The AirBuddy was great fun… while it worked. Unfortunately, mine died after about half a dozen dives or so.
On my last dive, I prepared just as any other time. This included securely and fully inserting the dive flag/snorkel into the unit. The main body of the unit has an air intake port, into which fits an item that serves double-duty as a diver-in-the-water flag, and a snorkel which raises the air intake to well above the surface of the water. My solo dive proceeded like any other. However, upon surfacing, I immediately noticed that the flag/snorkel was missing.
The AirBuddy manual gives ample clear warning about ensuring that water does not get into the air intake port. Knowing this, I did not immediately see cause for concern, as there didn’t appear to be much water on the unit. Even without the snorkel the air intake port rides several inches above the surface of the water, and there was only a gentle swell present during the dive.
Because I’m on a boat, I’m in the habit of resting the AirBuddy unit on its side when charging the battery. This is because with the battery installed in the unit, it’s quite top heavy, and is prone to tipping over in any swell or other boat motion. To my surprise, when I put the unit on its side this time, a very significant amount of water poured out. It was salty. I set about to clean and dry the unit, which began with removing the battery. Upon removing the battery, even more water poured out of the battery itself, streaming out the charging connector port on the side. This was quite alarming.
Sea water is highly corrosive to many metals. In the interest of expediently minimizing damage, I did what I thought would be best. For the battery, I opened it, dried it off, and cleaned what I could with fresh water. For the unit, I added fresh water to the air intake port, in the hope of rinsing out and/or diluting some of the corrosive sea water that had entered.
I contacted AirBuddy support as soon after this as I was able. They were very responsive and helpful. The person who replied was clearly well-versed in the technical details of the unit. It was very much appreciated to get straightforward, no-nonsense, knowledgeable answers to my questions. Support indicated it was a no-no to put freshwater into the air intake port. I suspected as much, but I’m still guessing leaving the salt water in there would have been even worse.
Support also said that no other customers had experienced the flag coming out unexpectedly while diving.
Later, the flag was recovered. It was in excellent condition, with nothing to suggest how it might have gotten out of the unit.
In any case, the battery was now completely dead. It would neither charge nor power the unit. The battery cells themselves were a bit rusty at this point, but functional. It was the BMS circuit board inside the battery that was dead. It had some rust and salt on it. Then, a few days later, the compressor ultimately succumbed, and seized.
Let me be clear: the total amount of time these components were exposed to salt water was less than one hour.
As of this writing, in the AirBuddy spare parts shop a replacement battery is US$305 and a replacement compressor is US$170, exclusive of shipping. This is enough of an expense that I plan to evaluate alternative surface-based diving apparatus before ordering replacement parts.
Sadly, I am hesitant to recommend the AirBuddy. It is a fantastic unit and loads of fun, works well and has good safety features, but the air intake port is such a major point of vulnerability, all it took was a single mishap to brick the thing and need $475+ of repairs. And I don’t even know how it happened, or how frequently I can expect it to happen.
If you have an AirBuddy, or decide to purchase one, I’d strongly suggest the following:
- When diving, make sure someone is on the surface watching the unit.
- Make sure to have torx-style screwdrivers on hand, sizes T15 and T30. I don’t know why AirBuddy feels it necessary to use these specialized screws when a Phillips would more than suffice. I did not have a T30 and couldn’t remove the compressor when I needed to. (Seriously, who has these on hand? Just what I need, another set of specialized tools to take up space on my boat.)
- If you’re diving in remote locations, bring a spare battery; consider bringing a spare flag and spare compressor as well. Possibly other spares too, which are available in the shop.
- If sea water gets in the air intake port, do not add fresh water to try to deal with it.
- Review the videos on the AirBuddy YouTube channel ahead of time so you know what to expect from potential repairs needed, in particular the video titled “How to remove compressor and clean the pressure relief valve.”
Finally, regardless of which surface-supplied breathing apparatus you choose, be sure to read Fatalities involving divers using surface-supplied breathing apparatus in Australia, 1965 to 2019 by John Lippmann. And take the free BLU3 Online Dive Training Course.
Do you have or have you dived with an AirBuddy System? Share your experience below!