Save Your Gear—A Maintenance Guide
Our comprehensive, January-to-December guide for keeping your gear in tip-top shape. Text by John Francis & photography by Joe Byrd
Maintenance begins with thoroughly soaking all your gear after every dive trip. Salt crystals dry, harden and attack metal parts. They stiffen straps and fabrics. Both salt crystals and sand are abrasives, and can wear holes in BCs, for example.
After washing comes detailed inspection and repair of each item of gear before you put it away—though you can inspect some gear best during washing or even before.
Regulator Maintenance | Tank Maintenance | BC Maintenance | Wetsuit Maintenance | Dry Suit Maintenance | Mask, Snorkel and Fin Maintenance | O-ring-Protected Housing Maintenance
How to Wash Your Gear | The Garage: For Cars, Not Gear | Experts Say: Get Fresh!
Never Do This to Your Gear | Tools You Need
|Discoloration of the first stage's high-pressure inlet is a warning sign—have your tank inspected and your regulator overhauled.
Regulator Maintenance Check the first stage high-pressure inlet for discoloration. Red or brown indicates rust in the tank, black indicates carbon from a bad compressor filter, white or blue/green indicates water has entered the first stage. Any discoloration calls for a visual inspection of the tank and overhaul of the regulator.
Make sure the dust cap is not cracked, and replace it if it is. Make sure the cap is firmly in place, or it will leak water into the first stage when you wash it.
Push back the hose protectors and check the hoses for bulges near swedge fittings. Check hoses throughout their length for cracks, fraying, abrasion, etc. Replace any suspect hoses now.
Check the mouthpiece and tie wrap for cracks, and replace now if needed.
Check gauges and computer for moisture under the face. Schedule immediate repair by professionals if you find any.
Check for leaks. If an air leak is not corrected by tightening the hose slightly or replacing its O-ring, or if water leaks into the mouthpiece, take it for immediate repair by a professional.
Regulator Repair Tips
- If you remove a hose, use only an end wrench of the correct size. Hose nuts are soft and easily rounded by sloppy adjustable wrenches and pliers.
- Whenever you remove a hose, replace the O-ring. It's cheap insurance.
On-Site Regulator Breakdowns: What To Do Obviously, your regulator is too important to trust to baling-wire-and-chewing-gum "fixes." But there are a few problems you can solve at the dive site.
Free-flowing second stage: The purge may be stuck. With the system pressurized, work the purge button while flushing fresh water through the exhaust tee. Hold the second stage under water and "shake" it to flush. You may be able to dissolve salt or dislodge sand, freeing the purge. Warning: Do not depress the purge on a regulator second stage while immersed unless it is pressurized.
Broken tie wrap: No spare tie wrap? You can secure the mouthpiece with a piece of wire. Wrap it around and twist the ends together with pliers to tighten the wire. Or use strong string or heavy thread: tie a small loop in one end, wrap the string around the mouthpiece, pass the end through the loop and pull back to tighten. The loop acts like a pulley with a 2:1 purchase, doubling the tightness of the string. Then tie a knot.
Air leaks: If there's a leak at the hose connection to the first stage, it may be corrected by tightening (slightly) the leaking hose. Don't overdo it. Better to replace its O-ring.
|Tips for Washing Your Regulator
- Pull back hose protectors so you can wash the hose connections to the first stage.
- If you have a tank, mount the regulator to it and turn on the air to pressurize. While hosing or soaking the regulator, press the purge button to wash inside the second stage.
- If you don't have a tank, be sure the regulator's dust cap has an O-ring and is firmly in place so water doesn't get into the first stage. While hosing or soaking, do not press the purge button. Without air pressure in the hoses, water will enter them. (No tank? Here's another reason to get a pony bottle.)
- Pay attention to washing all swivels and hose connections as well as the low-pressure BC inflate quick-connect fitting.
- Flush water through the mouthpiece and out the exhaust tee.
