Stage-bottle logic


There are different schools of thought about the “best” way to manage gas volume when cave diving with stage bottles.

The so-called traditional method is to treat the gas carried in stages, exactly as the primary gas supply: breathe one-third on the way in; one-third on the way out; and leave one-third for contingencies. If nothing hits the fan on a dive following this method, divers surface with stages, and primary cylinders each about one-third full.

Yet another option is “half + 15.” With this method, contingency gas for the stage is carried in the primary cylinders. This method requires a little more thought and arithmetic; but is considered by some to be the most conservative and best method when multi-staging. If everything goes smoothly when employing this method, divers surface with stages close to empty, but with all the contingency gas in their primary cylinders, which — with a single stage — translates into the primaries (twins or sidemount) being around half-full or more.

And finally there’s the seat-of-your-pants method which like half + 15, allows around half the volume of the stage bottle to be breathed, but critically, unlike half + 15, does NOT preserve any additional contingency gas in one’s primary cylinders. Provided nothing goes awry, divers using this “technique” surface with empty stages and primary cylinders with about one-third remaining. You don’t have to have a phD. in risk assessment to realize this is the most “liberal” way to dive stages; if anything dramatic happens, it can mean that divers do not surface at all.

But let’s leave discussion on the pros and cons of each method as the topic for a later blog post. Let’s focus instead on an error we should avoid when diving with stages in a cave regardless of which gas management rule we follow. That error is dropping a stage immediately its turn pressure has been reached.

It seems to be a more logical, more conservative, and therefore better practice to carry the stage and it’s extra gas a little further into the penetration.

Let’s look at a couple of disaster scenarios, and see why the habit of carry stage bottles a little deeper tends to be the better option.

Two divers (the ubiquitous Diver A and Diver B) have planned a stage cave dive. For the sake of simplicity, each is using the same size primary cylinders and each has the same sized aluminum stage bottle. Each has identical consumption, and fill pressures in all cylinders are identical. (An unlikely situation, but convenient for our purposes!)

Also, to forego any confusion over bar/litres or PSI/cubic feet, let’s consider the starting pressure in the primary bottles as 3P; and in the single stages as 3S. Our divers, A and B opt to dive following the Rule of Thirds in both primary and stage bottles.

OK, scenario one: Our divers begin their dive and, conventionally, breathe from their identical stages to start their dive. After a pressure drop of 1S, they drop their stages… each has 2S of gas remaining .

They swim on breathing primary gas. They each consume 1P of primary gas and signal “turn the dive.” At precisely this moment, Murphy joins their dive, and Diver A has a massive problem with his primary gas supply. He signals his buddy, and they share gas. Now Diver A and Diver B are breathing from Diver B’s 2P volume of gas.

If things go well — no entanglement, no slowing down because of restrictions, no elevated breathing rates, no taking a wrong turn in the confusion, and no arguments over navigation — they make it back to their stages with zero pressure in Diver B’s primary cylinders.

They grab their stages, and spend the rest of their exit thinking about how close a call they just had. They each surface with 1S pressure of gas in their stages, but zero in their primaries.

OK, scenario two is similar: But in this case Diver A and B when they have consumed 1S of the gas in their stages, switch to their primary gas, and opt to carry their stages a five or six minutes, or more, further into the cave before dropping them.

At the same point in the dive — just after the turn — Diver A suffers the same disaster, and has nothing to breathe. So, both exit breathing from Diver B’s 2P volume of gas; however, in this case, they reach their stages a few minutes earlier than in scenario one. There is gas in Diver B’s primary cylinders when they pick up their stages and continue their exit, during which they give thanks that they carried their stages further into the cave.

They surface with less than 1S of gas in each stage having perfectly justifiably used some of the reserve contingency gas in those stages to exit calmly. Diver B has some gas in her primaries; and, as in scenario one, Diver A’s cylinders are still empty.

Now we might argue the likelihood of the type of complete gas loss Diver A suffered in both scenarios one and two as remote… highly rare, probably impossible. But what cannot be disputed is that in scenario two, by carrying their stages for just a few extra minutes during their swim in, they had contingency gas placed in a better place than in scenario one.

We can debate how best to manage contingency gas volumes in stages (there may be benefits to each method), but in most cases it seems a better, more logical option to think before you drop; and wait.

Dive Safe!