Custom Mix vs. Standard Mix: Best Mix is a question of balance


Based on an article written in 1998 with additional material adapted from various talks and presentations made from the mid-1990s to the present

“We’d hold a chord for three hours; if we could.”
Attributed to John Cale, Welsh musician and co-founder of Velvet Underground, born in 1942

Here is a simple question for all the experienced open-circuit technical divers in the audience: what gas would you use for a dive to 45 metres (about 150 feet)? How about  one to 85 metres followed later in the day by another to 35 metres (that‘s about 280 feet and 115 feet respectively)? Would you carry decompression gases for every dive? If so, one gas, two gases, lots of gases? Would your answers change if the water around you was warm or cold; and how about different currents and turbidity? And finally, what flavors of decompression gases do you think are best; pure oxygen, high-test nitrox, how about an oxygen-rich trimix of some sort; or maybe heliox?

Picking suitable gases for complex dives (whether shallow, deep or in between) is a balancing act. The objective is to find the best overall solution to manage Oxygen Toxicity, Inert-Gas Narcosis, Decompression Obligation, Expediency, and a handful of other concerns.

The difference between choosing an optimal gas and one that isn’t depends to some extent on the parameters of the dive; and what I mean by that is there is more flexibility and tolerance for sloppiness on a 35 metre dive than one to 85 metres. The price for using a less than perfect gas for a 35-metre dive might be a bad dive. But for a dive to 85 metres that price runs through a spectrum of possible outcomes that start with post-dive fatigue, pass through severe narcosis and unsuccessful decompression all the way to central nervous system toxicity, serious injury and death.

That is why divers should be able to provide answers to ANY question concerning the flavor of gases best suited for their dives without ambivalence; and with something approaching logic and common sense to back up their choices.

SETTING THE SCENE:
There are thousands of different blends of gas available to recreational divers, but the component gases to make all these blends are few and they are simple: oxygen, nitrogen and helium. There are many other gases used in military, scientific and commercial applications, but they are not readily available to recreational divers because of their scarcity and associated high cost — neon for example —  or, like hydrogen, are very difficult to handle because of bad habits like exploding at the most inopportune time.

Argon has a minor walk-in part inflating dry suits in cold-water recreational diving. The jury is still out on its benefits compared with garden variety air, but regardless of that debate, recreational divers do not use argon as a breathing gas.

So there are only three gases, and with these blended together in differing proportions we can make a staggering array of nitrox, trimix, heliox, and heliair. Alas, this in itself seems to be a problem for some folks and one’s choice of gas or gases can draw heated and heavy debate in some circles; something like the Great Schism but without the sensory relief of gold inlay and burning incense or an immutable core argument such as Papal infallibility.

And as with the 11th century Holy Catholic Church and the black and white outlook begat by any closed-minded dogma — there are two strongly opposed schools of thought concerning the selection of the right gas for the job. One side supports so-called standardized mixes and unremittingly refuse to dive anything other than a small collection of prescribed blends; while others refuse to see ANY benefit to standardization swearing instead on custom mixes.

Custom mixes are blended specifically for each dive with the proportions of oxygen, helium and nitrogen tailored for the specifics of the dive. This requires new calculations for mixing and new decompression schedules for every dive; a sort of bespoke solution. Standardized mixes is more like buying clothing off the rack. The choices with standardized mixes are limited to a handful of blends that work over a range of depths, typically a range of 12 to 15 metres or more. Examples of standard mixes are the two nitrox mixes promoted by NOAA (containing 32 and 36 percent oxygen) and the small selection of gases used in the exploration of Wakulla by the WKPP and later adopted by the non-profit group spun off from that project; Global Underwater Explorers (GUE).

Happily for those who find little time for circular debate, there is a third, more pragmatic approach that borrows from both schools. It uses standardize mixes and custom blends depending on circumstances; kind of like wearing a bespoke jacket with jeans. I put myself firmly in this camp.

Specifically, the advantages of standard mixes come to the fore on open-circuit dives from 10 to about 60 metres (30 – 200 feet) but custom mixes, custom back mixes, provide a better solution on deeper dives. We’ll discuss the merits and failings of each method in more detail as we progress, but for any of that discussion to make sense we have first to understand a little more about the gases themselves; and their distinctive characteristics, and behaviors.

