NITROX FOR FREE There has to be a catch, one would think, but there is no catch. The Germans have been getting their nitrox for free for years. So why not us
Not certified to use nitrox Why would you not want to use nitrox, if it cost nothing Why would you not want to do a nitrox-diving course, apart from the initial cost
Is it because you dont want to waste holiday time in a classroom, with all that learning pressure, not to mention the maths How about if you were taught on a need-to-know basis
I taught my wife to use nitrox long before any formal courses were available. Ten years ago, we had to do it in secret. It was still a black art then, but there seemed not much to it. Later, she did a proper nitrox course that involved a lot of technicalities and a lot of calculations. After she was certified, she admitted that all she really needed to know was what I had originally told her. So why is it made so complicated
Already nitrox-certified, but cant get or afford nitrox when you want it If an air-fill is so cheap, why should nitrox be so expensive
Well, we are all familiar with the concept of cheap air fills in our local dive shop. No way can the cost of installing an expensive air compressor be recouped at the prices charged. The shop usually does it as a service to encourage customers to come and buy something while waiting.
Nitrox is different. With labour-intensive partial-pressure blending being the favourite way of making it in the UK, nitrox is sold at a premium. No wonder so few ordinary leisure divers have taken to it. In fact, most divers in the UK see nitrox training only as a step towards further training in full-blown technical diving. There has to be a more efficient and therefore cheaper way.

Remember when you learned to dive
Did you trust that you were being kept as safe as possible When I learned to drive a car, I learned in a vehicle with a bench front seat, no seatbelts or air-bag, and cross-ply tyres and drum brakes. It could do 100mph along any road, yet no dual-carriageway had a centre barrier. No-one told me it was dangerous, but it sounds dangerous today, doesnt it
Why not use nitrox from the day of your first dive People want diving to be as safe as possible, yet the breathing gas of choice for new divers in the UK tends to be air, the least safe gas. Does that make sense Why not learn with nitrox from Day One After all, later on we discover that air is simply nitrox 21, so whats the difference
When I learned to dive, I was surprised to learn that the tanks were filled with compressed air, not oxygen. I would have been just as ambivalent if the instructor had told me it was nitrox.
So why not give all divers nitrox that is made conveniently and cheaply This is the story behind Nitrox For Free.

How it all started
Back in 1999, the German company DrÃger seemed to have a problem getting its semi-closed circuit nitrox rebreathers accepted in the diving-for-fun market. The marketing problem was that all rebreathers were seen as technical diving kit, and once a diver has reached the stage of technical diving, he wants the decompression advantages of a fully closed-circuit rebreather. The DrÃger products, designed for basic leisure diving, were thus being side-stepped.
Enter Dirk Goeldner (Jupp to his friends) and Roland Knebbel.
With the idea of getting the DrÃger SCCR into the recreational sphere, Jupp went to Ellaidhoo in the Maldives, where Axel Horn and Peter Aulinger were already teaching technical diving.
Ellaidhoo was already a rebreather-friendly place. Axel and Peter had participated in DIVERs first tests of the production version of the APD Inspiration closed-circuit rebreather and got hold of some of the first examples.
Jupp wanted ordinary divers to use DrÃger Dolphin and Manta SCCRs, so he created a keep it simple workbook, believing that the technical-diving agency approach provided too much information and was daunting for trainees. He preferred to give the basic information on a subject so that it could be expanded on later, and he called this Level One training.
So the Nitrox and Rebreather Company (NRC) was formed. And because it makes no sense to promote nitrox merely for those who would use a DrÃger rebreather, the company looked for a way to provide NRC Level One nitrox training for all new divers.
This was the start of a radical way of dive training which was to become the norm for thousands of novice divers, and would eventually be adopted by PADI as its standard system in most parts of the world!

