You giant stride from the gate of the dive boat into the mild, but cold swells of the Pacific Northwest’s emerald sea. But unlike other times you don’t bob quickly back to the surface with your OK sign beaming. “What’s up?! I am sinking!” goes through your mind. You have an important first choice – whether or not to panic. No panic and you have a some good options for recovery and more dives. Panic and you may have only a few minutes before drowning.
That was just one scenario that went through my mind upon a recent discovery with my dive gear. Thankfully I was not jumping off the back of a boat with defective gear; instead I was in the comfort of my garage trying to understand why my Dive Rite wing was blowing air out from the lower dump valve. I shuddered as I watched the corroded spring that holds the valve closed and the air inside crumble to bits in my hand. Luckily, I dodged that drowning bullet, as did my partner, my friend and dive shop owner Grant, and the owners of every Dive Rite wing recently inspected by another local dive shop owner at his shop.
The story I wanted to be able to write was one that told how folks that run dive equipment companies, most likely divers themselves, are extra vigilant and responsive to safety issues with their products. I wanted to hear that upon finding one corroded stainless spring, that was never supposed to rust under any dive conditions, they immediately launched a full scale investigation and rapidly notify dive shops and customers of the potential threat to their life. That’s the responsible thing to do, After all, when you read this in the recall statement, “…the company is working closely with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPC) and has instituted a VOLUNTARY recall…,” it spins the impression that they “recently” found a problem and are taking quick action to protect divers.
But I cannot tell that comforting story. The story of what we learned shouts loudly the message to every diver, “I if you want to maintain good odds of coming back alive, do not depend on the manufacture, the dive shop, the government recall, you must check your own gear often and have regular professional maintenance. From our research and many news stories over the years, we can be confident that the Dive Rite OPV recall story is just one example of how the incentives for a company NOT to respond quickly to prevent injury or death can muddy the ethical waters. While it appears that months before the Dive Rite recall, Halcyon, finding the same problem, did take responsible steps in the interest of safety, Dive Rite was much slower to respond and may have only done a recall to cover their butts. It shows that we dare not overestimate the folks that run our favorite dive business. The sad reality is that CYA and money fears can and often do take precedence over thoughts of your safety in business.
The spring that holds the over pressure valve (OPV or dump valve) closed on the (some unknown) number of BCD wings sold by Dive Rite (and by Halcyon and maybe other brands) was supposed to be made of quality marine grade 316 stainless steel. However, someone at an unknown factory in (wait for it…) China made some of the springs out of not so good 304 stainless steel. After a while of being immersed in saltwater, these bad springs will corrode and literally crumble to bits. Before they completely crumble the bladder will start leaking air. And if you are not one of the few divers that routinely inspect these kind of things, you may get a leak when you are hanging from it over a significant amount of water.
When we asked, “how did it happen,” both companies communicated a vague suspicion that “some employee at the manufacturer inadvertently loaded the spring machine with the wrong grade of stainless steel.” This sounded plausible to my US-centric mind; until read about the disturbing and common practice of “quality fade”. Paul Midler, in his eye opening book, Made Poorly In China, describes “quality fade” as the secretive strategy a manufacturer uses to widen their profits by slow reducing the quality of materials used in the product over time until they get caught. Midler says this practice is pervasive in China and there is no downside for the manufacturer. When, or if they get caught, they just blame in on an employee that was fired or some other plausible culprit. Given the numbers of springs involved here it, quality fade seems much more likely than one bad roll spring stock.
We know of three equipment sellers that bought OPVs with problem springs from the same supplier. These are Dive Rite, Halcyon and Custom Buoyancy Inc. (CBI). CBI is reported to be out of business. Could there be more? The general consensus is yes. Most OPVs on scuba BCDs and other equipment look and work alike. Other suppliers could be getting their valves from the same Chinese factory. But this is a hard trail to follow. Dive Rite claimed to not know the name of the manufacturer and while admitting that divers should be warned, they flat out refused to tell us the name of their supplier.