Regulator Annual Maintenance Regulators need an annual tune-up and overhaul—whether you've used it or not—during which they will be completely disassembled and cleaned, O-rings and seats will be replaced, and the reassembled regulators will be tested and tuned. Annual overhaul maintains your warranty, and parts are often free. Normal upgrades and manufacturer's defect remedies can be performed at the same time, and your mouthpiece and tie wrap can be replaced.
Gauges can be checked for accuracy at the same time, and computer batteries can be replaced, if you haven't done so recently.
- Store your regulator with the hoses lying flat or loosely coiled. Do not hang your regulator by its hoses, as the weight of the second stage and console will bend hoses and stress swedge fittings.
- Protect your regulator and hoses from heat, sunlight and all chemical and exhaust fumes. It is best to seal them in a plastic bag.
- Some internal seals and O-rings in regulators are lubricated by use, and deteriorate in long storage. This is another reason annual overhaul is required by warranty.
Transporting Regulators Don't stress hoses. Don't coil hoses tightly. Stuff T-shirts or towels around the connections to the first stage so hoses aren't bent at the swedges. If you remove hoses from the first stage, be sure to plug the ports and tape the ends of the hoses to prevent dust or moisture from entering.
|A sticker on your tank should indicate the date of the tank's last visual inspection. Annual visual inspection is highly recommended.
Tank Maintenance Look for corrosion around the valve stem. Reddish brown, white or greenish powder around the threads indicates the different metals (the brass valve and the steel or aluminum tank) are attacking each other. Salt buildup accelerates corrosion.
Open the valve slightly and smell the air. Any bad smells? Any powder coming out? Don't drain the tank completely—moisture and salt can enter when the valve is open.
Inspect the O-ring seat for cracks or distortion.
Make sure the valve turns easily and true, and is not bent.
Inspect the O-ring for nicks and replace if necessary.
On-Site Tank Repairs There's not much you can do about tank problems.
- If you detect odors, or dust, in the tank air, do not attempt to drain and refill it. Some residue is likely to remain.
- If the burst disc leaks, do not try to tighten it. Replace it only if you have a replacement burst disc assembly of the correct pressure rating.
Annual Tank Maintenance
- An annual visual inspection is highly recommended. Tanks filled frequently in salt air and tanks that discolor the sintered filter in the regulator first stage should be visually inspected more often.
- A hydrostatic (pressure) test will be required every five years.
- Have the burst disc replaced every year when the visual inspection is performed. Corrosion, and the flexing of filling and emptying the tank, fatigue the burst disc and can cause premature failure.
- Stand tanks upright, so any condensation inside will collect on the bottom, which is thicker than the side walls. Secure them so they can't be knocked over.
- Always store tanks with the valve closed and some pressure in the tank. They need not be full: 100 or 200 psi is enough.
- Block tanks carefully to prevent them from rolling while being transported. The valve is the most vulnerable part of the tank, and can be damaged in an impact with the weight of the tank behind it.
- Falling tanks can easily damage other gear, not to mention toes. Whether in the car or on the dive boat, they should always be secured so they can't fall.
|Wash inside your BC by letting water in through the oral deflate hose. Inflate the BC, turn upside-down and drain through the hose.
BC Maintenance Check for leaks. Fill a tub large enough to submerge the BC with fresh water. Fill the BC with air, hold it under water and look for bubbles. If the oral deflate leaks a little, maybe sand, silt or salt has dented the valve seat. You may be able to correct the problem by depressing the button and rotating it a half turn, so the valve bears differently on the seat. Note the location of any other leaks and go on to washing the BC. You'll make repairs after the BC is washed and dry.
Look for tears, stressed fasteners and worn straps and buckles. You may be able to make stitches on parts that are clearly external to the air bladder, such as pocket flaps, but be careful: on most BCs, the outer fabric you see is what retains the air. Stitch with heavy polyester thread only; cotton thread will rot. Leaks are best repaired by the manufacturer, since materials and the adhesives they require differ from one BC to another.