Customer appeal
Offering new divers longer bottom times was pointless. Most would run out of gas long before they ran out of no-stop time, so there was no perceived benefit.
In fact, the first question often asked by those offered nitrox training was whether they then got a bigger tank included! So the accent was put on enhanced safety from breathing a nitrox mix while adhering to air no-stop times.
NRC Level One nitrox training was made easy and simple. NRC now stood for Nitrox and Rebreather College.
People needed to know how to handle nitrox safely, and to know its limits. With this course, there would be no mathematics or exams!
Giving new divers, already limited to a maximum depth of 18m, the knowledge that this gas should never be taken below 30m kept things safe, as did using no-stop times for air. People were also shown how to use an analyser that was designed to be as simple as possible.
Jupp and Roland knew that success would come only if all participants - trainee, training association, dive centre and individual instructor - felt that they were benefiting.
At first, instructors resisted getting trained to teach nitrox, and certification numbers stayed very small. So NRC looked for an educational system that appealed to everyone. The Level Two course was added, for divers already certified to use air. This allows NRC-certified divers to take advantage of the longer no-stop times possible with nitrox.
Elitist instructors tend to promote the type of diving they want to do. For example, many want to sell DPV courses, but DPVs are not suitable for beginners.
Roland and Jupp saw nitrox as the missing link between beginners and more advanced diving education, but needed to motivate instructors to teach it. The NRC Instructor Training Course took two days, and was in effect a PADI business course.

Nitrox supplies
Then came the tricky business of obtaining sufficient nitrox supplies for the expected demand. Some founder dive-centre partners in the NRC training scheme, such as Prodivers in the Maldives, already had a membrane system to give them cheap and consistent nitrox. However theseinstallations were very expensive.
NRC looked for a nitrox production technology that was affordable and as easy to operate as one that supplied compressed air.
They found what they needed in a technique for producing inert nitrogen for food-preservation, in which the nitrox was actually a waste gas.
Storing food in inert gas stops oxidation and premature spoiling. The food industry uses a lot of nitrogen in its storage and packaging processes. Nitrogen is also used for the control of fire risks on ships and oil-platforms.
The plant used to produce this nitrogen was what NRC required. All they had to do was keep the oxygen-enriched air waste and discard the excess nitrogen instead.
They had the three elements they needed: the technique to produce nitrox in large quantities, a readily acceptable nitrox educational system and some dive centres with the right philosophy.
NRC Level One training put the accent on diving nitrox on air tables for enhanced safety. It was like selling the idea of the passive safety of a car seatbelt.
Kai Behrend, the General Manager for NRC in Egypt, told me that he thought it was the biggest innovation in diving in the past 10 years.
Getting rid of the problems connected with handling pure oxygen, such as in partial-pressure blending, was an essential factor. NRC looked for a partner to manufacture membranes that produced oxygen-enriched air. It also looked at medical systems such as used in hospitals, but they needed bigger production volumes.
The first viable system they discovered was the sort used by the McLaren F1 team for filling its racing-car tyres with nitrogen. NRC went on to create a system that was sufficiently small but efficient enough to produce the required quantities of nitrox for diving.
NRC now makes a range of systems. The smallest can be very compact, producing nitrox 32 at only 200-300 litres per minute. One like this would suit a small dive centre with a Bauer Mariner or Capitano compressor.
The biggest system delivers nitrox 36 at 1500 litres per minute. Toucan Diving, a big dive centre in Bonaire, now has this system.
The £3000 NRC starting price includes a low-pressure compressor needed to supply the membrane. The mechanics of this includes either a rotary-screw or a rotary-vane principle. These compressors (designed for reliable continuous use in industry) typically produce nitrox through the membrane at 6-13 bar of pressure.
One litre of nitrox 32 needs 1.8 litres of air. A richer blend such as nitrox 40 typically needs 7 to 7.5 litres of air.
This nitrox is then compressed to 230 bars as normal in the ordinary air-compressor that a dive centre would inevitably already have.
NRC found a unique supply of high-quality membranes, although the installation of the membrane in the equipment was found to be critical to performance.
Kai does not recommend anyone taking one apart to have a look inside.
It was also very important to keep oil and oil-condensate away from the membrane, so the NRC system uses a special internal redundant filter system with refrigerator and drier.
The system had to be absolutely reliable, because NRC offers a 10n-year warranty. There are now systems in use as far away as in Yap and Palau, so 24 hour service-calls could become difficult. NRC needs to be able to install a system free of any ongoing problems.