THE THREE GASES
OXYGEN
Oxygen is highly reactive; a chemical term that means this gas is the universal buddy and will bond with almost anything. Oxygen itself is not flammable but requires careful handling because most things will burn fiercely — oxidize — at the drop of a hat in an oxygen-rich environment including the filling station’s plumbing.

Scuba gear used for mixing and delivering hyperoxic gases cleaned of hydrocarbons, fitted with oxygen compatible components (including special lubricants), and be carefully stored and used so as to prevent contamination with dirt and grease of any kind, even the leftovers of a bacon and fried egg sandwich.

{SIDEBAR} Oxygen molecules are so “friendly” that they cram up nice and tightly when being compressed; so at a given pressure and temperature, there will be a greater quantity of oxygen than either nitrogen or helium. This is useful information for those divers who blend their own gases, and who are interested in accuracy. Without fudge factors or calculations modified via Van der Waals’ or Beattie-Bridgeman equations that take into account the different compressibility of component gases,  mixes will have higher than planned levels of oxygen in them. In the field, fudge factors are a workable solution. Using simple math to calculate the fill-pressures of each component gas and then cutting back a little on the amount of oxygen, does work. But with the proliferation of gas-blending programs that run on smart phones, “doing it longhand” seems pretty retro and in the general scheme of things, unnecessary outside of a classroom situation. {/SIDEBAR}

For those of you who like details, oxygen has a density of approximately 1.43 grams per litre at normal room temperature and pressure (20 degrees, one atmosphere).

Of course oxygen is what we breathe and is the active ingredient in air and necessary for our body to function. Divers must be extremely careful to take into account both low (hypoxic) and high (hyperoxic) partial pressures of oxygen. Our bodies need a partial pressure of at least 0.16 bar to sustain activity (about 0.18 if we hope to swim or make sense of the world). Less oxygen partial pressure than that and the brain begins to shut down and, unless things change rapidly, there is a chance we will pass on to our reward in heaven.

High oxygen partial pressures — that‘s to say anything more than the approximately 0.20 bar we are all subject to at sea-level in normal air — have the potential to cause a diver grief.  And that grief arrives in three varieties: Pulmonary, Ocular and Central Nervous System Toxicity.

Oxygen limits deserve their own special discussion (Editor’s Note: See previous chapter), but forgive me taking the time now to restate some cautions and to set a couple of parameters that seem to be generally accepted as the norm among the open-circuit technical diving community.

Most recreational technical dives are of a depth, duration and frequency that compels oxygen planning to focus completely on Central Nervous System (CNS) toxicity. It is prudent to make a point of managing closely both single-dive and multiple-dive or 24-hour CNS limits using NOAA/Lambertsen tables. Probably worth noting here that diving experts in this field, such as Bill Hamilton PhD, remind divers consistently that the interpretation of CNS toxicity limits and the “extrapolations” used in the tech community to manage a dive team’s approach to those limits (the CNS Clock specifically), have no foundation in hard data or science!

During a presentation at the DAN Technical Diving Conference in January of 2008, titled CNS Oxygen Tolerance: The Oxygen Clock, Dr. Hamilton’s take home message was be conservative and modify behavior to lessen risk however you can — don’t push limits, keep carbon-dioxide levels low, use intermittent exposure to pure oxygen. Hamilton also pointed out several instances where over-the-counter meds. seem to have played a role in CNS episodes recently.

The most prudent general advice then is to plan dives so that CNS loading is well below published limits for single dives and 24-hour exposure. Most technical divers are comfortable with a 1.6 bar oxygen pressure briefly during decompression (Hamilton suggests a few minutes at this level then move up the water column to drop it to 1.5 or less). Once again, the best practice seems to be to run bottom gases much leaner than operational limits common to sport diving exposures and to adjust conservatism according to depth and duration. For example, for non-working dives to 40 metres (about 130 feet) or less, with bottom times shorter than 40 minutes, 1.4 bar oxygen is generally accepted as the norm. For deeper or longer dives requiring long decompressions, it is common practice to cut the oxygen loading gathered from bottom time by dialing back the oxygen pressure to 1.3 or 1.2 bar. Deeper than 70 metres and 1.2 bar of oxygen is a generally accepted default. Following Hamilton’s advice, most technical divers find working with these variable limits helps to balance decompression obligation and toxicity concerns comfortably. As an aside, on closed circuit, 1.2 bar of oxygen with a variable partial pressure during ascent, is usual for most CCR divers on most dives.