Work the oral deflate button and power inflate button to see that they move freely. Stickiness may indicate sand or salt inside, or a more serious problem requiring return to the manufacturer.
On-Site BC Repairs Leaks: Some divers try to patch small leaks with neoprene cement or "Aquaseal." But the patch may not hold (because the material is not compatible with the adhesive, or because air pressure tries to push an external patch away from the BC). Such a field repair may make a later, permanent repair difficult (because the incompatible adhesive contaminates the "wound"). And you should consider whether you want to bet your life on it.
External tears, torn straps, broken buckles: Use a needle and polyester thread to sew a new strap to the stub of the old one. Try duct tape. If you have no spare buckle, tie the strap ends together.
|Tips for Washing Your BC
Did You Know? Salt crystals and sand that accumulate inside your BC are abrasives. They can rub through the airtight internal coating of the BC fabric, causing leaks. So wash inside as well as out.
- Wash inside. Fill the bladder halfway with warm, soapy water through the oral deflate hose, then inflate the rest of the way with air. Slosh it around. Drain through both the oral deflate valve and the remote exhaust valve while squeezing the BC against your chest.
- Pay special attention to washing the overpressure relief valve. If it clogs with salt, it may leak.
- On some BCs, the remote exhaust valve (on the lower right) can be removed by unscrewing it. Flush the valve with fresh water, and fill the BC through the opening where the valve mounts. (Warning: some valves have several parts that must be reassembled in the same order.)
- Rinse several times the same way.
- To dry, inflate and prop up the BC with the oral deflate hose to the bottom, so drips collect in the hose. After a while, press the oral deflate button to drain the hose. Inflate with air and deflate several times to dry the inside better.
Annual BC Maintenance An annual tune-up is mandatory if your BC incorporates an alternate air source in the power inflator, and a good idea for the rest of us, given the complexity and importance of modern BCs. Valves in particular are subject to deterioration and not easily overhauled without proper tools and techniques.
- Store your BC partially inflated and lying flat or hanging from its garment loop, lifting or carrying handle (if it has one). Do not hang it from its oral inflation hose.
- Do not let sharp objects (like the BC's own power inflator barb) stab into the BC.
- Protect from heat, humidity, sunlight and chemical or exhaust fumes.
Transporting BCs Fold your BC carefully, avoiding undue strains to the hose connection, for example. You can use the BC to cradle more delicate gear, but don't let it get stabbed by sharp edges and points.
|To keep wetsuit zippers moving freely, lubricate them with candle wax or beeswax.
Wetsuit Maintenance Look for gouges and tears, especially along seams. Repair the neoprene with wetsuit cement, and resew the nylon with heavy polyester thread. A large gouge that can't be sewn together must be cut out and replaced with a patch of new neoprene.
Look for abrasion, especially on knees and elbows. Vow to dive more carefully in the future, or consider adding abrasion-resistant pads.
Inspect zippers for broken teeth, and inspect the stitching where the zipper is attached to the neoprene. This is a high-stress point because neoprene stretches but the zipper doesn't. Zippers are standard items and can be replaced, though this may be a job for a professional.
Inspect seals for tears.
Lubricate zippers with candle wax or beeswax.
On-Site Wetsuit Repairs Tears: A torn wetsuit can be repaired with neoprene cement, but the wetsuit must be dry first, and the cement may have to harden for six to eight hours before you can use the wetsuit again. Follow the directions on the can.
Quick fixes: Sometimes duct tape will hold torn neoprene together. You can help the duct tape by stitching it to the nylon that coats the neoprene.
Annual Wetsuit Maintenance Give all seams a close inspection with neoprene cement, a needle and thread at hand. Especially check stress points like the ends of seams at cuffs, and zipper attachments. Don't forget neoprene accessories: booties, hood, gloves.
- Lay your wetsuit flat on a shelf, drape it over a fat closet rod, or hang it from a fat hanger. Folding it or using a narrow hanger may leave permanent creases.
