There are many factors that need to be considered when choosing decompression gasses for a dive. The dive profile, logistics, environment/site conditions, and personal preference all come into play; how do these factors affect our decision? First, we need to take a brief look at why we use different gasses for decompression to begin with, and then how the factors previously listed affect our gas choices. For big dives with extensive decompression obligations, it’s often a balancing act between oxygen exposure and off gassing.
Why switch gas anyway? This takes a brief lesson in decompression theory to explain; we’ll focus mainly on the off gassing portion of the dive. The rate of off gassing is related to the partial pressure within the tissues of the body and the partial pressure of the gas being breathed. When the partial pressure of the inert gas (mainly nitrogen and helium) in the lungs (the gas we are breathing) is LOWER than the partial pressure of the inert gas absorbed in our tissues, the gas will move from the area of high pressure (our tissues) to the area of low pressure (our lungs) and be expelled when we exhale.
There are two ways we can reduce the partial pressure of the inert gas in our lungs. First, is by ascending and letting Boyle’s law take over. As the gas expands as we ascend due to reduced ambient pressure, the partial pressure of the gas drops. This works but is not the most effective method. If we ascend too far or too fast and the ambient pressure decreases too rapidly, bubbles can form causing decompression sickness. The second method of reducing the partial pressure of the inert gas in our lungs is to reduce the fraction of the inert gas in our breathing mixture. In order to reduce the fraction of inert gas in the mix, we increase the fraction of oxygen. By switching to an oxygen rich gas on the ascent, we reduce the partial pressure of the inert gas in our lungs and increase the rate and efficiency of off gassing. So, more oxygen=less inert gas=faster/more efficient deco. Got it?
Okay, so if a higher fraction of oxygen is better for decompression, why don’t we just use 100% oxygen for the entire ascent? It would sure reduce our decompression times by a significant amount, wouldn’t it? Well, unfortunately we have to be cautious of the pesky oxygen free radicals caused by breathing high partial pressures of oxygen. If these oxygen free radicals are left to cause damage faster than the body can repair it, oxygen toxicity can become a serious concern. In short, the higher the oxygen content in the breathing gas, the shallower it must be breathed. As an example; for sport and technical diving applications, the maximum operating depth of oxygen is 6 metres/20 feet; and the maximum operating depth of 50% nitrox is 21 metres/70 feet. Here’s where we begin our balancing act.
We now need to consider the other factors that will affect our gas choice. First of all is logistics. What gasses are actually available? Many technical dive facilities have their decompression gasses pre-mixed, so you may be limited to what they have available or are willing to blend (gas blending can be a time consuming process). Also, there are many places in the world where 100% oxygen is not available, or can only be filled to roughly 150 bar/ 2000psi, depending on the fill station’s equipment. Once you know what your options are, you need to look a bit closer at the environment you’ll be diving in and how you will conduct your last decompression stop.
Many divers will vary the depth they plan to conduct their final decompression stop based on the environment they will be diving in. In a perfect world, we would always conduct our last stop at 3 metres/10 feet. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. Rough seas and overhead environments may make it difficult or impossible to conduct your last stop at 10 ft, so it may need to be conducted a bit deeper at 6 metres/20 feet. Conducting this last stop on 100% oxygen could now be problematic as you will be exposed to a much higher partial pressure of oxygen for the duration of the final decompression stop. Add rough seas to this in open water, and it could be very difficult to remain at a safe depth on oxygen. This is an instance where reducing the oxygen content may be wise. While a lower fraction of oxygen will not be quite as effective as a decompression gas on this final stop, it can significantly reduce the diver’s oxygen exposure. If you are making multiple gas switches in order to maximize the partial pressure gradient for the entire ascent, you will also need to look at the environment to decide what gasses to carry. A good example of this would be a cave dive. If you were planning your dive to switch to 50% at 21 metres/70 feet, but you know that there is a restriction in the cave at 21 metres/70 feet making it difficult to conduct a proper gas switch, you have a few options. First, would be carry the same gas, but decide to switch to it at a shallower depth where there is not a restriction. This would work fine, but would not be as effective for your decompression. You could also choose to bring a different decompression gas. A leaner nitrox mix could be switched to a bit deeper, but would not be as effective for the shallower stops. A richer nitrox mix would be more effective in the shallower stops, but you would not be getting the advantages of a decompression gas until later in the decompression schedule. Using desktop/mobile decompression software makes running these alternative options quick and easy so you can see immediately how your choice will affect your decompression plan.
After looking at all of the scenarios above, sometimes it just comes down to personal/team preference. Many divers and dive teams choose to use a standardized set of decompression gasses. This policy helps keep things simple and consistent. If a diver always carries 50% and oxygen for decompression, then they are always making gas switches at 21 metres/ 70 feet and 6 metres/20 feet. This standardized method streamlines the dive planning considerably, is consistent, and works well for many applications.