Buoyancy Control Devices (BCD) have changed dramatically in my short professional career. The first one I owned was a beautiful orange ScubaPro that you can see on “Red,” our red-faced, full-sized mannequin at the dive shop. A few ideas have revolutionized BCDs, while other ideas serve mostly as window dressing.
Before I talk brands, let’s discuss some features. When I look to buy by a BCD, I want easy-to-use dump valves, integrated weighting system, pockets for trim weights, durability and a cool look. Why? Well, dump valves (usually available at the shoulder and the hip) allow you to adjust air volume comfortably while swimming horizontally. The downsides are that the strings are often broken after a year or so and the valves themselves unscrew with time and fall off if left unattended.
AquaLung has developed a revolutionary air dump system called the i3. It releases air from a variety of dump valve each time the dump lever is engaged. Personally, I think this is a great idea allowing for air dumping without thought to body position. My concern is that the system is designed utilizing a bunch of wires that I fear will break or corrode over time. Considering the salt water environment, I’m not sure how long these BCDs will last. Therefore, I want to wait several years for reviews that talk about this concern before I invest.
I find integrated weight systems to be the best thing since sliced bread. No more weight belts sliding down my ever expanding waist and hips. On trips, the shops will usually hold your weight pockets overnight so you only build your weight system once. One important note – you want a good attachment system. The TUSA brand system is difficult to attach and detach while most of our rental Ocenaic BCDs have lost their weights pockets as they slipped off in the water over time. So when you select a BCD with intergrated weights – read the reviews and come try it out in person first.
Trim weight pockets are a good way to add disposable weight or change body positioning for specific dives. Commonly, they are found on the back of the BCD or attached to the tank strap. Add weight to a trim pocket and you can improve your natural positioning in the water, streamline your swimming and reduce your air consumption. These devices can be useful when using back inflated BCDs at the surface (see below).
When you start exploring BCD purchases, you have a major decision right from the start: a fully inflatable, wrap around bladder system vest or a back inflated system commonly called wings. The advantage of the wing system is when you add air, it pushes you towards the horizontal. If you struggle with swimming and often find yourself more diagonal than flat, wings can help straighten you out. The down side is that they do the same thing at the surface when fully inflated. You will feel the push to put your face in the water – not something usually desired before and after the dive.
A wrap around bladder is the most common vest and what you probably used during your training. Air pockets exist in the shoulder and throughout the back and sides of the BCD. The air shifts around based on your body position and doesn’t not ‘push’ you into any particular position. This system is very good when unusual body attitudes like upside down and upright will be used. Also, at the surface and fully inflated, the vest will keep you vertical. The downside is that you can only release air from a release point that is closest to the surface – either through you low pressure hose or dump valves.
Another important consideration is overall weight. The more features on a BCD, the heavier the vest and in modern travel, weight considerations are important. You can find travel vests with minimal material under 4 pounds, and it usually includes a wing system. Or you can go full feature – dump valve, integrated weights, D rings all over the place, etc. and expect to dedicate up to 15 pounds to weight.
Brand is important here. Some brands, like TUSA, tend to hold water in the material longer and result in a much heavy vest. ScubaPro is releasing a new, revolutionary travel BCD that utilizes a lot of rubber in place of canvas in order to eliminate absorption. Finally, when you consider brands, do some homework. Keep in mind many larger companies pay for reviews and those reviews reflect that extra cost.
I have used many different brands over my career. I like Sea Soft for durability and versatility – but too heavy and not well fitting for most people. I used to really like TUSA, but our rental fleet has shown me that these are the first BCDs to break down, and they really retain water, becoming quite heavy. Aqualung has a great reputation in the community and I have always found them to be good equipment – I would simply steer away from the i3 for now. Oceanic makes a good line of BCDs but their support is lacking and their features are limited. Many of the other brands – SEAC, Zeagle, Cressi, Shorewood are not as common and therefore difficult to service, especially while on vacation.
If I’m buying or bringing my own BCD on travel, I want something I know I can get a part easily anywhere in the world. ScubaPro, the brand we feature, is the most common and popular scuba manufacturer in the world, probably due to their regulators. I like their BCDs, and many people do as well, but nobody makes a better regulator than ScubaPro. Since that is the most important piece of equipment, ScubaPro sells them all over the world. Therefore, those same shops that service ScubaPro regulators tend to carry and service their BCDs. Unlike Oceanic, which makes a great computer but is blase in the other areas, ScubaPro produces quality BCDs. So, if you are going to buy their reg, now or in the future, you cannot go wrong selecting from their BCD line.
If you watch our staff, you will see quite a selection. We try to stay away from winged BCDs when teaching so you won’t see many of those devices. You should chat with the crew at the pool and the quarry and ask about their equipment choice, their reasoning and their level of happiness.
I have owned ScubaPro, Oceanic, TUSA, Shorewood, Cressi, XS, Scubamax and SeaSoft. I like the rugged SeaSoft for teaching – as it is very adaptable, has plenty of amenities and lots of D rings for my stuff. But it holds a lot of water, is very heavy and a bit finicky. My most recent purchase was the ScubaPro Glide X. A wrap around, full vest utility BCD, it has served me well. It is a bit heavy but loaded with features including dump valves, integrated weights, trim pockets, etc. And I love this vest. But I also grow tired of dragging it around on our trips. I have the luxury of easy access to gear so now I’m planning to buy a travel BCD. You will see my Glide at the pool and in the quarry, but not on our trips.
Personally, I’m waiting for the new ScubaPro travel BCD that we recently learned about at the industry conference. They have not announced it to the public and I don’t have any pictures to offer. We are told to expect them by Spring – so if you join us in Cozumel in May – you will see mine as I will have one of the first ones. (Which says something as I usually avoid first generation anything.) I don’t want to get in trouble, so I won’t talk about the new features developed and employed in the BCD. Leave it that I was very impressed with the model I saw in November. I hope this helps with your holiday shopping.
Please visit Sera in the store and come see us in the pool. We are offering photography classes and I will do drysuit training too. Our Nitrox system now works – we just need to obtain the storage tanks. So, come learn Nitrox – you can learn in the pool!
Stay warm and happy holidays. Capt. Bob