The “weighting test:” are technical divers absolved for some reason I don’t know about?

When you first learned to dive, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that your instructor explained a simple trick to help you check how much lead you should carry. It went something like this:

  • The diver enters water (at least 3-4 metres deep) with gear in place and a regulator in her mouth, with her cylinder almost empty (SPG reading perhaps 50 bar/500 psi)
  • She inhales and holds a full breath then vents all the air from her buoyancy device.
  • She hangs motionless… Quiet hands and feet
  • If correctly weighted, after 30 seconds or so, she will settle in the water and float at eye level, half her mask window below the water, half above
  • She exhales and slowly sinks

What is not commonly taught is that this test can be completed with a full tank also. The only difference being that the diver should add enough ballast after the test to compensate for the weight of gas that she will use during the dive… the aptly named buoyancy shift… otherwise she will be too “floaty” to hold a safety stop at the end of her dive.

Your first instructor may also have explained exactly why carrying too much lead is a recipe for a miserable dive. Achieving good trim, buoyancy control, presenting a streamlined angle of attack to the water, and in-water comfort can be difficult for new divers but more so when he or she is over-weighted. Hence the value of doing a weighting test: it is definitely time and effort well spent.

Of course, an alarming percentage of divers all but ignore the lessons taught by the test and dive with “a little extra lead just to be safe.” God only knows what that’s supposed to mean, but it happens too often.

Now just in case you consider yourself a technical diver and are reading this thinking: “Bloody sport divers… always getting it wrong;” I believe that the worst offenders in the over-weighting challenge are technical divers. That’s right buddy, you and me.

The Balanced System Misunderstanding
The term “balanced system” actually describes three important aspects of gear selection and configuration. The first is the outcome of the balancing act between buoyancy and gravity, and whether the diver and the gear she takes into the water floats or sinks when it’s all put together. (Simplified to does it float or does it sink.) Secondly, the weight of ballast that could be ditched should the Rottweilers hit the fan and the diver has to swim for the surface without a primary buoyancy aid. (For a sport diver this ditchable weight is usually his/her weight belt; and for a technical diver, it might be stage bottles etc.). Thirdly, where the ballast should be located or carried since this will affect the diver’s trim and issues with the angle of attack as he or she moves through the water.

For a technical diver, understanding and addressing all three is necessary — just as it is with his or her sport-diver buddy — but the nuances of all three issues are more complex to calculate and more finicky to arrange for anyone engaged in tech diving profiles.

You may have read before in various onLine postings and perhaps textbooks that “a balanced system is one that a diver should be able to swim to the surface even with a failed [primary buoyancy cell].”

The ability to get themselves and as much of their life-support system back to the surface is certainly something technical divers should strive to achieve, but without any actually thought, calculations or in-water testing, it really cannot be assumed. Many do.

For example, the buoyancy characteristics of most sets of traditional North Florida Cave Rigs (steel backplate-mounted and manifolded doubles) means most would have a hard time to qualify as balanced at the beginning of a dive when fully-charged with gas.

For many technical divers, their backmounted doubles (and the gas they contain) constitute the vast bulk of the ballast they carry. So in effect, they often carry very, very little ditchable weight… if any. If they are over-weighted, they have nothing to ditch. In an emergency, swimming a set of steel doubles up to a safety stop and holding position in the water column for even a few minutes would be close to impossible and certainly stressful for these people.

Luckily, primary buoyancy cell failures are rare, but even so, divers who opt for steel doubles need to be aware of the potential challenges their kit presents them with… you can’t take off one tank and swim the other one to the surface when wearing twin cylinders!

Sidemount users have things slightly easier because they can unclip one primary bottle, dump it, and surface while breathing from the second. But their systems present challenges too. Rebreather divers also have a special balanced rig paradox to sort out if they happen to have a “dramatic moment” at depth.

Weight Changes During Your Dive
As a diver, especially a technical diver or one who aspires to become one, and contrary to the assumptions made by the Ideal Gas Law, we need to understand that gas has mass. For non-scientific applications this means gas weighs something and as it is consumed during a dive, the drop in gas weight is what contributes to buoyancy shift.

I don’t usually speak American Standard Units, but you might and if you do, you should take note. A cubic foot of air weighs approximately 0.0807 pounds. Perhaps more useful is that 13 cubic feet of air equals about one pound. Therefore, a diver carrying a couple of 130 cubic-foot steel cylinders, who has consumed just half of a full air fill during her dive, will be approximately 10 pounds lighter than when she started!