THE RECALL STORY
Halcyon came out first with the recall on October 1, 2009 (CPC date) (see our article at http://blog.wetcatscuba.com/?p=563). Our conversation with Halcyon indicated that they were seriously concerned for their customers’ safety and took every step to “do the right thing.” They saw the problem and instituted the recall on their own accord. They were not sure of the quantity of bad springs, so they made the recall broad in scope to cover over 20,300 units. They later augmented the recall to ask dealers to replace springs in those units within the range, even if they showed no signs of corrosion. Our Halcyon contact said, “We realized that some units may not have been in the water long enough to corrode, but could corrode later. Why take chance for the measly price of a spring. We told dealers replace them and we will cover it.” Unlike Dive Rite, Halcyon did not wait for or require their dealers to ask for replacements. They sent the dealers replacement springs with a log book to track replacements. They also created two informational/instructional videos and posted them on their website.
Dive Rite’s recall came in late December 2009. Why did Dive Rite wait over two months? Did it take them that long to figure out that they also had some bad springs. NO. One Dive Rite source admitted that they saw the problem well over a year before the recall. He stated directly that they only instituted the recall because they knew that people, seeing the Halcyon recall, would sooner or later would figure out that Dive Rite springs were the same. This would look bad if they did not do a “voluntary” recall like Halcyon. He also played down the likelihood that anyone would get hurt by this problem.
The first contact we spoke with at Dive Rite also minimized the the numbers, claiming “maybe 100 world wide and only 35 in the U.S. Now we had 2 cases in our house, the first person I talked with said his was also bad, and the second person I talked with was an area Dive Rite dealer. He said, “every spring we checked so far in the 2006-2208 year range tuned out to be corroded.” Now either those bad wings were highly targeted to the Pacific Northwest or our Dive Rite contact was low-balling. We later talked with another Dive Rite contact that admitted the numbers were likely much higher.
I asked Dive Rite if they have se
nt replacement springs out to their dealers or do dealers have to request them? The response was, “we are sending free replacement springs to dealers, when they ask for them. We do this because we would like to get them to tell us how many they need. We don’t want to send them a pile of springs they may not need. And we need at least some of the serial numbers and counts for the CPC paper work”
THE COMPANY LINE
Here is the text from the Dive Rite site at: http://www.diverite.com/products/service/opvspringrecall/
Dive Rite takes the safety of our consumers very seriously. In cooperation with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, Dive Rite is issuing a voluntary recall on various Dive Rite Wings.
The Over Pressurization Valve (OPV) springs found on Dive Rite wings manufactured between June 2006 and October 2008 may rust and fail allowing the buoyancy compensator devices to leak. The wings may be red, blue or black in color and have serial numbers falling between 42000 and 72000. The following models are affected by this recall: Travel, Venture, Rec, Trek, Classic, Nomad and Super Wings It does not affect EXP or 360-branded wings. The recall does not affect lift bags, surface marker tubes or other Dive Rite inflatable devices.
We apologize for any inconvenience and encourage Dive Rite wing customers to contact your local Dive Rite dealer or Dive Rite directly at 800-495-1046 with any questions.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The above page also lists instructions for replacing the spring. I replaced our springs and it is very easy to do. What is more important, is that it is simple to check your own BCD or wing OPV, not matter what brand it is. At the least it will give you peace of mind and you may start a good habit of paying closer attention to your gear. If you find any bad springs in any other brands let us know and we will warn our fellow divers.
The incentives for companies to take the wrong path will live as long as divers (read customers) have the above fantasy and until they demand better gear and better ethics from our equipment vendors. These companies have the technology to catch problems and communicate the resolutions quickly to dealers, shops and customers and only some are doing it. You can also vote with your wallet for companies that have the good values to build safe equipment, with parts from manufacturers they know and trust, and when they do have a problem to handle it quickly and responsibly.