- Protect your wetsuit from heat, sunlight, humidity, and chemical and exhaust fumes. It is best sealed in a plastic bag.
- Don't let heavy weights like tanks rest on your wetsuit. Dents are likely to become permanent. Dents mean lost insulation because gas bubbles in the neoprene are crushed.
Transporting Wetsuits Wetsuits often have to be folded for transport, but do it neatly so they are not crushed. Do not allow heavy objects to lie on top of wetsuits. Remember, creases or dents may be permanent. However, neoprene does makes good padding for more delicate and more expensive gear. A camera can nestle inside a hood, for example.
Dry Suit Maintenance Inspect for leaks. A dry suit is one piece of gear that can be best inspected before you take it off, as you'll be able to correlate any damp area of your undergarments with possible damage to the suit. Damp cuffs and collars usually indicate leaking seals. A damp left arm may indicate a leaking exhaust valve. A damp torso or leg suggests pinhole damage. Don't be fooled by dampness from your sweat. Often your sweat condenses on the inside of the suit and drains to your feet, leaving your torso dry.
Repair leaks. If you've identified a leak prior to taking your dry suit off, repair the suit after it is thoroughly dry but before you put it away and forget about it. Most leaks can be repaired at home, usually by patching on the inside. But the various dry suit materials require different solvents, glues and techniques. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations.
Look for abrasion. Especially on knees and elbows. Scuffing is a sign of more serious trouble to come, so amend your diving technique and consider adding protective patches.
Inspect seals. Stretch latex seals and look for tears, cracks, aging and gumminess. Seals can be replaced at home but, again, follow the manufacturer's instructions.
Lubricate the zipper. Rub with candle wax or beeswax.
On-Site Dry Suit Repairs Leaks: Vulcanized rubber and trilaminate dry suits can normally be patched and used again in less than an hour. Neoprene usually takes longer. But each suit material requires a different set of solvents and adhesives. Make them part of your save-a-dive kit.
Quick fixes: Duct tape, applied to the inside of the suit, will normally seal a puncture. Remove the duct tape after diving to avoid a gummy residue.
Torn seals: Latex seals can be replaced and used fairly quickly too. Once again, you need the proper adhesives and solvents. Failing that, try duct tape.
Leaking valves: Try working the valve while flushing fresh water through it, even if it means getting the inside of the suit wet. Sand or salt may have jammed the valve.
|Tips for Washing Your Dry Suit
- Wash inside. Many divers don't like to, unless they've had a flood, because of the hassle. But you should: your sweat leaves a nasty residue. Also, this allows you to flush fresh water through the valves.
- Turn it inside-out. Be careful not to strain the zipper stops. You probably can't turn boots inside out, but this is where moisture will collect. Wash, then dry inside boots with towels.
Annual Dry Suit Maintenance An annual valve overhaul is a job for a professional because special tools and techniques are involved. If seals are looking questionable, this may be the time to have them replaced, too.
Dry Suit Storage
- Either close the suit's zipper or open it all the way. Opinions differ which is best, but if left partially open, the slider will leave a mark in the zipper that may not seal.
- Lay your dry suit out chest up or down (per manufacturer's recommendation) and roll up from the feet, then fold the arms over the bundle. If the chest will be inside, cap the inflator valve barb so it doesn't punch into the suit.
- Protect your dry suit from sunlight, heat, humidity and all chemical and exhaust fumes. Seal it in a heavy-duty plastic bag.
Transporting Dry Suits
- Close or open the zipper, as discussed above.
- Roll the suit as discussed above, if you have room. Otherwise, fold it carefully.
- Guard against sharp objects, including the suit's own valve barb, from puncturing it.
|Store fins lying flat and never standing on their tips because they can become permanently bent.
Mask, Snorkel and Fin Maintenance Inspect all straps. Stretch them and look for cracks and small tears. If in doubt, replace them now.
