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Standard Gases: The Simplicity of Everyone Singing the Same Song

Like the military and commercial diving communities before them, Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) uses standardized breathing mixtures for various depth ranges and for decompression. Here British wrecker and instructor evaluator Rich Walker gets lyrical and presents the reasoning behind standard mixes and their advantages, compared with a “best mix” approach. Don’t worry, you won’t need your hymnal, though Walker may have you singing some blues.

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by Richard Walker. Header image by Derk Remmers. Images courtesy of GUE unless otherwise noted.

🎶🎶 Predive Click: “Sunday Morningby Maroon 5

In 1990, Pam Tillis released a track called “Don’t Tell Me What To Do.” I tried listening to it, but neither country nor western are my thing. I always preferred a song with a similar but harsher sentiment from Rage Against the Machine, but sadly the editor won’t print the words. [Ed.note: No f*** way!]

Anyway, What has this got to do with technical diving? 

Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) is perhaps best known for its standardised approach to equipment configuration. You know, where those mean GUE divers force you to dress a certain way just so you conform to the fashion. But then you discover that it all has some sort of logical reason, and the more you fight it the more it makes sense. 

“Fight the Power,” right?

Well, you may have heard that GUE also forces you to breathe only certain gases. Obviously this is just to make your diving more expensive, increase your training needs, and the like. 

NWA said it best, but I can’t print that either! 

Most divers get started by breathing the most famous standard gas of all—air—and nobody objected to that back in the day. When we dive air, we actually begin to see some of the benefits of a standardised system. Breathing the same gas on every dive means that we start to develop a familiarity for our no-stop times and any decompression requirements. Most experienced divers are familiar with the “120 rule” where your bottom time plus your depth in feet should remain lower than 120 to stay inside the no-stop times. 

Lynyrd Skynyrd explained it when they sang “Simple Man.” 

Who can deny that, when breathing air, we are rarely concerned that our buddy might be breathing different gases requiring a different decompression profile or a different maximum operating depth? It’s simple and it works. 

These advantages of air come at a cost. Every diver is a bit different, but it’s generally accepted that mental performance is reduced—potentially to the point of narcosis—beyond 30 m/100 ft. In the shallower ranges from 20-30 m/70-100 ft, the no-stop time gets quite short as well. 

A Best Mix?

Nitrox was developed for the sole purpose of increasing no-decompression times and/or decreasing decompression obligations. In the early days, two gases were promoted: 32% and 36%, but the dive community soon came up with the concept of “best mix.” This is what nitrox courses frequently teach today. You pick the depth that we are going to be diving, and work out the “perfect” gas for that dive to make the no-decompression time as long as possible. 

However, if you were to put three nitrox divers in a room and ask them to choose a gas for a 24 m/80 ft dive, you’d likely get four different suggestions. They’d all probably work just fine on that particular dive for the individual diver. 

Van Morrison told us to “Keep It Simple,” and he was right.

We’ve lost something from the days of air diving. That familiarity with no-decompression times has gone—there is no 120-rule for a best mix. When your friend calls you and tells you to show up for a dive, how do you choose the right gas for the dive to ensure you’re all on the same gas? One says 30%, the other 28%. Who’s right, which one is best? 

Nitrox 32 stage bottles

One Direction released a track called “Best Song Ever.” There is no such thing. Best mix can be considered in a similar vein. 

When John Lennon released “Imagine,” he was singing about an idea where the world lived in harmony. I don’t think he was really talking about technical diving, but the sentiment holds true. Standard gases help us remember the flexibility, familiarity, and simplicity of air, but we also retain all of the benefits of using mixed gases to increase no-decompression limits, reduce narcosis, and manage our exposure to oxygen. We do this by creating depth ranges for a small number of breathing gases, and if the dive is in that range, then the whole team uses this gas. 

