HOW TO BUY A REGULATOR
If we had gills, breathing underwater would be easy. But since we donít, we rely on the services of a regulator. Years ago, there werenít too many choices. Today, youíve got more choices and better overall quality. And since a reg is one of the three Big Ticket items (BC and computers being the other two) that divers buy, you might appreciate some tips on finding the reg thatís right for you.
BUDGET - Start by determining your price range. Thereís no sense in getting excited about a $1500 regulator when your budget only allows $300. But realize that, sometimes, spending only $100 more than youíd planned may get you a significantly better regulator.
HOW TO TEST A REG - How easily a regulator breathes is probably the single most important factor for most divers. Have your dive shop set up multiple tanks so you can check two or three regs at a time. Itís also good to use a tank thatís full as well as a tank thatís low (300-500psi) so you can get a good idea of how the reg breathes under different pressures.
STRANGE NOISES - Donít be thrown if the reg youíre testing makes a weird honking/buzzing/vibrating noise. When you test a reg in air, the diaphragm in the second stage will sometimes vibrate producing the sound. This doesnít happen when youíre underwater.
THE ART OF SIPPING - Some people take a huge breathe of air and pronounce, "This breathes really good." Suck hard enough and you can make a straw seem easy-breathing. The trick is to inhale as GENTLY as possible. The less effort required to start the air flowing, the easier breathing the regulator. (The downside of this is that it may also be more prone to free-flow.) Some stores have a machine (a magnahelic) that measures the actual inhalation and exhalation resistance. And many of the manufacturers have charts that graphically show the same thing. But nothing beats putting the reg in YOUR mouth and feeling how it breathes.
THE FIRST BREATH - Donít count the first inhale or exhale. Regs that have been dry (even for just a day) may "stick" at first. Take a breath or two to loosen the reg up, then see what you think.
FIT AND COMFORT - These two words apply to regulators as much as they would to a mask. How does the reg fit in your mouth? Does the exhaust tee hit you in the chin? How does the mouthpiece feel?
SPEAKING OF THE MOUTHPIECE . . . - Donít buy a specific regulator just because you like the mouthpiece. Donít avoid buying another one because you didnít like the mouthpiece. Although mouthpiece fit and comfort is very important, mouthpieces are interchangeable from brand to brand. And thereís no law that say you canít get an XYZ regulator but have an ABC mouthpiece put on it. (But youíll be charged for the swap.)
BALANCED vs. UNBALANCED - In simple terms, a balanced regulator breathes pretty much the same at all tank pressures. An unbalanced reg will start to breath more stiffly as the tank pressure drops, especially as the tank pressure nears the intermediate pressure of the first stage. A balanced reg will cost a bit more, but will breathe more evenly over the course of a dive. However, if youíre not watching your gauges, you may get very little inhalation warning that youíre about to suck your tank dry. An unbalanced reg should be a little cheaper, but will start to pull harder towards the end of the tank. Some divers like the fact that the reg is, in effect, telling you youíre running low on air.
PISTON vs. DIAPHRAGM - This refers to how the first stage (attached to the tank) reduces tank pressure (upwards of 3000psi) to an intermediate pressure (125-150psi), so the second stage (the part thatís in your mouth) can reduce the air to ambient (surrounding) pressure.
Regs with diaphragms in the first stage should be a bit less expensive but also cannot be as finely tuned, although theyíll perform well. Regs with pistons will cost a bit more but are generally higher-performance because they can be more finely adjusted. However, when it comes time for the annual service, piston regs may run you a bit more, especially if you have to replace the piston itself.
ADJUSTMENT KNOBS - Some regs come with a knob that can adjustment the inhalation (cracking) pressure, and/or a separate lever to adjust the flow of the air once itís started. Youíll pay a little more for these features but theyíll allow you to adjust the reg to meet diving conditions, as well as being able to "tighten down" the reg if it starts a slight free-flow.
PORTS - Check out the number of high-pressure and low-pressure ports on the first stage and make sure thereís enough for your needs. All regs have at least one high-pressure port (for your pressure gauge) and many have two, allowing you to run an extra pressure gauge or air-integrated computer.
Low-pressure ports accommodate regulators, octopuses, BC inflator hoses, drysuit inflator hoses, etc. Be sure there are enough for your particular needs. Itís no sin to have more, but itís no fun not to have enough.
WARRANTY/SERVICE INTERVAL - See what the service requirements are. Some manufacturers cover the parts for the first two years. Some have a "limited lifetime warranty" which stays in effect as long as you meet the service intervals. Regardless of which you have, the consumer usually pays for the labor.
Some regs (Scubapro) come with a plastic card for the warranty. Some (Aqua-Lung) have a logbook to verify service. Others (Sherwood) have plastic rings attached to the hose protectors that are removed for each warranty service. In all cases, itís your responsibility to make sure the reg gets the proper service within the specified time frame.
THE BOTTOM LINE - There are plenty of great regulator choices available in the retail market today and you should easily be able to find three or four models that will suit your needs and your budget. Then itís just a question of determining the other personal questions of fit, comfort, and feel and saying . . . "Thatís the one for me!"