Leaking mask? Look for cracks in the skirt, or a crack in the frame near the face plate. Either means it's time for a new mask.
Inspect purge valves. You have to remove a protective cover to access the valve. Peel back the silicone flap of the purge valve and look for small bits of sand or salt that may have survived washing. Look for cracks in the silicone valve itself.
On-Site Repairs for Masks, Snorkels and Fins Broken straps. No spare strap? Cannibalize one from a spare mask—it will probably fit a fin, too. If the strap broke near the middle, tie the two ends together. Or sew the ends together. In the more likely event it broke at the buckle, reposition the remaining strap; it may be short, but it will work.
Broken buckle. No spares? Sew the strap to the fin or mask.
Broken snorkel keeper. Use a rubber band. Use duct tape. Place the snorkel in some other secure place.
Leaking mask purge valve. Cleaning doesn't fix it? Seal it temporarily by covering it with duct tape, or permanently by filling it with neoprene cement.
Storage for Masks, Snorkels and Fins
- Protect masks, snorkels and fins from light, heat and fumes as you would other gear. Don't pile heavy weights on top of them.
- Fins should lie flat, not standing on their tips, as the bent tips will take a "set."
- Don't let silicone rest against neoprene; the silicone will become discolored. (It's unsightly, but not harmful to the silicone.)
Transporting Masks, Snorkels and Fins
- Pack fins at the bottom or on the sides of your gear bag. They can, to some extent, protect other gear. The foot pockets make strong boxes for small items, for example. But don't let fins travel with tips bent. Lay them flat.
- Put the mask in its protective case. Pack the snorkel separately.
|They're inexpensive, but O-rings protect some of your most delicate and expensive gear from the ravages of salt water. Take care of them by cleaning, lubricating and checking them for nicks and cracks.
Maintaining O-Ring-Protected Housings: Lights, Camera Housings and Computers Remove batteries and check contacts for signs of corrosion. Clean contacts with contact cleaner and cotton swabs or baking soda solution and fine sandpaper or a pencil eraser.
Clean external contacts. Many computers have a pair of external contacts for water activation (or manual activation when downloading to a PC). Clean only with a pencil eraser.
Remove and clean the O-ring. Clean the seat. Inspect both for tiny nicks. Relubricate and reinstall the O-ring, or replace it.
Periodically replace light bulbs. Typically they are driven hard and may last only 10 hours or so. Don't touch bulbs or reflectors with bare fingers: you'll leave oil stains.
On-Site Repairs Flooded cameras: If a housing floods, submerge the camera in fresh water as soon as you can. Salt is far more harmful than fresh water, and must be flushed out. Check the instructions for the particular gear, or consult the manufacturer, but you are probably best to leave the item soaking in fresh water until you can get it to a repair facility.
Flooded lights: Remove batteries and bulb and submerge in fresh water. Work the switch several times to work salt out of it. Dry carefully, paying special attention to the switch. You may be able to take the switch apart and dry its pieces. Otherwise, give it time to air dry. Determine why the
O-ring failed, and clean it or fit a new one. Then polish the contacts and the reflector, fit new batteries and try it.
Flooded computers: Normally, it's only the battery compartment that floods as this is separated from the electronics. Soak it in fresh water, dry it carefully, then dry and clean the battery contacts. Determine why the O-ring failed and clean it or fit a new one. Fit new batteries and try it. If the computer itself floods (if you see water behind the lens), treat it like a flooded camera: leave it submerged in fresh water until you can get it to a repair facility. (Maybe you'll get lucky, but don't count on it.)
Storage Remove batteries and O-rings when storing your gear, and then bag the equipment. But protect the O-rings as you would other gear, and don't forget to reinstall them later.
- If flying, remove O-rings or leave housings cracked open. Airline baggage compartments are pressurized, but not to surface pressure. If sealed, a housing will vent pressure as the plane goes up, but will seal as it comes down again. Result: the housing will be very difficult to open.