If the depth ranges are wide enough, we end up with a very flexible tool that gives us the simplicity and familiarity back. It allows the use of “rules of thumb” for things like decompression planning (See: Rules of Thumb: The Mysteries of Ratio Deco Revealed), oxygen exposure management, and even gas blending. And everyone’s singing the same song!



On to Standard Gases

There’s really nothing clever about the standard gases concept—using a single gas to cover a range of depths instead of a gas that is optimized for a single depth and typically a single parameter of the dive (usually decompression). Here’s how they look:

Standard Bottom Gases

Note: Meter and feet ranges rounded to even numbers for simplicity.

GUE standard gases are designed to maintain a maximum PO2 of 1.2-1.3 bar for the working portion of the dive and an equivalent narcotic depth (END) ≤ 30 m/100 ft. PO2s are then boosted during ascent to a maximum of 1.4 bar for deep decompression, and 1.6 for 6m/20 ft decompression, using standard deco mixes. Note: standard gases are used for open circuit and closed circuit diluent.

The maximum PO2 promoted outside of GUE is normally around 1.4 bar for the working phase of the dive. There’s likely nothing wrong with that, but you are starting to get close to a pretty unpredictable zone. The higher the PO2, the higher the likelihood for Central Nervous System (CNS) toxicity. GUE prefers that the limits be more flexible than a Maximum Operating Depth (MOD)—who can forget the days when nitrox course students were told that if they hit 1.41 bar they would surely burst into flames, but 1.39 bar was perfectly safe? That doesn’t seem right, does it?

“I’m on Fire!” said Bruce [Springsteen]. 

A  mixing panel designed to mix standard gases. Photo by Francesco Cameli.

GUE’s approach is to make the depth range of a standard gas in the 1.2-1.3 bar range for the working portion of the dive. The idea that a diver will know, at the limit of the gas, that the PO2 is climbing toward a more risky level. However, if you drop below that depth for a short time, there will not be any serious consequences. Picking up a dropped camera, helping a dive buddy, or simply being less than perfect with your buoyancy control will not result in a dangerous oxygen exposure. [Ed.note: The US Navy specifies a maximum setpoint of PO2=1.3 bar for closed circuit dives].

The gases also limit the Equivalent Narcotic Depth (END) to approximately 30 m/100 ft. At that depth one can think clearly and solve most problems if one slows down and concentrates. But, the further one goes past this depth, the more difficult it becomes to solve simple problems correctly. 

When I get to this depth on a nitrox mixture, a strange thing happens. This little guy appears on my shoulder and starts whispering ideas in my head. Ideas that change the dive plan. Ideas that seem fantastic at the time. I used to listen to him and things would never go well. I’d not get the survey data, I’d fail to attach the shot line to the wreck as planned at the surface, and small stuff like that. I’ve learned to ignore him, because he’s an idiot. Unfortunately, at around 36 m/120 ft, he becomes a lot more persuasive, and I get weaker. His suggestions make even more sense, so I tend to follow them. I’ve never learned to ignore him at this depth. The only solution I’ve found is to make sure my END is never more than 30 m/100 ft. 

Nirvana sang “Dumb”. Becoming so is not an instruction, and it’s entirely avoidable!

These gases give a lot of flexibility across their range. If you drop your camera when you’re at 45 m/150 ft and need to drop to 50 m/165 ft to retrieve it, then it’s not likely to cause a problem. If you used 21/35% for a 40 m/130 ft dive, the no-decompression limit would be 10 minutes, but if you used a “best mix” of 28/35, then your limit would be 11 mins. If you did a more realistic bottom time of 30 mins, and used a 50% nitrox for decompression, then the two schedules would only be 4 minutes different. 

You always analyze and label your gas, don’t you?

What “Difference Does it Make?” as The Smiths once sang. 

Here’s a final advantage of using these particular standard gases. If you are lucky enough to have banks of 32% nitrox, then you can create all of the other standard gases by adding 32% onto the required amount of helium. So, to make a 21/35, you would take an empty set of cylinders and fill to 35% of their final pressure with helium. Then you add 32% and, lo and behold, you have 21/35. Same idea for 18/45, 15/55, and so on. Got half a set of doubles of 15/55 left over? Blow it with 32%, and you’ll get a 21/35. And that’s where efficiency comes in. You can use every last drop of your expensive helium in a pretty easy manner using 32% as a filler gas. 

