PSI – Pounds per Square Inch: A Fundamental Measure of Gas Pressure in Scuba Diving


PSI, or pounds per square inch, is a vital unit of measurement in the world of scuba diving. It is a standard measure of gas pressure, which is of utmost importance in various aspects of the underwater activity. From monitoring the available air supply to understanding the effects of pressure on gas mixtures and the human body, PSI plays an essential role in ensuring safe and enjoyable scuba diving experiences.

Origin and Definition

The concept of pressure was first introduced by French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal in the 17th century. The unit “pounds per square inch” was later developed in the British Imperial System of Units to represent the force exerted on an area of one square inch. PSI is typically used in the United States and some other countries, while the rest of the world primarily uses the metric unit pascal (Pa), named after Blaise Pascal himself.

In the context of scuba diving, PSI represents the pressure of a gas in a container or underwater. One PSI is equivalent to 6,894.76 pascals, or 0.06895 bar, another widely used unit in diving.

Gas Laws and Scuba Diving

Understanding gas laws is crucial for scuba divers, as it helps them predict and manage the behavior of gases under changing pressures. The following gas laws, which involve PSI, are particularly relevant to diving:

  1. Boyle’s Law: As the pressure on a gas increases, its volume decreases proportionally, and vice versa, provided that the temperature remains constant. This law is crucial for understanding the impact of pressure changes on a diver’s lungs and air spaces, as well as the air consumption rate.
  2. Dalton’s Law: The total pressure exerted by a mixture of gases is equal to the sum of the partial pressures of each individual gas. This law is essential for calculating the partial pressures of oxygen and nitrogen in different gas mixtures, ensuring safe breathing and reducing the risk of oxygen toxicity and nitrogen narcosis.
  3. Henry’s Law: The amount of a gas dissolved in a liquid is directly proportional to the pressure of the gas above the liquid. This law helps divers understand decompression sickness (DCS) and the importance of a controlled ascent to avoid the formation of harmful gas bubbles in the bloodstream and tissues.

Application in Scuba Diving Equipment

PSI plays a critical role in the design and use of scuba diving equipment, including:

  1. Scuba Tanks: Scuba tanks store breathing gas under high pressure, typically ranging from 2,640 to 4,500 PSI, depending on the type and size of the tank. Divers must monitor the tank pressure throughout the dive to avoid running out of air and ensure a safe return to the surface.
  2. Regulators: Scuba regulators are designed to reduce the high-pressure air from the tank to a breathable pressure for the diver, usually close to the ambient pressure underwater. The first stage of the regulator, attached to the tank valve, reduces the pressure to an intermediate level (usually around 140 PSI above ambient pressure). The second stage, which the diver breathes from, further reduces the pressure to match the surrounding water pressure.
  3. Pressure Gauges: Divers rely on pressure gauges to monitor the remaining gas supply in their tanks. Analog gauges display the pressure in PSI, while digital gauges can display the pressure in PSI or metric units. It is crucial for divers to regularly check their pressure gauges and plan their dives according to their air consumption rate and available gas supply.
  4. Buoyancy Control Devices (BCDs): BCDs allow divers to adjust their buoyancy by inflating or deflating the air bladders using low-pressure air from the scuba tank. The pressure inside the BCD must be carefully managed to maintain neutral buoyancy at different depths and to facilitate controlled ascents and descents. The inflator mechanism typically operates at a pressure of 140 to 160 PSI above the ambient pressure to ensure efficient air transfer.
  5. Drysuits: Drysuits provide thermal protection for divers in cold water by creating an insulating layer of air between the suit and the diver’s body. To maintain a comfortable fit and prevent suit squeeze, divers must add or release air from the suit as they descend or ascend, respectively. The suit inflation system connects to the low-pressure inflator hose of the regulator and operates at a similar pressure to that of the BCD inflator.

Safety Considerations

PSI is not only relevant to the function of scuba diving equipment but also has implications for diver safety:

  1. Gas Management: Proper gas management is essential for a safe dive. Divers should plan their dives according to their air consumption rate, considering factors such as depth, dive time, physical exertion, and stress. They should also establish a turn pressure, the point at which they will begin their ascent or return to the surface, leaving a sufficient reserve for safety.
  2. Equalization: As a diver descends, the ambient pressure increases, causing air spaces in the body, such as the ears, sinuses, and mask, to compress. To avoid discomfort and injury, divers must equalize these air spaces by adding air to match the surrounding pressure. Understanding the relationship between depth and pressure is critical for successful equalization.
  3. Decompression: As divers ascend, the ambient pressure decreases, causing dissolved gases in the body to come out of solution and form bubbles. These bubbles can cause decompression sickness (DCS) if they form too quickly or in large quantities. Divers must follow safe ascent rates and, when necessary, perform decompression stops to allow the dissolved gases to be eliminated gradually from the body.


PSI, or pounds per square inch, is a fundamental measure of gas pressure in scuba diving. It plays a crucial role in understanding the behavior of gases under varying pressures, as well as in the design and operation of diving equipment. By comprehending the significance of PSI and its relationship with various gas laws, scuba divers can ensure safer and more enjoyable underwater experiences.