The helium escape valve: how it works and why you would need it
How many times you have seen a little valve on a diver watch?
Usually it's present on the "left" side of the case, far away from all the chronograph buttons.
Some people love it, some people actually use it, some others call it the "useless valve". But let's see in detail what is and why we would nee an helium release valve.
What is it and why do we need it?
Developed and patented by Rolex in 1967, this ingenious safety valve allows excess pressure built up in the watch case to escape during a diver's decompression phase in a hyperbaric chamber, without compromising the waterproofness of the watch.
So this gas valve on Rolex dive watches is designed for saturation divers who spend prolonged periods of time in deep-sea diving operations.
During the 1960s when saturation diving was growing, diving bells and underwater habitats were becoming increasingly common for saturation divers who spent days and sometimes weeks in the depths of the sea working on things like oil pipelines.
During these deep-sea diving operations, the divers breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen to avoid the effects of nitrogen narcosis, which is a condition that can impair judgment and lead to disorientation at deep depths.
As the helium molecules are extremely small, they can penetrate the watch's seals and build up inside the watch during a prolonged dive. The helium valve allows the trapped helium to escape safely during decompression, preventing damage to the watch.
While the helium valve is not a necessary feature for recreational divers, as the amount of helium that can enter the watch case during a recreational dive is typically not significant enough to cause damage.
Instead it is a useful feature for professional saturation divers who spend long periods at great depths. Rolex is known for producing high-quality and durable dive watches, and the helium valve is just one of the many features that make their watches suitable for professional use.
How does an helium valve work?
The helium valve on a Rolex dive watch is a one-way valve that allows the helium to escape from the watch case during decompression.
Here's how it works:
- When the watch is worn during a saturation dive, the helium atoms can penetrate the watch case and build up inside the watch due to the difference in pressure between the outside environment and the inside of the watch.
- During decompression, as the pressure inside the hyperbaric chamber decreases, the pressure inside the watch remains high, causing the helium to expand and potentially damage the watch if it cannot escape.
- The helium valve is designed to allow the trapped helium to escape from the watch case without compromising its water-resistance. It works by using a spring-loaded one-way valve that opens when the pressure inside the watch is higher than the pressure outside.
- When the watch is taken to the surface, the diver or technician can open the helium valve manually to allow the helium to escape safely. This prevents the watch crystal from being damaged due to the pressure difference between the inside and outside of the watch.
However, Rolex watches have an automatic valve.
How to use an helium escape valve:
Automatic helium release valves usually don't need any manual operation, but some are backed up by a screw-down crown in the side of the watch, which is unscrewed at the start of decompression to allow the valve to operate.
Rolex watches have an automated valve: when the watch reaches the designated pressure differential, the valve releases the gases that have become trapped during prolonged underwater exposure.
Is it hard to replace an helium valve?
When you are planning to buy a watch with an helium valve, this is the first concern that comes to bother your thoughts.
Replacing an helium escape valve on a Rolex dive watch can be a delicate process and should only be performed by a trusted watchmaker or authorized service center. It must be correctly installed and calibrated to ensure the watch's water-resistance and helium release functions are working properly.
Replacing the valve requires the watch to be opened, and the old valve carefully removed. The new valve is then installed, and its pressure release function is tested to ensure it is working correctly.
It is important to note that the helium valve is not a component that typically requires regular maintenance or replacement.
For example, Rolex watches are built to last, and with proper care and regular servicing, the valve should function properly for the life of the watch.
Which are the most famous watches with the helium escape valve?
Between Rolex and Omega we have many famous watches with an helium valve. We will soon write an article about it!
Why do people love watches with the helium release valve?
Overall, everyone has a different opinion about it.
People who are professional divers or enthusiasts who enjoy diving to great depths often appreciate watches with a helium escape valve because it adds an extra layer of protection to the watch during prolonged diving operations.
Furthermore, watches with a helium escape valve are often associated with professional diving and have a rugged, utilitarian appearance that many people find attractive. For collectors and enthusiasts, owning a watch with a helium escape valve is a mark of distinction and demonstrates a commitment to the art and science of diving.
In summary, people who enjoy diving or have an interest in professional diving often appreciate watches with a helium escape valve for the added protection they provide and the association with the diving community.
And you? Do you think it's a useful addiction to the mechanism of a watch?