If any of this is going over your head, you need to brush up on your basic nitrox theory! Anyhow, let’s continue to get some background on the other two gases bearing all the above in mind.

NITROGEN
Nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and mostly inert gas — lithium and magnesium will burn in a nitrogen atmosphere but for our purposes, nitrogen is close to chemically inert. It makes up roughly 78 percent of Earth’s atmosphere by volume, and for the trivia buffs, nitrogen is slightly less dense than oxygen (about 87 percent as dense) and at room temperature and pressure has a mass of 1.25 grams per litre. It is not quite as easy to compress as oxygen. At low pressures — less than 20 bar or so — the difference is minor but becomes more and more apparent at pressures commonly used to charge scuba diving cylinders.

Nitrogen is significant to scuba divers for a couple of reasons. As a diver descends and the partial pressure of nitrogen increases, more and more nitrogen dissolves in the bloodstream and from there diffuses into various tissues inside the diver’s body. Rapid decompression (specifically in the case of a diver ascending too quickly) can cause nitrogen bubbles to form in the bloodstream, nerves, joints, and other sensitive or vital areas, which in turn can lead to potentially fatal, and certainly debilitating, decompression sickness.

The other reason nitrogen is important is narcosis. On the surface, nitrogen is metabolically inert — we function just fine with it at these levels and just fine without it, but when it’s inhaled at partial pressures in excess of about 3.0 to 3.3 bar — encountered at depths below 30 metres —  nitrogen begins to act as an anesthetic agent. This nitrogen narcosis is a temporary semi-anesthetized state of mental impairment.

Judgment can  be compromised and reaction times slowed. For some divers, mild narcosis manifests itself as a benign sense of euphoria, and for others the effect is like the arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Narcosis has been likened to an alcoholic buzz, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), sedatives and having one’s head stuffed with cotton balls. At extreme depths, narcosis can cause hallucinations and  unconsciousness.

The intensity and perception of narcosis varies from diver-to-diver and day-to-day. Two similarly experienced and conditioned divers, using similar equipment and bottom gas, may come back from a dive with very different stories about what they saw and how they felt. To a third-party observer, they may respond equally appropriately to outside stimuli and conduct themselves with similar results, but during debriefing one may explain he felt narced while the other will say he felt fine. The next day, same conditions and same depth, the roles may be reversed. This begs a series of questions.

The biophysics of nitrogen narcosis are pretty much solid state. The actual changes made to the nervous system would seem to be a constant; and although not completely understood, are considered to be linear; that is to say, the deeper one goes, the more intense the effects.

There are some interesting studies suggesting that multi-day exposure to high pressures of nitrogen, lessens these changes (see sidebar), but even if we buy into this concept, it does not account fully for the dramatic variations in the risk and severity of narcosis that divers experience. The only logical explanation is that factors aside from nitrogen partial pressure play an important role in narcotic loading. These factors certainly include stressors such as cold, poor visibility, carbon dioxide retention, mental stress, task-loading, tiredness and poor cardio-vascular fitness.

Many divers, myself included, report that mental alertness is compromised diving in cold water and diving following a rough night’s sleep; in a cramped bunk on a boat in high seas for  example.

Another factor worsening the effects of narcosis may be mental pre-conditioning — divers who have been told that narcosis will be debilitating report severe narcosis at shallow depths than does the general community. The influence of this perception shift and other factors such as poor breathing habits (skip breathing) can make a huge difference to a diver’s enjoyment and ability to execute a dive safely.

We can therefore take as read that narcosis is a factor in diving and it’s as real as gravity. Its effects have to be accounted for during every dive. Each diver should develop a personal test for narcosis. Because of the nature of the beast, I like to run a little diagnostic from time to time regardless of depth and even when using trimix.

