Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Consider the Sirens of Greek legend. Their beautiful singing voices alone could seduce a man into dangerous shoals he’d otherwise never attempt. Not only was the “siren” a song of instant seduction, but you could hear it from afar. Resistance was futile. You had to lash yourself to the mast of your ship lest you turn directly to your demise.
Adventure skiers are contending with a new song of the sirens, that of the howling battery operated fan airbag backpack. They’re loud, seductive. In terms of danger, hearing damage and financial doom are possibilities — and the media hype on airbags has led to false confidence in their efficiency that’s reminiscent of helmet hysteria.
Result: the siren call of the airbag can lure you to danger. These things are so high-tech, so cool, you might need to whip out a cordellette and lash yourself to the nearest tree, lest you charge that loaded and prime avy path below.
Not that we’re against airbags any more than we’re against helmets. We like both, when used along with neurons. So let’s fire up a few brain cells and check technical details of this year’s full-retail Arc’teryx Voltair balloon pack.
Changes for 2016-2017:
The trigger handle is now shimmed out at a slight angle from the shoulder strap, thus easier to grip, with more obvious clicks when switching from armed to safetied. (Note that disabling the Voltair takes mere seconds, no zippers, no fiddling around with pieces and parts. Though truly switching the electricity off requires accessing the battery inside the pack.)
The zipper on the balloon compartment is overall much easier to manipulate. In the case of the latch flap holding the zipper closed, as before it’s a cable actuated catch on a small flap at the top of the pack. Now perfected, when you yank the trigger it pulls the cable for release, but more importantly it’s astoundingly easy to reassemble. After re-packing the balloon and zipping up, simply press the trigger handle into the locked position (twist to show an X icon facing out), this in turn prepares the zipper flap-catch to accept a small plastic tab on the underside of the zipper flap. Press down on the flap, click, and you’re ready for another round with the white dragon.
Color is the most obvious change. Last winter the 30 liter was black and the 20 red, now both are available in either.
On the order of a sort of “unboxing,” I thought Voltair deserves a quick autumn features rundown to supplement our other blog posts. I’ll put more emphasis on the electronics, centrifugal fan is broken down in this blog post.
Might as well get the tough news out of the way first: The 20 liter version will retail for $1,650 USD, 30L for $1,700. What did I tell you about the Siren’s song and financial demise?
20 liter catalog weight 7.1 lbs, 3221 grams.
30 liter verified weight 7.6 lbs, 3447 grams.
Pack with NO battery, WITH controller unit, balloon and all else, 5.9 lbs, 2676 grams.
Battery, 1.7 lbs, 772 grams.
– Battery, 22.2v Lithium-Ion Polymer (LiPo), 3.7 AH (3,700 mAH), IP65 water resistant.
– Battery connector, Delphi 480 Metri-Pack with 12-10 connectors on 10awg silicon insulated fine strand wire.
Check out this interesting article about lithium battery safety and technology. (Apparently you can already get lighter batteries, but they have limited charge cycles. Still, how about a battery that weighs a pound less but you can only charge 20 times? Sounds totally reasonable. Or how about a battery pack you can only charge a couple of times but weighs even less? Watch this space.)
Multiple deployments is clearly the main reason skiers would want a fan balloon pack. Travel convenience and eliminating cylinder fill hassles are other pluses, but firing the thing whenever you feel like it leads the list. Think about it. You can practice or test. But more importantly, YOU-NEED-NOT-HESITATE. If you think you’re in a slide or only vaguely threatened by a slide: PULL. Repacking takes just a few minutes, and if you left home with a full charge you have at least one more fill even with a cold soaked battery.
So, the $1,700 question, how many times will the battery fill this thing? Answer, it depends. The fairly new battery in my test unit easily filled 14 times at 69 degrees Fahrenheit, along with 4 “insurance pulses” for each fill (automatic bursts from the fan intended to compensate for punctures or incomplete fills). I quit at 14, as the capacity warning light was on and deep discharging isn’t good for the battery. As the lithium battery becomes cooler it has less available power. Apparently by the time the battery is cold soaked to around twenty below zero Fahrenheit it’ll only inflate two or three times (depending on age of battery, etc.) I find that a little hard to believe, given 14 fills at room temperature. A little freezer testing action sounds likely here at WildSnow labs.
Industrial designer Gordon Rose at Arcteryx told me in testing he gets something like 8 inflations at negative 15 centigrade (5 below zero fahrenheit). Remember, he’s talking about the battery cold soaked to that temperature. In our case, a ski day that would get the battery that cold would be as rare as powder skiing in Brazil.
I studied up on lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries, indeed they have reduced performance when cold. But is that really the Achilles heel of electric fan packs? Not in my opinion. First, most people ski at temperatures above zero Fahrenheit — a significant difference from negative 20. What is more, the battery has to become cold soaked before you experience the full freezer effect. If you begin your day with a room temperature battery, and the heat of your body enters the back panel of the pack throughout the day, it’s going to be a while before the battery reaches ambient air temperature — if ever.
What is more, if the battery has any sort of load it warms itself. While the load of an armed Voltair is too low for my clamp-on meter to measure, it is there. (Note, it’s said that charging a “frozen” battery is not good, warm to room temp first.)
All leading me to wonder, what if you start the day with a warm battery, with your pack armed, and keep the battery insulated with extra clothing and other gear? Or, what if the battery has a nice little foam case and you throw a chemical hand warmer in there for good measure? Just how big does that battery really need to be? I think we’ll see some evolution in the area of battery size and weight. Party pooper is that the CE standards require robust battery power at low temps, so any changes in that area will have to be “accessories” or perhaps aftermarket mods.
– The fan is actually not technically a fan but an “advanced engineered centrifugal blower.” We use the word “fan” as a term of art to keep our writing readable.
– Balloon is 150 liter and wraps behind and slightly to the sides of your head for possible protection from trauma.
– It’s said the “the Voltair system delivers more initial pressure than any other battery powered avalanche airbag system on the market.” The inflated balloon is indeed quite taut. I attempted to measure actual air pressure, it appears to be somewhere around 1.5 pounds per square inch, plenty.
– The pack is fully seam-sealed and constructed with truly waterproof N400r-AC² nylon ripstop body fabric with Arc’teryx waterproof zippers for top and side access to the two main compartments. Both pack sizes have a “tool” partition that can be easily excised for a modicum of weight savings.
– Lash ladders and a diagonal plank carry strap system satisfy external cargo requirements.
– The slick minimalist crotch strap system remains the same, detailed in previous ski touring Voltair blog posts. We love it. Click, click. It’s that easy.
Availability: fall of 2016.