• SCUBA: Buying your own gear

    If you are considering getting into SCUBA diving, you may end up with a passion to own your own gear rather than relying on rentals. Last year I wrote several articles about those initial required purchases and classwork, as well as the open water skills required to get PADI certified. Now that summer is heating up, I'm itching to get back into the water to see more of the creatures we love to put in our aquariums and began researching what gear I needed next.

    It was overwhelming. There are so many brands, so many styles, prices ranging from inexpensive to insanely high; how can an underwater enthusiast know what to buy? I'd already looked at many of the options at my local dive shop, and I'd used rental gear both from there as well as during my dives in Hawaii. Through experience you can learn what you do and don't like to use (like I'll never use a front-zipper wetsuit again!), but it's best to talk to other divers before you pull out your wallet. About a week ago, while surfing the net I kept seeing one specific dive shop requesting I'd rate their service. As I perused their page, I noticed they had a BCD (Buoyancy Compensation Device) on sale until the end of the month. The price was incredible, and I looked at the pictures and read the features carefully to determine if it would suit my needs. Everything I knew I liked appeared to be included, but I didn't know enough about it to make my decision. I asked my online friends for feedback and provided a link to the BCD in question, and waited.

    The answers I received were okay, but not overwhelming. The BCD is a vest style. You slip into it, and secure a velcro cummerbund around your waist and snap the male to female connector to lock it in place. The shoulder straps have the same pull down method I'd trained with. It had integrated weight pockets which were easily accessible from the front. It had a lot of bright blue though, which I wasn't too thrilled about. What I didn't know was if it came with the manual inflator hose assembly, or if that was another part I had to purchase. I decided to call the store in question on Saturday afternoon. They were East Coast Time, and their answering machine stated they were closed. I looked at a number of other dive shops that sold the BCD, and there wasn't a single product review on the web. Every site had the same phrase: "Be the first one to review this product." Ugh! I called a west coast dive shop that sold the same BCD, and was able to get my question answered. It came with the manual inflator (it was in the pictures, but you never know). Additionally, I'd fixated on a better choice for the inflator, one made by Atomic. Not only would it inflate / deflate the vest with the press of a button, it allowed me to manually inflate the vest if necessary AND it also became my alternate air source if the primary regulator had an issue. The salesman told me the Atomic SS1 would fit this vest, as it came with a number of adaptors. I asked if I needed to buy the low pressure hose, which I knew I needed but from the various links I'd checked, it wasn't spelled out. Typically it showed the main part I sought, but I was unsure if I'd have all the other pieces to assemble my dive gear completely.

    You may wonder why I didn't just go to my local dive shop and get their advice. Since I was purchasing my gear elsewhere and saving hundreds of dollars in the process, I felt that would be inappropriate. I had to rely on what information I could gather up online and from other divers if I wanted to save money. I had people helping me both locally as well as out of state, which I definitely recommend. The more people you talk with, especially if you have your wish list down to a few specific choices, the more likely you'll get good overall feedback to make an informed decision. The hours were passing and the special pricing was going to expire in another day, so I went back to the original website (Leisure Pro) once more. Clicking on different ones, comparing how they looked and what they included, I continued to be drawn to the one on sale. There was a chat option on the site offering to assist with any questions, but since the store didn't answer my call hours earlier, I didn't expect a response. Surprisingly, a person immediately offered his assistance, and explained why they were closed earlier: because it was the Sabbath. That never even crossed my mind. My new chat-buddy explained that he has been diving for 26 years, and after some back and forth, he finally sold me when he told me he'd wear it on a dive. That was a pretty stellar endorsement as you can imagine he'd have strong feelings for what gear to use versus what to avoid as a career diver, and that pretty much sealed the deal for me. He also agreed that ordering a Medium was the right choice for my body type. He offered to stay available during the transaction, and informed me that all went through successfully with the news my order would ship out first thing Monday. It was a very smooth transaction having the salesperson available for all my questions. Additionally, if you end up receiving something that doesn't fit properly, they will ship it back on their dime and send you another size as long as it was never used in water.

    By Friday, my order arrived as promised. The box was marked Adorama - the photography company - but inside was my new treasure!

    What I ordered was the Aeris Biojac BCD. It comes in a large bag, which can be used to keep it stored safely between trips. The oral manual inflator was attached. It seemed heavy when I took it out of the bag, and it weighed in at 7.2 lbs.

    And the Atomic SS1. When I opened the box, I saw the same part as every picture online, but under the cardboard flap was a new low pressure airhose, adaptor fittings, zipties and pins, instructions and the warranty card. http://www.atomicaquatics.com/reg_SS1.html

    Back to the Biojac. The purpose of the BCD is to hold your air tank to your back, and maintain a way to stay buoyant at a specific depth. As it is inflated, you rise; as you deflate it, you begin to descend. If you practice this skill, you can hover precisely where you want to be without bumping into anything nearby, like a beautiful reef.