{SIDEBAR}
The classic “fingers test” is taught in many open water classes. It works like this. Periodically one diver will show her buddy a number of fingers. Her buddy‘s response is to show one less if five or more fingers are shown first and one more if that number is less than five. For example, if my buddy holds up nine fingers, I’ll display eight and follow that with an OK sign. I might then display three fingers and expect four back followed by an OK sign. If either of us makes a mess of the arithmetic, we suspect narcosis; and take the necessary precautions.
{/SIDEBAR}

The best advice is for ANY diver getting into advanced open circuit diving to select a personal limit for nitrogen partial pressure and stick to it as rigorously as they do to an oxygen partial pressure. Time and experience may affect your choices — you may increase or decrease your nitrogen depth as you fill more logbooks — but do the in-field experiments and start doing the research now. For example, my personal benchmark in most of the waters in which I dive is 3.1 or 3.2 bar of nitrogen. I’ll put up with more if circumstances dictate, but this level —  about the same as diving air to 30 metres — is well within my comfort zone.

HELIUM
Helium heads up a select group of six elements aptly called Noble Gases. All are monatomic (hence helium’s chemical symbol is He and NOT He2), chemically inert (helium will not burn and bonds with nothing, even itself, under normal conditions), colorless (as a gas), tasteless, and odorless. For the record, the five other Noble Gases are neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon — more pub trivia for you.

Helium is second lightest and second most abundant element in the universe, and has a density of 0.1785 grams per litre, or about one eighth the density of oxygen, one seventh that of nitrogen. Its small mass and the small size of helium particles makes it an easy gas to move around — through dive regulators for example.

Because of this, filling one’s lungs with helium mixes at depth takes less work compared to air and nitrox. Low work of breathing (WOB) is a characteristic a trimix diving sometimes cited as a reason to use helium in bottom mixes for relatively shallow dives since WOB is a contributing factor to carbon dioxide production and build-up. And of course high levels of carbon dioxide cause severe complications to divers; from blinding headaches and increased susceptibility to narcosis, through lowered resistance to oxygen toxicity, loss of mental focus all the way up to unconsciousness and death!

While the physics suggests the drop in WOB with a helium mix would be measurable, modern high-performance regulators function pretty efficiency. Any additional carbon dioxide contributions from a regulator suitable for deep diving and used under normal dive conditions would pale compared to the levels of CO2 coming from poor breathing technique. In other words, if a diver uses good quality, well serviced regulators, but finds himself suffering from carbon dioxide headaches during or after diving moderately deep profiles (less than say 50 to 55 metres) or when swimming at a moderate pace, throwing helium into his mix is most likely only a Band-Aid solution. He should check out his breathing technique first!

Given all that, helium is used in recreational diving primarily as a diluent for oxygen and nitrogen. It is mixed in varying proportions with air, oxygen and nitrogen, or nitrox (usually the latter) to ensure that partial pressures of both oxygen and nitrogen at depth remain within tolerable levels. In other words, helium helps to manage oxygen and nitrogen toxicity.

Helium can make an appearance in both bottom mixes and decompression / travel mixes. Since helium is not narcotic and does not have any toxicity associated with its use in recreational diving, there’s no limit to how much of it one can use in a mix; at least from the toxicity and narcotic perspectives.

But in keeping with the axiom that there is no such thing as a free lunch, helium does exact a penalty.

Number one is that divers need to be aware of is the decompression curve for helium. Helium on-gases and off-gasses much faster than nitrogen — about two and a half times as fast. This has several advantages, but also throws up two general cautions. The first: divers breathing helium cannot make speedy ascents. A ballistic missile / breaching humpback whale impersonation on helium will get the majority of divers as bent as a pretzel. Helium divers have to control their ascent speed, and although that speed depends on a couple of factors, as a general rule a diver breathing helium will have to execute an ascent at variable rates; never faster than about nine metres (30 feet) per minute and at times around three metres or ten feet per minute.

Secondly, bottom mixes containing helium require stops deeper in the water column than dives of the same duration and depth using nitrox or air. Because of this, a decompression schedule (or computer) designed for a nitrox or air diving, is not a lot of good for a trimix dive. There are some exceptions as always, but a trimix dive (even a relatively shallow one) needs to be planned and executed with care.