Easy, like “Sunday Morning.”

GUE also standardised their decompression gases, but that’s another playlist.

Additional Resources

InDepth: Rules of Thumb: The Mysteries of Ratio Deco Revealed by Richard Walker

InDepth: Rules of Thumb 2: Further Mysteries of Ratio Deco Revealed by Richard Walker

Alert Diver: Anatomy of a Commercial Mixed-Gas Dive by Michael Menduno (2018)

InDepth: Oxygen Exposure Management by Dr. Richard Vann (1994)

Alert Diver.Eu: Rapture of the Tech: Depth, Narcosis and Training Agencies by Michael Menduno (2020)


Rich Walker learned to dive in 1991 in the English Channel and soon developed a love for wreck diving. The UK coastline has tens of thousands of wrecks to explore, from shallow to deep technical dives. He discovered GUE in the late 1990s as his diving progressed further into the technical realm, and he eventually took cave training with GUE in 2003. His path was then set, and he began teaching for GUE in 2004. 

He is an active project diver and is currently involved with: the Mars project, Sweden; Cave exploration team in Izvor Licanke, Croatia.; Ghost Fishing UK, Chairman and founder. He is also a full time technical instructor and instructor evaluator with GUE, delivering these services via his company, Wreck and Cave Ltd. He sits on GUE’s Board of Advisors and serves several other industry organizations. He also knows his music!

Cave

Close Calls: I Ripped My Drysuit a Kilometer Back In The Cave

It’s a potentially life-threatening equipment failure that most divers have thought but, but outside of minor leaks, few have experienced, and almost none have trained for. It certainly got the attention of photographer Fan Ping as he felt the chilly Florida spring water rush into his suit. Here’s how he survived the dive.

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By Fan Ping

🎶🎶 Pre-dive Clicklist: 平凡之路 (The Ordinary Road) by Pu Shu

Finally I had to say goodbye to my six-year old drysuit, in an unexpected way.

It was a cloudy day in January. There were not many people at Ginnie Springs in Florida as the temperature there was still too cold for the inflatable unicorns and flamingos with their masters in swimsuits that you see so often at the park. My friend Derek Dunlop and I met at the parking lot in front of Devil’s underwater cave system, and we started preparing for our photo shoot in Berman’s Room, at about 1006 m/3400 ft on the main line.

I sidemount my camera to the right.

As usual, we had first talked about the shooting plan with a storyboard and had decided to go in with six video lights since Berman’s Room is pretty big and fairly tall. Then we started preparing our rebreathers, but things did not go smoothly. Derek had a leak in his DSV, and then one of his O2 sensors stopped working for an unknown reason. Fortunately, he managed to fix both problems, but by then it was almost 2 pm already. I am a firm believer of ‘Rule of Three’ (If you have three major problems before you start the dive, then you should quit for the day), but I am also a photographer who was eager to capture the last piece of my Ginnie Springs project.

Berman’s Room
The Henkel

We got on our scooters and started diving. When I have many lights, I usually put two on the camera, which is side mounted on my right like a tank, two in my left thigh pocket, and the rest on my buddy. We dropped our own sidemount bailout tanks at Stage Bottle Rock at 1800’ and arrived at our destination 45 minutes into the dive as planned. We spent about 60 minutes playing with the lights and shooting, and then turned the dive happily at 105 minutes.

I was leading on the way out, riding in the high flow and thinking about the photos. When I passed the restricted tunnel before the Henkel restriction, the third problem of the day finally came. Scootering with the flow at perhaps  1 m/sec, the corner of my left pocket on my drysuit got caught on the tip of a rock and ripped a 3cm x 3cm hole. I could feel the chilly water flooding into my suit, so I stopped immediately, and within 10 seconds I lost my trim and buoyancy and was kneeling on the floor like in my Open Water class.