How to Wash Your Gear Soap it. Warm, soapy water works best at dissolving salt crystals as well as dirt and sweat. Use any mild soap or detergent—Ivory, Joy, Tide, etc.—but don't use heavy-duty cleansers like TSP or 409, or solvents.
Soak it. Soaking in a big tub is more effective than splashing with a hose, especially when washing fabrics like wetsuits and BCs. Don't forget to wash your gear bag, too. If it has been packed with wet gear, it has collected salt and dirt too.
Rinse it. Rinse thoroughly and air dry, preferably out of direct sunlight. Don't let your gear get too hot.
Brush it. Use a soft brush, like a toothbrush, to scrub sand out of zippers and velcro.
Zip it. Work the zippers on your gear while soaking.
Freshen it. To deodorize, use a wetsuit shampoo, or add baking soda to the wash water.
The Garage: For Cars, Not Gear The garage is often the home for scuba gear, but that is almost the worst possible place to store it. Not heated or cooled and badly ventilated, the garage is the source of most of the fumes that are harmful to scuba gear, from automobile exhaust to solvents and paints to garden insecticides.
The truth is, much equipment damage occurs during storage, not during use. That's because many of the materials in scuba equipment are attacked by heat, light, ozone, carbon monoxide, oils, solvents and other chemical fumes in the air. Perhaps the best maintenance you can give your gear, after washing it, is to protect it from the environment.
If you must use the garage for storage, be sure all your equipment is well-sealed in heavy-duty plastic trash bags.
Experts Say: Get Fresh! What's the No. 1 cause of equipment damage? Not soaking it in fresh water, says Tom Young. He's manager of customer relations and repairs for Aqua Lung, and probably sees as much damaged scuba equipment in a year as anyone on the planet. "Hosing it off is not good enough," Young says. "You've got to soak it to get the salt out."
Other tips from those who've seen it all:
- Be sure your regulator's dust cap has an O-ring or is made of solid rubber.
- When traveling, soak your gear every day in a bathtub.
- Check over your gear weeks in advance of a big trip. Don't rely on FedEx and rush charges to save your vacation.
- Replace computer batteries before a trip, and replace the battery compartment O-ring at the same time. And take spare batteries.
- On the boat, put your gear away or secure it well. Many BC leaks occur when an assembled rig falls over, with the tank pressing something sharp into the BC.
Never Do This to Your Gear Never dump weights on your neoprene. Dents are likely to be permanent, and represent lost insulation (because the insulating bubbles are crushed).
Never fold a neoprene suit for storage. Creases are likely to become permanent.
Never put hard bends and kinks in hoses. The hose will be weakened where it is bent.
Never use any oil-based lubricant. Petroleum attacks neoprene and silicone.
Never store your gear wet. Salt crystals form and harden; mold and mildew has a chance to grow.
Never store weights on top of other gear. Not only wetsuits, but BCs, regulator hoses, masks and fins can be permanently weakened or deformed.
Never store fins standing on their tips. The tips may bend permanently.
Never leave your tank empty with the valve open. Humidity and dust will enter the tank. Moisture promotes rust.
Never blow air into the high-pressure inlet of your first stage. You are likely to force moisture or dust inside the first stage.
Never spray silicone on any strap, valve or device you breathe with. Silicone makes straps so slippery that buckles may not hold, and it can cause regulator parts to unseat.
Tools You Need
- End wrenches to match all hose fittings. Pliers and adjustable wrenches will round the flats on the soft metal.
- Screwdrivers, flathead and Phillips, medium and small.
- Dental pick for cleaning crevices, removing O-rings.
- Toothbrush for scrubbing zippers and velcro.
- Cotton swabs for cleaning O-rings, bulbs, reflectors, battery contacts, etc.
- Large needle and strong polyester thread.
- Neoprene cement.
- Duct tape.
- Spare O-rings, straps, snaps, buckles, etc.
- Battery tester.
- Mild soap or detergent (like Ivory).
- Large tub (or a bathtub).