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How long can you breathe with a scuba tank?

The duration that a scuba diver can breathe underwater with a scuba tank depends on several factors, including the size of the tank, the depth of the dive, the diver’s breathing rate, and water conditions. With careful air consumption, an average diver can expect 30-60 minutes of bottom time from an aluminum 80 cubic foot tank filled to 3000 psi. Larger tank sizes, steel tanks, enriched air mixes, and improved buoyancy control can all contribute to extending bottom time. Proper dive planning, training, and equipment care are key to optimizing air usage.

Tank Size

The most basic factor determining dive duration is the volume of the scuba cylinder. Tanks are measured in cubic feet or liters. Standard sizes in the United States include:

  • 40 cubic feet (about 11 liters)
  • 50 cubic feet (about 14 liters)
  • 63 cubic feet (about 18 liters)
  • 80 cubic feet (about 22 liters)
  • 100 cubic feet (about 28 liters)
  • 120 cubic feet (about 34 liters)

Larger tank sizes provide more breathing gas. However, they are also heavier and more difficult to maneuver. Many divers opt for the versatility of an 80 cubic foot aluminum tank as their standard cylinder size.

Tank Pressure

Scuba tanks are filled with compressed air or other breathing gases to a designated working pressure. Standard pressures include:

2000 138
2400 165
3000 207
3200 221
3600 248

Higher fill pressures store more air in a given tank volume. However, they also increase the risk of catastrophic cylinder failure if the tank is damaged. 3000 psi is a standard fill pressure for recreational scuba diving.

Cylinder Material

Scuba tanks are most commonly made from aluminum or steel. Steel cylinders are stronger and can be filled to higher pressures. However, they are also heavier than aluminum. Typical capacities for common cylinder materials include:

Tank Material Typical Capacity
Aluminum 80 cubic feet
Steel 95-120 cubic feet

The thickness of the tank walls also affects capacity. Thicker walls increase strength but decrease internal volume. High-performance steel tanks have thinner walls to maximize breathing gas capacity within safe pressure limits.

Breathing Rates

The rate at which a diver breathes underwater directly impacts air consumption. Work rate, fitness level, breathing apparatus, and experience all affect breathing rate. Studies have found the following average breathing rates during recreational dives:

  • Normal recreational diving: 20 liters/minute
  • Strenuous recreational diving: 40 liters/minute
  • Panicked diver: 80 liters/minute

A physically fit diver performing an easy dive may breathe 10-15 liters/minute. Heavy exertion, stress, or faulty gear can cause a diver to consume air at 50 liters/minute or more. Proper training and conditioning is key to minimizing air consumption through an efficient breathing rate.

Depth Effects

As a diver descends in the water, the increasing pressure compresses the gas in the tank and breathing apparatus. While the tank contains the same number of gas molecules at depth as it does on the surface, the gas occupies less volume as it is compressed. The relative consumption rates at various depths are:

Depth Consumption Rate
0-30 feet 1x
30-60 feet 2x
60-90 feet 3x
90-120 feet 4x
120-150 feet 5x

Due to gas compression at depth, air consumption is significantly higher on deep dives compared to shallow ones, reducing bottom time. Breathing Enriched Air Nitrox instead of air can help compensate for the depth effect on air supply duration.

Water Temperature

Colder water temperatures increase air consumption as the body works harder to maintain heat. In extreme environments under 50°F (10°C), a diver may breathe up to 50% faster than in comfortable conditions. Drysuit inflation also requires more air in cold water. Warm water diving allows for extended bottom times due to lower breathing rates.

Breathing Apparatus

Different scuba regulator designs have varying air delivery characteristics that impact consumption rate. Environmentally sealed regulators tend to provide air more easily with lower effort, conserving gas compared to standard piston-based regulators. Some advanced regulators include dive-by-dive air integration that track remaining gas levels in real time.

Enriched Air

Nitrox is a popular gas blend for recreational diving, mixing oxygen and nitrogen in greater proportions than standard air. With a higher oxygen content, less nitrogen is breathed per breath, extending bottom times. However, maximum operating depth limits must be observed to avoid oxygen toxicity.

Common recreational nitrox mixes include:

  • 32% O2 – Allows for longer dives in the 60-80 foot range
  • 36% O2 – Best suited for dives of 50-70 feet
  • 40% O2 – Used primarily for shallow diving of 40 feet or less

Technical divers also use more specialized oxygen-rich mixes like heliox and trimix to increase bottom time at extreme depths.

Proper Buoyancy Control

Maintaining neutral buoyancy during a dive prevents unnecessary motion and minimizes exertion, which directly reduces air consumption. Proper weighting, an inflatable buoyancy control device, and good diving technique all help keep a diver neutrally buoyant underwater.

Currents and Wave Action

Diving in conditions with strong currents or surge requires exertion by the diver to stay in place and maintain position. This exertion leads to an increased breathing rate and air consumption. Choosing dive sites with mild conditions conserves air supply.


While tank size provides a basic limit on available bottom time, many complex factors ultimately determine how long a diver can breathe underwater. Careful dive planning, training, gas management, and equipment selection are key to optimizing air consumption. With air integrated dive computers and nitrox blending widely available even for recreational diving, it is quite feasible for an skilled diver to get 50-75 minutes of bottom time from a single aluminum 80 cubic foot tank filled to 3000 psi under ideal conditions.