Nitrox from a business point of view
ProDivers in the Maldives bought a system, but at that time sold only around 40 nitrox certifications per year. It desperately needed a way to recoup its investment. How could a dive centre that invested £3000 or more on an installation get its money back
The new trainee-diver is quite prepared to pay to learn to dive. The trick was to build in a supplement to the course fee that would go towards paying for the membrane installation. Previously trained divers would also need to pay a course fee.
The answer was to offer nitrox supplies at no additional charge after nitrox certification. In effect it was: Certify and Get Your Nitrox For Free.
The breathing-gas filling system became as easy to run as a conventional compressed-air system. There was no change in routine or efficiency, or the skill needed to use it.
Combine this nitrox supply with the easiest education system for students (with almost no learning pressures) and the door is open to mass nitrox certifications.
A PADI Open Water Diver course takes four days. The next problem was how to add nitrox into this programme. Nitrox diving as an extra speciality needs extra resources.
Integrating the nitrox element into the conventional PADI course increased the efficiency of every instructor. It also optimised resources of the dive centre.
Avoiding typical classroom teaching methods did away with the need for classrooms. The new course could be conducted anywhere, once integrated with the PADI Open Water Diver course.
Typically the subject is introduced just before the last qualifying dive. But how did PADI feel about that
Initially, PADI didnt like it one little bit, and tried to threaten removal of the Instructor Development Course (IDC) status of some NRC-participating dive centres.
However, the commercial success of the NRC course and Nitrox For Free became unstoppable. For example, Kai tells me that in the first year of NRC, Pro Divers on Kuredu in the Maldives went from around 40 to more than 1000 nitrox certifications.
Hans Langer, formerly General Manager of Eurodivers at Velidhoo in the Maldives and now in Hurghada in Egypt, sees nitrox as a growing market.
He told me that it brought him in so much more business that he didnt even need to add a supplement to diving courses to pay for the NRC membrane installation.
He said thathe was teaching new divers to ask for nitrox, and that in future dive centres that did not offer Nitrox For Free would lose business.
The NRC philosophy has caused an avalanche of demand in our customer base, he told me. Dive centres can hide the supplement within their pricing if they wish, though we have no need to do this.
The sales pitch for nitrox now is so convincing that its easy to sell. There is a 300-400% increase in nitrox certifications in our dive centres in both the Maldives and Egypt.
In the Maldives, Hans told me, he had experimented by allowing divers to try nitrox while diving with two loaned computers, one set to nitrox, one to air. It demonstrated the safety margin of nitrox. The result was that nearly everyone left the island with a nitrox certification.
Typically divers might say: I dont want to do a course. Im on holiday!, but after a couple of hours of reading the book while sunbathing, they realised how easy it was. Even crusty old divers with thousands of air dives reluctantly sign up to a course when they see everyone around them taking up nitrox.
Its a most convincing argument, Hans continued. We are selling something good, and that makes it a pleasure.
Nitrox diving is no longer a speciality - its basic diving, added Kai Behrend. If you show someone how to use a compass, its difficult to persuade them to pay for a navigation course afterwards. However, it is easy to reveal all the secrets of nitrox to potential customers.
Without the certification, the knowledge is useless. The NRC certification is a VIP pass to Nitrox For Free. The course fee is like an entrance fee. Divers need to do the course before they can use the gas.
The facts about nitrox are often disseminated free of charge in the form of Nitrox Information evenings, with simple informal discussion groups.
The NRC success put pressure on PADI Europe, because its dive centres wanted to use the course and were prepared to give up IDC status to teach it. Nitrox For Free has become almost a standard expectation among Germans diving abroad.
EuroDivers, a key customer of PADI Europe, taught stand-alone NRC courses until PADI decided to buy out NRC and include Level One training in its Open Water Diver course.
The result had been happy customers, good business and more diving safety. It was the payback from Nitrox For Free. PADI International in Britain has now done the same, as has PADI in the USA.
In January 2004, PADI combined the NRC course with the PADI Open Water Diver course worldwide, said Kai. Instructors then had a choice to teach this new OW course or the old one, but in the UK few PADI instructors take up the nitrox option, because they dont yet have the facility to fill nitrox easily and efficiently.
In effect it has given us two distinct groups of divers here in Egypt and in the Maldives: the Europeans who all want Nitrox for Free, and the Brits who seem not to be aware of the possibility because they got sold the older PADI course.
This was not strictly true. A quick check with Theresa Hubble, dive centre manager at nearby Emperor Divers in Hurghada, revealed that it had been offering the new PADI Open Water Diver course with the nitrox element attached since June 2004.
But most of our new divers prefer to do nitrox as a part of the PADI Advanced Diver course, she told me. They see our instructors using it and ask questions, but theyre already on their way to asking for the Advanced course by that point.
It is a cheap and efficient way to sell nitrox use, Kai continued. Two dive centres alone in Bonaire now do in excess of 10,000 certifications every year. Of course, there will be many PADI-based dive-centres in the USA fighting to stop it because of business considerations, such as selling the old stock of previous course materials, but they are simply losing this training business to dive centres elsewhere.
At the time of writing, I am told that all the NRC training manuals have been bought up by PADI, and we await a new PADI OWD training manual incorporating Level One nitrox.
Will we too get Nitrox For Free in the UK Or will British diving schools decide not to invest in the NRC membrane technology and lose nitrox training to dive centres at foreign holiday destinations
Nitrox For Free is a compelling selling proposition. and I have a feeling that British divers will want to enjoy its benefits sooner rather than later.