I told myself to “stop and think!” As in all the training we have done, I realized this was not an immediate life threatening situation, but the snowball could start rolling if I did not act correctly in a calm way. I checked my computers and used my primary light to get Derek’s attention and told him my drysuit was done for with the universal hand signal. Then I put some gas into the wing, but I was still on the floor. With more gas into the drysuit, I started moving again, in a vertical fashion. 

As you all can imagine, I had to put myself on the floor again at the Henkel. It is not extremely tight if you choose the right path, but with the DPV and camera and the Global Underwater Explorers (GUE)-configured JJ-CCR on my back, I was worried that I might not get out of the cave smoothly. Usually I stay very calm during a dive, but the depth was 32 m/105 ft, and the clock was ticking I was unsure of what would happen with that hole in my drysuit. I dumped all the gas in my suit and carefully crawled out of the restriction. Luckily, visibility is not a problem in Ginnie’s main tunnel because of the flow, and I can verify that a v-drill is easier when you have your belly on the ground.

To be honest, this was when I just completely got out of the panic mode. I knew I was getting closer to the surface, and I would be fine as long as I stayed focused. I inflated my suit, but as soon as I tried to stay horizontal, the gas leaked out from the hole. So, I put more gas into the loop and started being dragged by my scooter like SLAVE I in Star Wars, while still having to kick the whole time against the weight of my feet. 

That was when I started to feel cold. I could not imagine what this would have been like if I had been in a freezing cold cave like Orda, where the low temperature would have already killed me. All I could do was focus on scootering and choosing the taller passage if possible, in order to avoid messing with my buoyancy. Derek retrieved my bailout tank on the way out, and we made it back to the cavern in about 145 minutes, which is almost twice the time it usually takes.

My dive profile

There was no one else in the cavern when we started doing our longer-than-planned deco. I inflated my suit and knelt down on the rock at 6 m/20 ft so I could at least keep my torso relatively dry. I was getting colder and colder since I was not moving at all, but thanks to the 21ºC/70ºF degree spring water, my mind was still clear enough to think about getting a rental drysuit at Extreme Exposure and coming back in two days. After about 40 minutes of deco, we got back to the surface, and I had a really hard time walking back to my truck with all the water in my suit. What is worse, even the clouds started crying for me (or perhaps for my drysuit).

Drysuit full of water with the hole. Notice the rip on the top of the left pocket.

A fully flooded drysuit is something we always had talked about in our training but would never practice on purpose. When it actually happens, one can lose his trim and buoyancy within seconds, resulting in much more serious problems; for example, navigation, extended deco time, and hypothermia. 

In retrospect, I think there are 3 reasons why it happened to me:

  1. I was diving a Kirby Morgan M48 Mod-1 full face mask to facilitate better communication with my model, but the vision was relatively limited,and I did not pay enough attention to the surroundings;
  2. I had two big video lights in my pocket, and the pocket was exposed as I dropped my sidemount bailout tank;
  3. I should have gone slowly or maybe swum in more restricted areas.

I consider myself lucky that I got nothing but cold and lost nothing but an old drysuit, and thanks to Derek who made the process easier. It could have been a totally different story in another cave with a silty bottom or freezing cold water. However, out with the old, in with the new; it was time to get another drysuit.

Have you or a teammate ever had a “close call” while diving? Please take a few minutes to complete our new survey: Close Calls in Scuba Diving 


Fan Ping is a Chinese photographer and filmmaker based in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and is dedicated to showing the beauty of the underwater world to people through his lens. He is specialized in combining artistic elements with nature and complex lighting skills in overhead environments, and this artistic style has brought him international acclaim, including awards from many major underwater photo/video competitions. You can follow his work on Facebook and Instagram: Be Water Imaging.

The best of Fan Ping’s work can be purchased at: www.bewaterimaging.com

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