For the rest of the world, one thousand litres of air – assuming standard content, pressure, and a temperature of 0 degrees – will weigh around 1.29 kilos… slightly less at higher temperatures. So, a diver starting her dive wearing two 10-litre cylinders charged to 230 bar is carrying a little less than six kilos of gas with her!

Another thing that may affect weighting is the type of thermal protection being worn. For instance wetsuits compress and the lift they provide will decrease as depth increases. Drysuits and what’s inside them providing insulation, also compress at depth and provide less lift.

So… Let’s Determine How Much Ballast
The first step of the weighting test for a technical diver is similar to the one used by sport divers.

Work in a spot where there is sufficient depth to submerge but not a wall dropping to trimix depths. The six-meter / 20 –foot platform at your local quarry should be perfect. This is your test zone.

With minimal gas in your cylinders (a little less than one-third of their working, rated volume), no gas in your buoyancy cell, just enough gas in your suit to be comfortable (assuming you are wearing a drysuit), check to make sure you are able to maintain eye-level surface float with your lungs full. Exhale, and you should begin to sink slowly. This is the balance between buoyancy and gravity that you should aim for.

If you cannot sink, your rig is under-weighted. If you cannot float without adding gas to your buoyancy cell or suit, it is over-weighted.

Step two is a little more complicated.

Below where you completed step one, perhaps on that platform at six metres / 20 feet, have a collection of small lead weights that equal the weight of the gas that is “missing” from the cylinders you wore in step one. Use a handful of small weights… one kilo or less each. Have enough to make up the weight of a full fill and perhaps a little more. Use the 1000 litres weighs one and a quarter kilos, 13 cubic feet is one pound guideline.

Now descend to the platform, check your gas volume… now’s not the time to run out of something to breathe. Pick up all the weights, put them in a pouch, in a pocket, in a mesh bag, whichever works for you, and kick for the surface. Remember, no gas in the buoyancy cell. You CAN put a little in your suit, but don’t overdo it. The test is to calculate a balanced rig not to cheat.

This additional weight simulates your in-water weight at the beginning of a dive. If you can make it back to the surface, great. If not, relax, sink back to the platform and take out one small weight at a time until you CAN make it to the surface. Take note of by how much you were over-weighted when you initially tried to make it to the surface. Note how much lead you dropped before you were able to swim up.

You might say that whatever weight that is, represents how many litres or cubic feet you would have to breathe or dump to get back to the surface should something bad happen at depth. Not a terrific situation.

Frankly, being over-weighted by ANY amount has the potential to be life-ending. It’s certainly not smart. You may need to adjust your kit configuration. Use an aluminum rather than a steel backplate, get smaller cylindersor ones with different buoyancy characteristics.

Cut out as much excess non-ditchable ballast as you can. If you need lead to achieve balance in step one of the weighting test, make sure it can be ditched. I see a lot of divers adding V-Weights between their backplates and tanks… you do the math.

Stages and Decompression Bottles
When you carry out steps one and two of the weighting test outlined above, don’t wear stages or other bottles. These are ditchable and can be dumped in an emergency when a dive is first starting and your rig is at its heaviest. However, DO consider that aluminum stages and deco bottles (the type preferred by the majority of technical divers), have strange buoyancy characteristics and may float when empty or near empty. Factor this into any considerations for holding a safety stop.

In other words, should you have a problem with your buoyancy cell and are too heavy, hand off any negative bottles to your buddy. If they are empty, too positive, and you believe they may prevent you holding a stop at the end of your dive, you can dump them because they will probably float to the surface.

Rebreathers and Bailout Bottles
Rebreathers divers use very little gas during a diveusually just a couple of hundred litres, perhaps 10 cubic feet… therefore, their gear’s buoyancy shift is minimal. However, they carry bailout bottles. These may stay untapped for months. Only issue might be that on the one dive where they have to be used, the diver will ascend with less weight than “usual,” since they’ve been breathing open-circuit since they came off the loop. Because of this, the suggestion is to do a weighting check simulating a safety stop with one or two spend bailout bottles strapped to you.

Making the effort to get your weighting will increase your comfort and you will be in a much better position to handle emergencies, like wing failures and other problems. Cutting excess weight will make it easier for you to control your buoyancy, and you will not be wasting as much gas continually filling and dumping your buoyancy cell during the dive.

You may also derive some benefit from buying a digital fish scale. You can use it to measure the in-water weight of various accessories such as stage bottles, cameras, lights, reels and the like. Simply zero out the scale, lower the accessory into the water, hook the digital scale to it and it will display its weight. Cool too if you want to calculate an object’s volume!!

Remember also that you need recalculate your weighting when you change something in your configuration like tanks, primary lights, regs or drysuit underwear.

Have fun and dive properly weighted.


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