A step-by step Guide to taking apart, cleaning, and re-assembling an Underwater casing.
Action Cameras usually come with their dedicated protective cases, either right within the range of included accessories, or as an option. There is a small number of exceptions, dubbed Amphibious cameras that are already built into weatherproof or waterproof bodies. These may have separate, optionally offered casings for greater depth pressure protection.
All such devices without exception must be maintained in proper working condition! Their very functioning depends upon it, but to my knowledge there are rarely any User Guides that explain how to do it properly. That is the reason for the text you are reading right now.
Any protective weather- or waterproof encasement is a volume of constant environment, an air bubble wherein the camera can safely operate. This bubble shields the camera’s optical, electrical and electronic parts from shocks, humidity, corrosion and pressure. As the prevalent majority of such casings are very similar in concept and construction, the maintenance is pretty same for many models.
There is, obviously, the casing. Made from clear, hard-plastic Perspex-like material, it will have to closely follow the camera form and dimensions. The casing, or body, will have an objective / lens port, the main hatch to insert and remove the camera, an excenter-balance latching / locking arrangement, one or several command button pins with their assembly, and one accessory attachment, normally a two-pronged swivel link. Some bodies, like the one used here as an example, may also have additional openings for USB cable connection or an external microphone. Such an opening is blind-sealed by an appropriate plug when USB accessory is not being used.
Case body cleaning: Wash it closed! Use plenty of clean, lukewarm running water with no detergent, and take care to dislodge and wash off any sand, salt or biological matter using soft, lint-free rag. If you have to remove some firmly attached foreign matter, never use any tool harder than the acryllic / Perspex / ABS plastic. Wooden toothpicks are usually at hand and serve the purpose very well.
If you have used your camera in saltwater, do not let it dry up! Best wrap the brine-soaked case in wet towel until you have access to freshwater. This will help prevent the forming of salt crystals in places where these may affect the sealing consistency.
If the case has dried up prior to washing, sink it in shaded freshwater bath for an hour. Afterwards, when the salt crystals had time to dissolve, wash it in running water. Wipe off the water droplets, and let it dry in the shade.
Generally, always keep all your water-going equipment in the shade – that goes for any and all the gear you use. This prolongs its life. Before opening the casing, wipe it dry with lint-free material. Take care to open the case with the main hatch downwards, to avoid ingress of droplets remained in the sealing groove and on nearby surfaces. Use only soft material to clean / dry the inside of the casing.
An extra lens-wiping cloth (not the one you clean the lens with!) will be excellent for the purpose.
The lens port is made of either a precisely polished plan-parallel glass, or a hard plastic composite. Consult the manufacturer’s specifications to determine which material they have used! Some lens ports may have additional layers, which aid in anti-fogging, ultra-violet, and for hydrophobic protection.
This means that extra care is to be paid while cleaning, even when the glass used might be extra hardened to be scratch-proof.
Lens ports are not always simply detachable from the case body. Sometimes there are glued connections there. Most times these ports are held pressed over the rubber gasket between the port and the case by several small screws. The port is then additionally covered by black plastic shielding which keeps the reflections off the camera optics.
Since this assembly is pretty sensitive to mechanical manipulation, it is best left as is, unless one has to replace the badly scratched or cracked lens port.
Any lens port obviously must be maintained perfectly transparent, so it should be meticulously and carefully cleaned. Especially so if the camera was used in saltwater, or where there might have been some chemically aggressive or abrasive matter (such as motor oil, alcohol, benzene, detergents or similar).
Lens port cleaning: Like the case body, it is regularly being washed from the outside. However, be extra careful there. Even if your camera port has been declared scratch-proof! I have yet to see an absolutely scratch-proof material. There might be a water-repelling layer on the outer surface, and you don’t want to wipe it off the glass.
So, never use any solvents other than water, and no tools harder than the port / case material. Every lens port is an important part of the cam’s optical system – treat it with the same care!
While cleaning the inside surface of the lens port, be careful not to use bare q-tips, because you’ll likely leave some cotton filaments to fumble with later. So fold the lens wiping cloth, put the q-tip into the fold, and use this to wipe out the port on the inside.
If you have to dislodge some stubborn dirt there, add humidity by blowing warm breath over the port. Then repeat the wiping. This should suffice to have the camera lens see clearly through the port. Remember to let all moisture evaporate before closing.
MAIN CASING PORT
The main casing port is made to be opened and closed many times, and usually has a hinge on one side, to simplify the usage. The other side has a latching arrangement that holds the port in closed position. This port or “door” has a gasket in the groove around its rim.
When closed, this forms a water-tight connection with the camera casing. Bewilderingly, most manufacturers can’t see the advantages of o-ring sealing principle, and make use of the “wedge” principle in forming their largest, or “main” gaskets.
You can find more about the o-ring sealing principle here, so let me just say that a flexible wedge system depends upon the latching mechanism, which is not half as safe – except maybe on the drawing board! But until the casing manufacturers decide to recognize o-rings, what we get is what we see is what we have!
