When you purchased your regulator did the store test it on a flow bench before you left the shop? Did they give you a spec sheet with a benchmark on the cracking effort and flow characteristics? Here is why they should have.
Everything that makes your regulator work properly and safely depends on the proper intermediate pressure setting (IP range). This IP (also known in Europe by the more descriptive name of “inter-stage pressure”) is the pressure in the hose between your first and second stages. The manufacturer designates a very specific IP range. If the regulator gets outside that range, at best the regulator can be hard to breath, or, at worst fail with an uncontrollable free flow. If the IP setting or the first stage settings are even a little off, one result can be in increase in the work it takes you breath (WOB). This can significantly decrease your bottom time or cause other problems.
It was shocking to me when I recently learned that it is not uncommon for brand new, high quality, brand name regulators to be out of adjustment when you take them out of the box. This is not a failure of the manufacturers. The regulators are tested before shipping. But a lot can happen between the factory and the store shelf. Additionally, the regulator set you purchased will be used with your unique set up – you are going to remove port plugs and attach your Octopus, BCD hose, Dry suit hose, computer/gauges and/or other hoses. At minimum you may have pinched an o-ring and created a micro-leak in the process. The testing after the dive-ready assembly can expose multiple issues which may not be apparent to your ears (audible leak).
Recently we tested three new, high quality regulators. Besides one being out of IP range, they all needed minor first stage adjustments to bring them spot on with the manufacturers specs. The experts we interviewed attributed this to a possible relaxation of the seating materials during the time the regulator sits on the shelves; both at the manufacturer and at the dive shop. This realization could also be a good indicator as to why a regulator requires regulator requires regular service even if it has not been in the water.
Even if you are diligent about getting your annual service on your regulators, if you purchase a regulator from a dive shop or from an online dealer that does not test before handing it over to you, you could spend a whole year diving a regulator that is out of adjustment or even unsafe. Additionally, the benchmarks you get from the test can be of great help to you and your service technician for keeping your regulator in top shape. If you carry you own IP gauge (see 4 Reasons Why you need an IP Gauge in your Save-A-Dive Kit) this information can help you calibrate your personal gauge and keep close tabs on the health of your regulator between scheduled service times.
We did an anonymous survey of dive shop staff around the US. We found that they overwhelmingly agree that shops should be testing new regulators before being sold. While most, but not all dive shops claim they do this testing and provide the customers with test sheet, we did find many divers that say they never received a test sheet the last time bought a new regulator. While 78% of the shops tested for static IP, only 56% tested the cracking effort, which can diagnose second stage issues.
Testing results indicated that around 20% of new regulators needed some adjustment to bring them back to manufacturers specifications. Also, around 10% were out of the specified IP range. Our interviews with high volume, regulator service technicians, doing full testing on new regulators set the former category (needed adjustments) at a much higher 35%, and out of IP range category a bit lower at 5%.
An interview with the head of quality control for a major manufacturer revealed that they not being notified about many of those that are out of range and that they are very interested to know about them. They urged shop staff and service techs in the field to let them know the serial numbers of these regulators to help them improve the quality of their products.
A much larger sample would certainly be able to give us more accurate numbers, but the survey does clearly indicate that new regulator testing should be universal to insure customers are getting a safe and well functioning regulator out of the box.
Do online retailers test?
We also spoke with staff at the three largest of the major online scuba stores retailers, Leisure Pro, Scuba.com and Joe Diver America. At the time of our interview, none of these online stores were testing regulator sets before shipping them to customer. All three insisted that testing was not necessary and that manufacturers testing sufficed. They only test systems if the customer has ordered a custom setup (e.g. regulator with octo and console) that includes assembly at the retailer’s facility before shipping. Our contacts at Leisure Pro and Joe Diver America postulated that customers would complain or be confused received a box that had been open by the retailer. When I asked if they felt this would still be the case if the customer received a test sheet indicating that their regulator had been tested for them before shipping, they did not change their opinion.
Dive shops be aware
All the pros we interviewed applauded dive shops that test regulators. However, dives shops need to be prepared with quality gauges and trained staff or they may make things worse. With gauges, size matters! Small and cheap IP gauges and magnehelics are easy to knock out of calibration. Additionally, all gauges should be calibrated annually. If you test a new regulator with a bad gauge you could end up “adjusting” a perfectly good regulator out of spec. Shops need to invest in the few hundred dollars and get pro instrument sets. It would be best to follow the doctors code of primum non nocere (First, do not harm).
The best case scenario is that your current local dive shop already has a flow bench and tests both the static and dynamic characteristics of your new regulator. If not, hopefully they at least can test and adjust the IP range and static cracking effort of your new regulator. If they don’t, discuss it with them and tell them how important it is to you. Maybe they will be inspired to start this service.