What Causes a Regulator to Free-flow?

It’s very annoying, isn’t it? You jump into the water and your regulator starts to free-flow. It could even be life-threatening if that happened at depth. It’s as if someone has pushed the purge valve of the regulator in and held it there, losing you precious air. What causes it to happen?Dive2005B

Modern day regulator manufacturers compete with each other to give the diver the most efficient and natural way of breathing. When you inhale from your regulator, the drop in pressure inside the body of the second-stage of the regulator drops and allows the second-stage valve to open, supplying you with air. Regulator designers try to make the valve as finely balanced as possible so that it takes the minimum amount of effort to pull it open against its closing spring, the spring that holds it shut and stops the gas escaping from your tank. Modern regulators can be so finely balanced in this way that it is often more effort to force the exhaust port open when you exhale than inhaling. (ANSTI breathing machines prove that!) So why do they sometimes free-flow?

If you pull very gently on a regulator, the second-stage valve only opens a little to let air pass. The more you suck or the deeper you are the more it has to open to satisfy your needs.

The depth the diver is at affects the pressure-sensing diaphragm. It operates a lever that pulls open the second-stage valve and also doubles as a ‘purge valve’. If for some reason the purge valve gets pushed in for a moment as it might when passing from air at the surface to water (a sudden increase in hydrostatic pressure) the valve opens and lets a whoosh of air past the back of the pressure sensing diaphragm. This fast moving air, just like the air moving fast over the top of an aircraft wing, causes a drop in pressure directly behind the diaphragm. This causes the valve to open even more and – viola! It’s exponential. The more the valve opens the greater the drop of pressure behind it and that leads to it opening the valve even more, resulting in that annoying rush of lost air.

Luckily, that only normally happens at the cusp between air and water; that is to say at the surface. Putting your thumb over the mouthpiece is usually sufficient to cause a momentary increase in pressure inside the second-stage body to stop it. It’s annoying when it happens at the surface but it could be more than annoying if it happened at depth. Alas, in water that is colder than 10°C, it can happen at any depth if the mechanism of the valve is iced up or affected by ice. This is when it gets more serious than just annoying.

Why is there ice? When air (or any other gas) is depressurised, it experiences a drop in temperature alongside the drop in pressure. The converse is also true. When a tank has been freshly pumped full, it feels hot to the touch.

The water you are in may be at 10°C together with the air in your tank but that air in the tank might be as pressurised as much as 200bar. The first-stage drops it down to eight or ten bar more than the pressure of the water it is surrounded by. That’s a huge drop.

It could easily cause a drop in temperature as much as 20°C and if you are in cold fresh water at 10°C you realise that it equates to minus 10°C for the air passing through the regulator’s first stage. This causes the water in its immediate proximity to freeze.

Luckily, seawater rarely gets colder than 10°C around our temperate coasts but it’s a fresh water inland sites you might experience this problem – and it can be life threatening.

You should have been taught how to breathe from a free-flowing regulator on your first diver-training course. The remaining air in your tank will give you time to get to the safety of the surface. Every diver should know how to do that.

If you are in the habit of diving at inland sites, get a regulator designed for the job. They usually have first-stages that are environmentally sealed, with no working part coming into contact with the water, and they include extra metal to act as a heat sink to transfer what little warmth there might be in the water to the much colder air coming from the tank. Ask about that when you next buy a regulator. Ocean Leisure stocks cold water approved regulators by both Apeks and Scubapro.

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