There are hard casing ports (or “doors”), and there are also pliable plastic surfaces built into the normal port frame; these are meant for accessing the camera’s touch-screen. Touch-screen port is to be used in environments where your camera needs protective shielding, like in smoky interiors, rainy or snowy weather, or on the outside of fast-moving transport like boats, bikes, skis, jet-skis, cars, parasails, etc.
Touchscreen casing hatches do not work underwater, but can usually stand some light water pressure, since the camera monitor surface supports the soft material from the inside. One should never exceed the manufacturer-rated maximum depth / pressure! Do not ever over-stretch the soft plastic by diving with no cam inside the case!
Cleaning a hard port: Long story short, pretty same as cleaning the case body, with the exception of the seal / gasket. If this port requires serious cleaning, remove the gasket first (see above how to do that).
Cleaning a touch-screen port: Touch-screen port has a pliable, resilient plastic combined with the hard rim. While handling a touchscreen port, make sure to hold it only by the hard part, avoiding any pressure to the soft area. If serious cleaning is needed, remove the gasket first (see above how to do that).
Use pure, lukewarm water and a clean piece of cloth. Holding the hatch rim in one hand, loop the wet cloth to touch simultaneously both inner and outer side of the pliable door section. Clean both surfaces gently, applying horizontal and vertical swiping motion.
That way the sensitive plastic layer will not be overly stressed in either direction, and will remain in its normal flat state. Never apply pressure only to one side of this port, as any stretching could cause a deformation that would impede its touch-screen sensibility.
Cleaning port gaskets: In the typical main hatch, the wedge-type sealing gasket hugs a shallow groove around the frame rim. This gasket is lately made from better silicone compound that is elastic and resilient. While an improvement compared to the material used before, it still can’t compete with the superior principle of an o-ring.
Common to both sealing types mentioned is that these should be removed for proper maintenance, and it is done in the same way. See the images for details.
I have never received any answer to my widely sent question to many manufacturers as to whether the silicone gaskets should be greased or not. Nothing about it was ever mentioned in any Action Camera Guide that I have ever seen or handled. Still, I’d suggest a thin film of silicone grease to the gasket, so it can slide into its seat without twisting and warping.
For the same reason you should never close the casing by forcing its latch. Always carefully press the hatch into position by fingers! When it is properly seated, hold it and just apply the latch to keep it closed. If the latch has to fight the hatch gasket elasticity to close, the force exerted upon the plastic will be strong, and the latch might break.
The casing I am using for explanation here is somewhat special in that it has double o-rings sealing its button commands. Some models may have single o-rings, which is neither better nor worse. I mean, double o-rings aren’t necessarily safer, but help with more equal pressure distribution and also better keep dirt on the outside.
Another detail is, this case has an extra USB port on the right side, which accepts weather-proof cable connection, or an o-ring sealed blind plug for diving. Here’s how to typically remove an o-ring for cleaning or replacement.
To my experience, o-rings should be always clean and lubricated, because these have to move in their grooves to function. Other sealing type elements (like silicone compound wedge-type) should be slightly greased, and it would enable these to attain their positions better.
But there are some sealing gaskets made from microscopically porous materials (similar to Neoprene), which are sometimes found in weather-proof (NOT waterproof!) camera openings, and these materials should NEVER be greased, because lubricants will saturate the micro-pores and “set” the gasket shape, making it non-elastic.
Such gaskets quickly become unyielding, and will consequently perform poorly. Which means, not at all.
LATCH / LOCK
Most of the camera casings close the main hatch by excenter-balance type latch, supported by any kind of spring which keeps the latch in closed position. Some latches also have a lock that needs to be released for the latch to open, and this feature safeguards against inadvertent opening of the hatch. These locking latches will have additional springs beside the usual elastic element the latches are constructed with.
In my experience, the plastic latch material differs from the material used in, say, accessories for attaching the cams. Such mechanisms are also exposed to different forces, as the latch material is “pulled apart”. Oppositely, the attaching accessory plastic elements are pressed together, and plastic material better stands such forces.
What this boils down to is, one should take care never to allow the latch / lock plastic material to contact any chemical media that could change its resiliency, i.e. make it brittle! Of course, the latch mechanisms are replaceable, but the time it takes will never be replaced
In rare cases you might want to detach the latch mechanism from the casing. Be extra careful, especially if the case has been used for a long time already. The latch material might have lost its elasticity. With the speed the new cameras and casing types are appearing, who knows if the manufacturer out there still has the spares … but if there isn’t any to have, one can improvise. Hint: stainless steel wire + pliers + ingenuity!
Cleaning latches and locks: Just use clean water to wash out the mechanism. And when you’re not planning to use the camera case for a longer time, keep it in a dust-free ambient in the shade and at room temperature.