Another caution with helium is that while it’s about one quarter as soluble as nitrogen in lipid tissues, its diffusion rate is much more rapid. In brief, this means that switching from a breathing mixture delivering a high helium content to one which delivers none, can cause “spontaneous” bubbling in certain soft tissues. This phenomenon is called Isobaric Counter Diffusion and can be a concern on deeper dives. For example, for the 85-metre dive mentioned in the introduction, I’d think long and hard about using a hyperoxic trimix rather than nitrox to begin my decompression.

And finally, helium does a rotten job of keeping heat where a diver wants it . Many open circuit divers complain that high helium content in their back mix “wicks away” heat from their body as they breath and makes them feel the cold more easily. Because of helium’s thermal characteristics, few divers intentionally use high helium content mixes — say above 25 percent helium — to fill their drysuits. And so for deep diving, a separate inflation system is the norm; another cylinder, more clutter, more potential failures.

THE ADVANTAGES OF STANDARD MIXES
Now that’s enough about gases, let’s talk a little about actually diving with them.

A good dive plan, ANY dive plan, begins with deciding what flavor of gas or gases to use; and then getting it blended or blending it yourself, analyzing it / them and making any necessary adjustments. A quick note on blending gas. With the right equipment and a little training and experience, gas blending is a remarkably straightforward process; about as easy as making toast and boiled eggs. Especially true when one opts to use a “standard“ mix. And this is one huge advantage of picking a mix and using it again and again; one get pretty good at mixing it, and given the methodology used is sound and constant, any margin of error becomes smaller and smaller.

What other advantages are there to using the same gas again and again rather than doing the custom thing every time?

Probably the most compelling for me is that I get to know what works for me. Logging a bunch of successful dives on the same mix, builds a dataset based on actual in-water experience. This experience is golden. Nothing compares to it and it tells me that the balancing act between decompression, oxygen toxicity, narcosis and thermal comfort went off as planned. The way I see it, every dive has a little of the crap shoot built into it, so working with the same mix again and again, eliminates one major set of variables.

But of course, what do we mean by the term standard mix? Standard by definition means something accepted as normal or widely used, and one could come up with a set of standard mixes of one’s own. But there’s really no need, because the grunt work has been done for us, and there are several variations in general use (see sidebar). However, it is a good idea before blindly following someone else‘s suggestions, to understand what logic is backing those suggestions up.

Let us look at the scenario for the dive to 45 metres mentioned in our original question. A standard mix for this dive could be a 21/35 trimix. This is, nominally at least, a blend of 21 percent oxygen, 35 percent helium, and the remaining 44 percent made up of nitrogen.  To calculate what partial pressures of oxygen and nitrogen this breathing gas will deliver at the dive’s target depth we could engage a mess of algebra; or we can make things a bit more simple and use ratios.

The calculate using the ratio method, first we need to know the total ambient pressure at 45 metres, which is 5.5 atmospheres or bar. Multiply 5.5 by 0.21, and we know that the partial pressure of oxygen (the gas that makes up 21 percent of our trimix) will be about 1.16 ata or bar. If we multiply 5.5 by 0.44 (the fraction of nitrogen in the mix) we know that the partial pressure of nitrogen at depth will be around 2.4 ata or bar.

Both partial pressure values for oxygen and nitrogen are well within normal limits. So this is an acceptable mix.
The standards that 21/25 is drawn from uses a nitrox 32 as the base mix. Let’s see what happens when we use a standard based on a nitrox 30 mixed with helium.

A dive to 45 metres is on the edge of the working depth for a 23/25 trimix. Doing the same ratio calculations we learn that this mix will deliver an oxygen partial pressure of 1.3 bar and a nitrogen load of 2.9 bar (both rounded up). Once again, both within normal limits.

As an aside, for a dive to 45 metres for 30 minutes and using the same decompression gas, both 21/35 and 23/25 net similar decompression obligations; bracketed a couple of minutes either side of an ascent time equaling bottom time (i.e. either side of 30 minutes making the total run time about 60 minutes).

