USING ADDITIONAL REDUNDANCY: the maligned and misunderstood pony bottle

This is a short extract from a book on risk management that we hope to have finished next month.


I would guess that most dive instructors, especially those who teach technical programs, get regular requests from divers to explain how to “use” a pony bottle, how to configure it so it’s not in the way, and which size pony bottle is “right” for them.
These are great questions because any diver who intends to dive deeper than 30 metres /100 feet should carry a redundant source of gas. A dive buddy is supposed to represent the first line of backup, and a well-trained and well-practiced buddy is a great resource in the event of some major gas emergency. However, the best strategy is that whenever practical strive to have a backup for your backup. In this regard, redundant air via a redundant delivery system offers a huge cushion.
The question of size is perhaps the first question to answer because how to rig and use a pony bottle depends to a large extent on its size.
When we consider using a pony bottle as a bailout or as a backup in the event of a massive gas failure with our “primary system” (the normal tank and regulator), we factor in a full minute at maximum depth to get things sorted and to gather our wits before starting the ascent. With this in mind, let’s revisit the table for SAC adjusted for depth. Since we are still talking about recreational sport diving, the limit for maximum depth is around 40 metres or 132 feet. The ambient pressure at this depth is five bar or ata and therefore the average per minute consumption will be 70 litres or 2.5 cubic feet.

Let’s also apply a realistic dive factor. Since a pony bottle is only deployed in times of stress, we need to use a DF for that first minute that reflects high-stress. The norm for this application is a DF of 2.5, which translates into 175 litres or 6.25 cubic feet for that critical first minute!
(If at this point you are beginning to question the veracity of ads extoling the virtues of those tiny emergency cylinders of “spare” compressed air, please read on.)
After the first minute, we calculate a normal ascent rate (9 metres or 30 feet per minute) up to a safety stop. That journey – about 35 metres/ 117 feet – will take about four minutes. Once again, to help simplify the calculations, we use the ambient pressure at the midpoint between maximum depth and the safety stop, which in this case will be 3.22 bar or ata. We also drop the DF to 2.0. So we have ascent time X SAC X ambient pressure X DF, which equals 360 litres or about 13 cubic feet of gas.
Now for the safety stop. Even when a dive is within the no decompression limits, there is a strong suggestion from most experts that a five-minute stop is indicated after a dive to maximum depth. So the consumption for a five-minute stop at 4.5 metres or 15 feet with a mild DF of 1.2 adds up to a total of 122 litres or 4.35 cubic feet. Finally we have to factor in a little gas for the last part of the ascent to the surface. Therefore, the best estimate is that a controlled ascent following an emergency at depth will require at least 680 litres or close to 25 cubic feet of breathable gas!
It’s the considered opinion of most divers who have experienced a real gas emergency at depth in real-world dive conditions that these numbers are neither exaggerated nor inflated. When something bad happens at great depth, there is no such thing as a plan that is too conservative or too careful. The risks of drowning, embolism, decompression sickness and various other ailments that can result from stark panic and ballistic ascents are very real and totally unforgiving. The alternative to a controlled normal ascent are simply not worth considering.
Clearly then, the “right” pony is one that holds at least 680 litres or 25 cubic feet. Because of its general usefulness, buoyancy characteristics, ease of deployment, and attractive cost compared to smaller tanks, many divers invest in an aluminum 40 (nominal capacity 40 cubic feet / 1200 litres) as the best “emergency” pony bottle.
Two final words on the topic of pony bottles before we move on to gas volume management for more advanced diving. The gas carried in a pony bottle is contingency gas. It should never be factored into the gas volume requirements for a dive. It is there for emergency use only. If the dive plan calls for more gas than can be carried in a regular primary scuba cylinder – an aluminum 80 for example – then the total kit configuration for the dive needs to be reconsidered and calls for an additional primary cylinder or a high-volume primary cylinder such as a steel 15 litre / 120 cubic-foot tank.
A bailout/pony bottle is useless if it does not deliver breathable gas faultlessly. The valve, regulator and SPG must be tested before every dive. Do not take for granted that it is filled and in working order. Analyze and label its contents, check the pressure and wet-breathe the regulator at the start of each dive.
Let’s leave this topic with one last thought. As we were editing this chapter, I read about yet another incident where a diver “ran out of air.” This time a pair of brothers and a friend were hunting crayfish in about 30 metres / 100 feet of water off the coast of New Zealand. Calm conditions at a site familiar to all three divers. Describing the victim, his brother said: He was a competent diver with several years’ experience.

I would suggest an edit… a small change but something that I hope will speak volumes to you. He was USUALLY a competent diver, but not this time. Even several years’ experience cannot compensate for serious oversight.
Plan your dive, dive your plan.


12 thoughts on “USING ADDITIONAL REDUNDANCY: the maligned and misunderstood pony bottle

    • Thanks, please let me know when you publish your book. Will you be publishing it as an ebook?

      I have come across The Six Skills before and have considered purchasing it but where I am located the post takes 2-3 months to arrive. Is there an ebook version of The Six Skills? I had a look online but could only find a post on with a broken link to the amazon website.

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  2. Nice to see a thoughtful analysis of this issue, and great post. I have observed stigma around the use of a pony bottle in recreational diving circles. Carrying redundant emergency gas in a pony is equated with having poor buddy contact skills. One should pay attention to their gauges and buddy more. Of course these tactics are not mutually exclusive but that’s how they get treated. I am at the point where I want redundancy on dives below 100 feet, and am investing in doubles largely for that reason. Diving doubles seems more socially acceptable than diving a single with an additional appropriately-sized pony bottle for emergency use.

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  5. I liked your synopsis and I used it to validate my Emergency needs for a Pony. The only point that threw me was it took a separate calculation to figure you were using .5 as a SAC rate. You may mention it in your book so apologies if you did – but I did not see it mentioned in your extract above. Spot on and I appreciate these type of articles.

  6. Thank you for the article. I am considering a pony for some deeper dives between 90-110ft that are coming up and was set on getting a 19ft bottle. I now realize that stress will not stop after the first minute and thus my consumption may be higher that what I used for cLculating my needs. Thanks again.

  7. I’ve explained it to students by referencing an AL80 with which they’re familiar. A full tank with 20 cubic feet is like 750 psi in an AL80, 30 cubic feet is like 1,125 and 40 cubic feet like 1,500 PSI. Coming up from 130′ with 750 psi is a bit close to the edge, especially as you point out in an emergency situation, but 1,125 is certainly comfortable and 1,500 is plenty.

    Certainly for myself, and anyone sufficiently experienced, I feel it is OK to extend a simpler and shallower dive, maybe to 60-70 feet, using the extra gas in a slung bottle, as long as there is sufficient gas to safely ascend two divers.

    I haven’t read your blog in some time (even longer than since I’ve written anything in my own). It’s nice to catch up.

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