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Hookah diving is an underwater diving activity done using a “hookah” system (consisting of a surface-level compressor, hose, and accessories) to supply the diver with air. Unlike scuba equipment that is worn by the diver on their back; a hookah supplies air from the surface of the water through a floating air hose. This design makes a hookah system very suitable for diving within a limited area.
Hookah diving is done for recreational purposes, to conduct underwater research, clear prop lines or inspect boat hulls. Some hookah diving enthusiasts manage submersion to depths beyond 70 feet.
How Does a Dive Hookah Work?
A hookah uses a small air compressor located above the water to transmit air to the diver through the floating air hose. It is most commonly powered by a small electric motor or a portable gasoline engine. A hookah offers an air supply limited only by available fuel or charge for the compressor, so this enables the diver to stay submerged for as long as they wish.
This is a great advantage over scuba equipment that requires divers to resurface every hour or so to refill their tanks. However, it is recommended that hookah divers always have a partner working on the water surface as a safety backup. If your engine’s gas is running low, your partner can refill it.
A hookah system can be either floating or fixed. A floating system, mounted on a buoy or raft, may have a floating air reserve tank that divers pull with them. A fixed system may be mounted on a boat or tethered to a dock.
The Main Parts of a Hookah System
Different equipment providers offer various tools and accessories on their hookah systems to keep their brands unique. It is essential to know how your hookah diving equipment works. Below is a breakdown of the major parts of a hookah system:
The Air Compressor
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Often, hookah compressors are constructed from an alloy of aluminum. This makes them lightweight, and it safeguards them from rust. They are usually small in size and simple in their design. This is a crucial part of the hookah air system because it provides your supply. The compressor displaces air using a rubber diaphragm or a set of pistons. An air compressor that uses pistons can deliver more air than one using a diaphragm design.
Moving parts inside a hookah compressor are lubricated with Teflon. This lubrication is designed to last for the entire lifespan of the unit, and it is important to know that any additional lubrication is more likely to cause damage rather than improving performance or durability.
Hookah compressors last longer if run primarily at low pressures. In addition to shortening the life of the compressor, higher operating pressures lower the air output. Higher-capacity models give a maximum pressure of about 125 pounds/square inch (125 psi). Such high pressure is only required when the system is being shared by many divers or if the diver wants to be submerged to a great depth. At a depth lower than 33 feet, the diver will not need more than 40 pounds/square inch.
Hookah compressors come with a factory-preset pressure relief valve. This valve prevents excessive pressure buildup in the compressor head and is set to “pop off” the excess pressure, depending on the diver’s breathing rate and the extent of underwater physical exertion.
The Air Hose
The air hose used in a hookah system is made from special vinyl plastic. This material is resistant to sunlight, heat, kinking, and acute folding that could shut off your airflow. It also doesn’t “flavor” the air as it passes through. Often, it is brightly colored to enhance its visibility, an especially useful feature when diving in darker areas.
The Air Reserve Tank
This third part of the hookah air system is connected to the compressor by the air hose. This piece of equipment has four important functions:
- Maintaining a constant volume of air supply to the diver at all times
- Cooling the hot air coming directly from the compressor, which can reach 190 degrees
- Suppressing surges from the compressor that could result from a change in the engine running speed, thus keeping airflow steady
- Reserving pressurized air in case the compressor itself or its engine fails
Obviously, this last function is quite important. The air reserve usually lasts only a few minutes, but that is often enough time for the diver to wrap up activity and resurface.
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This is an oral respiration device worn over the diver’s mouth. It regulates the amount of air received by the diver with each inhalation. In hookah diving, the diver’s nose is always covered by the face mask, so all breathing occurs through the mouth. If you own a Scuba regulator, you can take it to a dive shop or repair station to be modified for use with a hookah. This is because a hookah regulator is entirely different in functionality, even though its exterior design may be very similar.
In all hookah diving, the regulator must be used in conjunction with a chest harness. The harness has three crucial functions:
- Keeping the air hose out of the diver’s way while underwater to prevent potential entanglements
- Absorbing the shock that results after a diver abruptly reaches the end of the air hose length, and in turn stopping the regulator from suddenly pulling away from the diver’s mouth
- Allowing air travel only in one direction, through its use of a check valve on the backplate
With its check valve and other design features, your harness prevents a vacuum from forming if the air hose bursts, is severed somehow, or leaks. It will also protect the diver from breathing in a large amount of water that could endanger his or her life.
Is Hookah Diving Safe?
First, if you are new to hookah diving, you can always take a course and learn basic skills at a diving resort. An instructor will give you in-depth safety lessons and inform you about what to expect while under water. In most locations, regulations require the instructor to be licensed. On your initial hookah dives, you will often be tethered together with a more experienced partner to reduce any risk of your getting lost or diving too deep.
Second, given that all the divers’ air hoses are tethered to the same air compressor, it is very unlikely for one diver to get out of sight and disappear. In this respect, tethering makes hookah diving much safer than traditional scuba diving.
Hookah Diving 101
- If you would like to inhale perfectly clean air, consider installing a particle filter that does not allow anything larger than 40 microns to pass through. These filters are typically fitted near the discharge port of the air reserve tank.
- Use stainless steel or brass metal fittings with your hookah system at all times. Ferrous metal will rust or corrode when used in water or in a high moisture environment. In salty water, such corrosion is bound to happen even faster.
- When using a gasoline engine to power your compressor, keep the exhaust downwind from the compressor. This prevents carbon monoxide from entering the compressor’s air inlet. A snorkel extension can also be fitted at the compressor’s air inlet to ensure that air is sucked in as far away as possible from the engine exhaust.
- Avoid using a gasoline-powered compressor in narrow grottos or confined areas. This is because, after your engine runs for some time, the carbon monoxide released may linger in the air and end up in the air compressor. Carbon monoxide causes headaches, dizziness, and, as you probably know, can even cause death if inhaled in high quantities.
- To avoid a potential fire while using a gasoline-powered engine, always shut off the engine first and allow it to cool before refueling. Accidentally spilling gasoline over an extremely hot small engine can lead to an explosion.
- Due to the above risks associated with a gasoline-powered engine, we recommend that you use an electric motor if you can afford it. An electric motor is quiet, easy to start, requires little maintenance, and environmentally friendly.
- Buy your hookah equipment from a reputable manufacturer. Some people who possess a little knowledge of hookah and scuba diving systems may unknowingly assemble and sell equipment that is unsafe. A low-quality air hose or another defect in your system can increase risks of leakage, carbon monoxide contamination, and tangling while underwater.
- Don’t dive alone. The importance of having a partner on the water surface to monitor and check your air supply cannot be overstated. If an unexpected mishap occurs, your partner will be there to help you resurface back to safety.
- After you are done hookah diving, remember to rinse off the exterior and interior of your hookah equipment with fresh water. This will prevent corrosion of any aluminum parts and increase the lifespan of your equipment.
Hookah diving can be an exhilarating activity if done with ample caution. Always keep your equipment in good condition. Start with a solid, certified system and have some spare parts on hand because this will avoid unnecessary disruptions of your dives. Reading through some materials that elaborate more on underwater safety is also highly recommended for anyone considering hookah diving.