{SIDEBAR}

STANDARD MIXES (using EAN32 and Helium)

Bottom mixes (depth ranges)
10-100 3-30m 33% Nitrox
110-150 33-45m 21/35 Trimix
160-200 48-60m 18/45 Trimix
210-250 63-75m 15/55 Trimix
260-400 78-121m 10/70 Trimix

Decompression mixes (MOD)
20 6m 100% Oxygen
70 21m 50% Oxygen
120 36m 35/25
190 57m 21/35

STANDARD MIXES (using EAN30 and Helium)

Bottom mixes (depth ranges)

3-32m 30 % Nitro
33-45m 23/25 Trimix
46-60m 19/36 Trimix
61-70m 16/45 Trimix

END OF RANGE FOR STANDARD MIXES

Decompression mixes (MOD)
6 m 100% Oxygen
21 m 50% Oxygen
40 m 30/25

/ SIDEBAR}

Now let’s consider the 85 metre dive mentioned in the intro.  The Nitrox 32 standard suggests a 10/70 trimix. We will do the same ratio calculations as before. The ambient pressure at 85 metres is 9.5 bar, therefore the partial pressure of oxygen would be 0.95 bar and the nitrogen would stand at 1.9 bar (an equivalent air depth of about 14 metres). Also, this mix is hypoxic and will not support life on the surface and so travel mix would need to be used. This does not seem like the most efficient option since the range of depths served by this mix spans approximately four atmospheres or 40 plus metres! Now in all fairness, reason for this probably rests in the operational restrictions of the environment for which these standards were developed: supported push dives in a deep, unexplored cave. The divers laying new line, had very little idea what depths they would encounter. They knew the cave was vast and deep and seemed to have opted for flexibility over optimal.

The Nitrox 30 standard does not have a suggestion for this depth, so a custom mix seems appropriate.

Once again there is some textbook algebra we could use to calculate a mix, but let’s use ratios again and work from our personal gas partial pressure limits.

Yours may vary but at this depth, an oxygen partial pressure of 1.2 bar is my top limit. In addition, and in most conditions that an 85-metre dive makes sense, the narcotic load that would be acceptable is 3.0 bar of nitrogen. This totals 4.2 bar. Since the ambient pressure is 9.5, there is a vacant partial pressure of 5.3 bar that must be filled with helium.

To turn those ratios into fractions or percentages, we simply do some division and we end up with  12.5 percent oxygen, about 56 percent helium and 22.5 percent nitrogen (by dividing the gas partial pressures we‘ve worked out as acceptable by the total ambient pressure).

For the record, the decimals are artifacts of the arithmetical process and reflect some rounding up or down. Also for the record, if I were to mix gas for this dive, I would most likely start with slightly more helium in my cylinders and then add Nitrox 30 because that is the default gas in my banks. Experience tells me the final analysis would turn up about a 12.8 oxygen reading and 57 or 58 percent helium; close enough in the real world#.

Well there is only one dive left from our list; and that is one to 35 metres. The option to use a straight-forward nitrox 30 certainly exists, but let’s go back to those personal limits I mentioned earlier. At this depth on a normal non-working dive, an oxygen pressure of 1.3 should be fine, and a nitrogen pressure of 3.1 would be acceptable. That’s a total pressure of 4.4 bar; but the working depth is 4.5 bar. So there is a decision to make. One way or another, this depth presents a challenge. I really cannot say whether diving  a nitrox or a trimix is more “correct.” Without knowing the environmental conditions, the parameters of the dive and a whole raft of other factors, it would be tough to guess. But here’s a suggestion. Since this dive is scheduled to take place after the 85 metre dive, and I would certainly have mixed a good quantity of 30/25 decompression/travel gas for that dive, it seems the best option for me would be to use that gas, 30/25, for the bimble to 35 metres! Thank you for your attention!

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One thought on “Custom Mix vs. Standard Mix: Best Mix is a question of balance

  1. Great essay on gas properties. I like your use of ratios to calc. PP’s and MODs. I use that approach for top offs when I don’t have an analyzer (NOT recommended,) but it is elegantly simple to calculate optimal mixes as well.

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