Confined-water training is unchanged.
Kai Behrend with NRC Draeger semi-closed rebreathers - they are what inspired NRCs nitrox
The NRC membrane unit with filters
No extra classroom time is required for nitrox.
The NRC analyser is very simple to use
Nitrox is introduced immediately before the fourth dive of the course.
PADI training materials are likely to be simplified for Level 1 nitrox The NRC work book and dive-planner
Pay for the course and its Nitrox For Free.
What is nitrox (Level One)Air is made up mainly of two gases - 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen. We metabolise some oxygen in the air we breathe but the greater part, the nitrogen, is inert. When we put ourselves under pressure, as we do when we go under water, our bodies absorb some of this inert nitrogen. As we go deeper and stay longer, we absorb more. The time that we spend under water is limited by the amount of nitrogen that we absorb. That is why we use tables or a diving-computer. So why not breathe a gas that has less inert nitrogen, and so reduce the problemwidth=225 If youve been breathing air, youve already been breathing nitrox - nitrox 21. Other nitrox mixes have the percentage of oxygen increased and therefore the percentage of nitrogen is decreased. Nitrox 32 has 32% oxygen and nitrox 36 has 36% oxygen.Breathing a richer nitrox mix instead of plain old air reduces the chance of decompression illness due to a diver staying down too long or coming up too quickly - as long as no-stop times and ascent-rates for air are adhered to.However, oxygen also has its problems. Pure oxygen becomes poisonous at quite low pressures. It is currently thought unsafe to breathe pure oxygen at a greater pressure than 1.6 bar under water, and that occurs at only 6m deep. So each specific nitrox mix has its own maximum operating depth, and nitrox training agencies are unanimous in limiting the use of oxygen to 1.4 bar of partial pressure within a mix with nitrogen. What you need to know is that the oxygen in air (nitrox 21) can become hazardous at 56m deep. That does not affect leisure divers, limited to an absolute maximum depth of 40m. Nitrox 32 should not be breathed deeper than 32m. The NRC philosophy tells new divers that this limit is 30m. Most popular sites for diving in the world now adhere to a 30m limit for leisure diving anyway. PADI Open Water Divers with Level One training are still limited to a maximum depth of 18m during training as before, but PADI Advanced Open Water divers can use nitrox 32 to its full MOD. No additional diving equipment is needed, only the knowledge of how to analyse the contents of a tank before diving, using the analyser supplied by the dive centre. No additional charge for diving is made over dives using ordinary compressed air. We can foresee the day when all new divers will start off breathing nitrox, and air for diving will be for specialised uses only.

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