As people start getting into diving, one of the first questions they ask is “What gear should I buy first?” We’ve all heard the same response to that; Mask, Snorkel, Fins.
What about the bigger items? Once you get the basics, where do you go from there? It can be a bit daunting when you start to see all the different brands, models, prices, and functions unique to every piece of equipment. One of the biggest challenges I see people facing is when their decision boils down to regulators. Which one do you want? What is a piston regulator? How is it different from a diaphragm? What does it mean when they say a regulator is balanced?? These are all things everyone has heard or thought of when they start looking into buying a regulator, but how do you choose?
I want to try and answer some of the questions you might have as you look into buying your first set up, which happen to be the same questions I had, and hopefully give some advice if you are going to make the investment to make your diving experience that much more enjoyable.
What are the Different Types of Regulators?
Let’s talk about the basics first: what are the different types of regulators? The two types of first stages you will find (remember the first stage attaches to your tank) are Piston and Diaphragm.
Piston First Stages
A Piston First Stage tends to have fewer moving parts than a diaphragm regulator. This can make technician maintenance easier.
They also have more configurable set-ups than diaphragm regulators, often having a swivel for your low pressure hoses so you can mount them to your liking.
Some of the drawbacks to pistons however are that because of their configurability and the overall internal design, they are often a bit larger and heavier than their diaphragm counterparts.
Unless you’ve managed to find yourself an environmentally sealed one, piston first stages also let water in around the piston and spring which means if you aren’t diligent in your rinsing routine there is more chance for corrosion to build up.
Examples of Piston Regulators
Diaphragm First Stages
Diaphragm First Stages on the other hand have a few more moving parts, which can make servicing them take a little longer and cause the parts to be slightly more expensive.
They don’t offer the same configurability options when it comes to mounting hoses as a piston regulator, so if this is an important feature for you, you may find yourself limited.
Some of the benefits however, is that due the the size and weight, they are often more travel friendly. Also since they use a diaphragm instead of a moving piston, water does not enter the first stage, which means less corrosion build up and less headache for you later on if you are a little forgetful when it comes to rinsing your gear.
Most diaphragm regulators are environmentally sealed, so if you are looking at commercial work (contaminated water) or let’s say…ice diving (less chance of freezing)… this would be the way to go.
Examples of Diaphragm Regulators
Now let’s talk about Balanced vs Unbalanced.. Yeah that thing. Everyone has heard these terms thrown around but I’ll try and explain it simply.
An Unbalanced regulator is designed in a way that the air coming out of your SCUBA cylinder directly affects the moving parts as you breathe. This means that when you start your dive with a full tank your regulator is going to breath as well as anyone else’s, but as you continue your dive and use up that air the pressure in the tank is going to decrease. This is going to cause a noticeable increase in breathing effort and you are going to need to work harder for those breaths which isn’t always the most comfortable at 100ft/30m mid-dive.
A Balanced regulator is designed so the air acts around the moving parts (or in a second stage it flows through and equals out on both sides) so that regardless of your tank pressure you will have the same ease of breathing when you’re waiting your turn to jump off the boat as you would swimming against current at 95ft!
Second Stage Regulators
So far I haven’t really talked about second stages (the part you breathe from) much. The reason is you don’t find much change internally so there aren’t as many different “types”. There are balanced and unbalanced, but the difference there is exactly the same as the first stages; one will start to breathe harder as you go through your air, and one will not.
For most people, Unbalanced vs. Balanced is not even a question. Though Unbalanced regulators can may appear attractive because of their price, the benefit of a balanced regulator far outweighs the small cost difference.
The things I would look at for your second stage choice, have more to do with physical features and designs that you can see.
The main one is what material is it? Metal or Composite? Second stages with more metal integrated into their design are going to be much more durable and are going to withstand colder temperatures a lot better, however that also makes them heavier for traveling and more susceptible to corrosion.
Inhalation Adjustment and Free Flow Control
There are also regulators that allow you to adjust the breathing effort from the outside with a small twist of a knob. Maybe you are diving into some current and your reg starts to freeflow because of the water pressure forcing it open.. Just turn the adjustment knob and you’ve solved your problem! The downside to that option would be a little added weight for the convenience as well as one more thing that can get smacked around if you tend to be an accident prone person.
Many second stages also have a built in pre-dive/dive switch, which can be used on the surface to help prevent your regulator from free flowing when it is not in your mouth.
How Did I Choose My Regulator?
Now that I’ve gone over some of the different design options with the pros and cons of them I’ll go over what regulator I dive and why, and also what other general advice I would give to someone looking to expand their dive closet.
When I bought my regs, I was just finishing my Divemaster course and quickly moving on to Instructor. I had gone almost a year of constant diving with nothing but rentals, and although there is nothing wrong with quality and functionality of the rental regs I was definitely ready for a step up. In the end I decided on my Scubapro MK 25 Evo/S600 set with an R095 Octo.
It’s a pretty standard set-up especially among the instructors who work here but I love my regs. I have put over 1000 dives on them in the last three and a half years and I’ve loved every single moment with them. I knew I was going to be diving in Canada for a while but I also wanted to be able to change my hoses around as I saw fit. Ice didn’t seem like a big issue at the time so I didn’t feel like environmentally sealed regs would be an issue. I knew for sure that I wanted both my first and second stage to be balanced but I didn’t want for my second stage to be too bulky or heavy. My alternate second stage (octo) is nice and small and light, but I was able to change the hose mounting so it faces a more comfortable direction if I ever have to donate it to my buddy. For my purposes they have never let me down and have been a powerhouse of a regulator that gives me amazing breathing performance and continues to work throughout all my abuse.
If you are considering getting your very own regulators ask yourself a few simple questions:
1. Where Am I Going to Use Them?
Warm Water or Cold Water? Do you worry about travel weight when you take your dive gear abroad or are you unbothered by the hassle of bringing all your gear.
2. How Often Will I Use Them?
Do you only dive a couple of times a year? Would you dive more if you had your own regulator? How much do you spend on rentals per year? Many people who add up the costs of renting, realize very quickly how soon a regulator will pay for itself!
3 What Features are Important to Me as a Diver?
For me, breathing performance will always be at the top of the list when it comes to buying a regulator. This is the thing keeping me comfortable and, most importantly, safe and alive underwater. I will always get a balanced set for my main first and second stage. Balanced is usually synonymous with more expensive, but it is life support equipment.
4. What Kind Of Diving Will I Be Doing?
Are you a local cold water diver, or a fair weather tropical diver? Do you plan on making more adventurous dives and try new styles or are you diving just to relax?
These are all good questions to ask yourself that I think will help direct you towards either a smaller lighter travel regulator, or maybe a heavier but more robust regulator for frequent use in less than perfect conditions.
A regulator is a big investment for most people, but it is also one that can transform diving from something that you like doing from time to time into something you love doing whenever you get the chance!