    Here is the back of the Biojac. This is where the tank will be strapped tightly in place - the latching strap is included, and has velcro to lock down the strap so it doesn't snag on anything while diving.

    On either side of the tank are weight pockets. These are permanent weights that you keep with you the entire dive. If you need to add a little weight to balance yourself in a horizontal position, these pockets will hold a few pounds each, five pounds maximum. (Freshwater dives need more weight than saltwater dives.)

    This in the inside of the BCD, with a large pad that will press against your back for comfort. Near the top of that pad is a hard handle to grasp when carrying the vest.

    When you unfold the vest completely open, the cummerbund retracts into the "wings" - very nicely too.

    Integrated weights allow you to dive with all the weights in your BCD instead of having to strap on a weight-loaded belt. While their location vary depending on brand, these are located over your hips and are easily pulled out if an emergency ascent is necessary. All my dives have used these weight pockets and I'm very comfortable with how they work. The Biojac doesn't allow you to tug them out with one quick pull, you do have to squeeze the latch to release them. If it comes to that, you ditch them and begin your ascent. You will have to buy new weight pockets later.

    This is the business end of the Manual Inflator. You can blow into it to fill up your vest, but it also uses a low pressure hose connected to the air tank to fill it up with the squeeze of a button.

    Here is one of the drawstrings that allow you to release some air from the vest to level out perfectly. The vest has three such ports with drawstrings. There are plenty of D-hooks to tether stuff down if needed.

    There are two pockets to store a few items you may need while diving, like a small waterproof pocket camera.

    Comparison of the two manual inflators. The first thing I noticed was the air hose connection was on the opposite side. The SS1 is bigger, and there's a mouth piece to bite down on to keep this alternate regulator in your mouth.

    The next step was changing these two pieces out. I read the Atomic SS1 manual cover to cover to read their advice, then using a utility knife and needle-nose pliers, I was able to remove the stock part and install my nice upgrade. Since this was my first time to do this, my focus was to do it right, and thus there aren't any pictures of the process itself.

    Inside the large black breather hose, a cable had to be looped around a pin where the SS1 attaches, and it took me a few minutes to complete the task at hand. The new SS1 came with a new low pressure hose with a bigger quick-disconnect fitting. And of the three fittings included in the package, I had to use the smallest one to fit the breather hose. I used the included ziptie to secure it, making sure it had a snug fit. Then I carefully trimmed off the rest of the ziptie with a razor blade, making sure it was smooth and flush to avoid getting nicked when handling it.

    This plastic retaining clip was facing the wrong direction with the new Atomic SS1, but I was able to carefully pry it off the larger hose, flip it over and reinstall it, and the low pressure hose was then snapped into place by its side.

    This is the part I took off, and its hose. The hose quick disconnect fitting did not fit the SS1, in case you were wondering.

    Here's the Biojac with the SS1. Note the red tip at the end of the low pressure hose; that will be attached to the first stage of the regulator I'll be buying soon.

    The SS1 doesn't require maintenance other than to be rinsed in freshwater and stored somewhere safe when not in use. It can be easily disconnected from the BCD by unscrewing the black nut and the steel quick-connect.

    So there you have it, a key component for SCUBA diving. If I'm on a dive and my buddy runs out of air (or runs into trouble with his rental gear!), I can give him my regulator to share air, and I'll breathe off the SS1. Atomic is well known for how easy it is to breathe no matter what depth you are at, and this secondary will be just as comfortable as my primary regulator. The regulators I've used previously had an "Octopus" regulator - a second regulator with a much longer hose to use or share in an emergency. The SS1 eliminates the need for an Octopus.

    I still need two more pieces of gear: The regulator and a dive computer. I'm about to order those as I'll need them next month, and will be testing them out in a swimming pool prior to departure. Since every breath counts, I'm looking for quality yet not break the bank. Here's a link to the regulator with swivel connection I'm getting: http://www.atomicaquatics.com/reg_B2.html

    For the dive computer, I'm considering an integrated one by Oceanic, complete with easy disconnect. I want one that tracks air consumption, measures depth, time, temperature, has a compass, and is reliable: http://www.leisurepro.com/Prod/Categ...CNDMPP2WC.html

    The best part of owning your own dive gear is familiarity. You know where everything is, how it operates, and know the maintenance performed. It will be the perfect fit every time with everything adjusted correctly, and when dive opportunities arise you are ready to go. Some may prefer to rent gear and hope it all works out, but I've heard enough stories about malfunctioning gear and canceled dives that I'd prefer to own my own. Heck, during one of my open water check out dives, the rented dive computer failed mid-dive! When I travel, I always check a suitcase. If I pack carefully, I believe I'll be able to pack everything in the same bag to avoid additional baggage fees.

    My entire life, I've purchased what I need to do the job right, and I'm very pleased with this purchase and can't wait to get wet and blow bubbles.
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Paul B's Avatar
      Paul B -
      It's amazing how much this stuff has changes since I bought my gear. Now it is all bright colors with blues and yellows, mine is made out of wood. But it still works fine.