he will not be at 60 feet for the entire dive. The first few minutes will be spent descending, the last few ascending; he won’t be breathing 90 psi per minute during those times. Even considering that, this diver faces an air consumption situation. Is there anything he can do to extend the life of his air supply?
With the concurrence of the dive guide, possibly this diver and his buddy could stay with the group but remain at a shallower depth. Once the group reaches the eels and sharks the shallower buddy team could drop down to 60 feet for a short period and then return to a shallower depth for the swim back to the boat.
If you find yourself in a situation where your estimated air consumption rate at the planned depth hints that your air supply will not last through the profile, be upfront about it. Discuss it with the divemaster. There may an alternative that will keep you both safer or at least he can keep a close eye on you during the dive.
The first time you calculate your SCR shouldn’t be the last. Periodically calculate your SCR because as you gain experience and your comfort in the water increases, your air consumption will improve naturally. There are, however, a number of things you can do to accelerate the process.
Improving Air Consumption
I have not known a new diver whose air consumption did not improve with experience, either as he became more comfortable at depth or through overt changes in his diving technique. There are a number of ways to improve air consumption, many of them interrelated. Let’s examine them.
The one sure thing that any diver can do to improve air consumption is reduce drag. Drag is the resistance encountered as you move through the water. The greater a diver’s drag, the more effort he’ll expend. Increased effort means increased air demand. And there goes your air consumption.
A streamlined diver has minimized drag. Begin by securing all accessory gear close to your body. Fasten up your gauge console and octopus. Place your slate inside a BC pocket. The goal is to make your underwater profile like that of a dolphin sleek and smooth.
Once your equipment is streamlined, focus on your swimming technique. Streamlined divers take the form of a torpedo. Their head, torso, legs and fins are on the same horizontal plane, here again, sleek and smooth. Their arms are at their sides or folded across the torso.
Energy-efficient divers cut through the water slowly. They employ an efficient kick and breathe long, slow and relaxed breaths. Every movement is deliberate and designed to generate propulsion using the least effort. They adhere to the planned profile and go no deeper than is necessary to accomplish their objective.
Energy-efficient divers do not fidget with their inflation/deflation mechanism. Once neutrally buoyant at the planned diving depth, they often use variations in lung volume to keep their depth constant. If they must rise a few feet to pass over an obstruction they simply breathe a little deeper. They then breathe shallower to return to the original depth. Fidgeting with the inflate/deflate mechanism is not something normally done by divers who have better than average air consumption.
Reducing the amount of weight you wear is another first step to reducing air consumption. A properly weighted diver has a horizontally oriented position in the water column, not a diagonal one in which the head and upper torso are higher than the legs. Overweighted divers plow through the water diagonally as compared with gliding horizontally. It takes much less effort to glide. To achieve neutral buoyancy, overweighted divers must add extra air to their BC. This buoys up their upper body and makes plowing that much more physically demanding. Weight yourself properly and your air consumption will definitely improve.
Using the proper equipment for the environment is another way to avoid quickly sucking down your air supply. Wear the proper thermal protection. Cold divers use more air because their bodies have to work harder to maintain core temperature. Stay warm and your air will last longer.
One air conservation technique that is easier to talk about than to achieve is relaxation. The more comfortable you are underwater, the less air you use.
Slowing down, breathing slowly and making every movement count will help you relax. Once you reach the bottom, stop, close your eyes and spend a moment or two breathing evenly.
Knowing that air consumption increases when demands are placed on your body, being in good physical condition raises the bar on what qualifies as a demand. Divers who are physically fit react to demand better than those who are not. If you are in good physical condition, you are going to have better air consumption.
Even experienced divers can benefit from these techniques to monitor and improve air consumption, so don’t be embarrassed if you run low on air before your buddy. Start experimenting with these consumption-lowering techniques on your next dive. You’ll be glad you did.
The first time you calculate your SCR shouldn’t be the last.
Periodically calculate your SCR because as you gain experience and your comfort in the water increases, your air consumption will improve naturally.
Calculating Air Consumption