How to make air on a submarine: 2 lessons on air quality

Ok, I’ve never been inside a submerged submarine, but I’ve toured part of a docked submarine and I think it takes a special kind of person to live in those cramped conditions for months at a time.  Combining this with the fact that unlike a normal ship, there is no natural atmosphere from which to take air to breathe, makes submariners a very special breed!  

I learned about the different ways submarines make oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the ship’s atmosphere in this interesting video.  While you may think this information irrelevant because a) you don’t live underwater, and b) no one but the US government could afford such fancy equipment, there are several things to take away for our own home use.  

First of all, the submarine is highly compartmentalized, not only for function, but for safety.  This means that if the ship were to be struck by a torpedo in one compartment and started to take on water, it’s likely that by sealing off that compartment, the ship could continue on its mission or at least get to a port for repairs.  The number of these individual compartments require a specialized air monitoring and distribution to each compartment.  There are no “open concept” submarines!  The name of the monitoring system is CAMS, or Compartment Atmosphere Monitoring System. It tells the sailors the air quality (percentage O2, CO2, CO, and other contaminants like refrigerant) in each compartment.  You may have an open-concept floorplan in your home, but it’s likely that you have individual rooms wherever privacy is needed: for your bedroom, bathroom and office.  So, atmosphere monitoring can show you whether your ventilation is working well or if there is a contaminant like radon that is poisoning a certain area of your home.  Here are some ways to add atmosphere monitoring to your home.  In order to control your atmosphere, you first have to know what is in it!

  • AirThings makes several types of monitors that you can read locally or remotely

  • Kaiterra makes attractive LaserEggs that not only show what’s in your air; they look like they are part of modern decor.

  • Awair also has a sleek, modern design to their home indoor sensor, which has the “most accurate airflow design on the ma

  • PurpleAir makes an indoor sensor and 2 outdoor sensors, and offers the opportunity to upload your local outdoor air quality to a nationwide map!  

Second, because ability to breathe is such an important function on a submarine, there are redundant systems: two different ways to make oxygen, and two different ways to remove carbon dioxide.  Even if one system is working well 99% of the time, the sailors practice by testing the other system regularly to ensure its function and their knowledge and ability to use it.  Redundancy is good to have in your home too.  If your main way of ventilation is via the central air, what happens if your power goes out?  You can throw open the windows, but that plan does not work well if you haven’t checked whether windows are painted shut, or if they have clean, well-fitted screens to keep bugs out.  A “backup plan” is only as good as you prepare it to be, and emergencies like power outages rarely have advance notice!  Similarly, if your main way of getting fresh air is via a cracked window, do you know what to do in case there’s a wildfire in your area or the mobile exterminating truck starts spraying toxic chemicals down your street?  Of course, you will close the window, but having an air purifier or HEPA filter or extra MERV-13 furnace filters on hand make it more comfortable for you and your family until the air is clear again.  Check out our post on natural disasters and how to prepare for good air quality during and after them. 

Ok, I won’t leave you floating here.  The real ways that submarines make oxygen are pure chemistry and physics: electrolysis of purified water, and burning chlorate candles (a very hot-burning cylindrical candle that actually puts out oxygen instead of consuming it!).  Submarines filter CO2 out of the atmosphere by using MEA (methylethylamine) to absorb it, or by using lithium hydroxide canisters to absorb it (lithium hydroxide canisters are also used by spacecraft like the Space Shuttle and International Space Station (

Photo by Taylor Vatem on Unsplash