Keep the casing closed and unlocked, so as to release stress from all parts that are normally under tension. It is also a good idea to remove the main gasket from its groove and allow it to relax, rather than having it constantly compressed. You might keep it within the casing, or in a sufficiently wide ziploc bag.
ACCESSORIES & ATTACHMENTS
Most of the camera accessories are used to connect the cameras and/or camera housings to some base, be it a vehicle or apparel. While there are too many to mention, these all are either made of plastic, or a combination of plastic and metal. Such components will accumulate dirt which, of course, should be removed.
Rule of thumb here is to avoid any kind of mechanical scrubbing, solvents, or cleaning media that contain alcohol, benzene, toluene or acids. These change the plastic materials, making it brittle and prone to break. If you need some kind of detergent, just use a dab of a dishwashing gel. Otherwise, pure water at hand-comfortable temperature should be enough.
Cleaning accessories and attachments: These consist of plastic and metal components. All the maintenance this requires is a thorough washing in warm water and, when dried, a slight lubrication of metal parts. Common household silicone grease is also good here.
Apply a layer of grease to the screw tip and then work the screw into their counterpart bushing. That should take care of smooth operation. Never grease any plastic parts, though!
Wipe grease surplus off the metal; what remains should be sufficient. Too richly applied lubricant just collects dirt, hair, lint and sand particles where you don’t want any.
COMMAND PIN ASSEMBLY
Saved the best for last!
Command buttons are strategically placed extensions of camera buttons through the protective encasement, so we can work the cameras enclosed within. The buttons sit on top of metal pins which are sealed by small o-rings around the holes where pins enter the casing.
A biased spring is placed around the pin under the button. This spring has two functions: it returns the button to its starting position against outer, ambiental pressure. More importantly, it also presses down on a small washer or pressure plate over the o-ring, so as to keep it firmly in place during the linear movement of the pin.
The button, pin, spring, plate and o-ring sit in the guiding “well” which protects the arrangement, and ensures that the pin movement is perfectly linear, since its watertightness depends upon it. A guiding well is slotted to let the water cover the o-ring, for symmetrical pressure distribution.
On the inside, the pin is held in position by an e-clip retainer, which keeps it from popping out of the casing. In order to have the command buttons in perfect working order, it is important that the pin moves smoothly through the o-ring without damaging it. Any dirt, sand, mechanical or corrosive irregularity on the pin will let water in and drown the camera.
Cleaning command pins: To properly clean this most sensitive assembly we have to take it apart. Before beginning, let’s make sure we have a clean surface where the operation takes place (I use a tray), one small wooden dowel (I use wooden grill meat sticks), a clean wiping cloth, and small quantity of household silicone grease.
To clean the command pins, best remove the main hatch by pulling its axle out of the hinges, and set it aside. The handling of the camera case will be so much simpler.
Look inside the case and locate the e-clip on the end of the pin. Rotate the pin button so the open end of the e-clip faces you. Press the button halfway in, and hold it there.
Push against the e-clip with wooden dowel to force it out of the pin groove. Slowly release the command button, letting the spring lift it out of its well. Don’t let go suddenly, or you may find yourself spending the rest of the day in search of minuscule spring-launched parts!
Note the sides of the pressing plate – remember which side faces the o-ring. Note the spring ends – remember which side faces the pressing plate! Any error here during re-assembly invites danger from water ingress – so concentrate!
Set the button, spring, pressing plate, o-ring(s), and e-clip aside. Inspect the inside of the command button well, and carefully clean that space the best you can. Put the tip of the wooden dowel in the folded corner of wiping cloth, and use this to wipe out any and all foreign matter. Set the casing to the side and concentrate on the other parts.
Button and pin are easy to clean using the wiping cloth. Make sure there are no irregularities in the pin smoothness, and that there are no sand grains, dried biological matter or anything like that in the spring spiral. Clean that out with the sharp end of the wooden stick if need be. Do the same with the o-ring pressure plate.
An o-ring is best cleaned using just the wiping cloth, and then it should be slightly greased with silicone grease. Now this is important: to grease an o-ring, just use slightly greased fingers, making it only grease-shiny. It should be lubricated on all sides, but sparingly. Surplus grease will collect dirt, so “less is more” here!
The purpose of the grease is to ensure the o-ring can move between its plate, the pin, and the case surface. Lubricant does not create watertight sealing – the ability of an o-ring to adapt and move with pressure does!
Before re-assembling the command pin, you should also sparingly grease the bottom of the guiding well, o-ring pressing plate and pin shaft. Just fiddle with the parts in greased fingers, and take care the surfaces are slippery and shiny.
Wash the grease off your fingers prior to proceeding!
Put the o-ring carefully in its place at the bottom of the well. Cover it with the proper side of the pressing plate – it is indented on its o-ring side – and then place the spring over the plate.
Now insert the button pin. It should go through the spring – through the pressing plate – through the o-ring(s) – through the hole in the casing… to emerge inside the case. Keeping the button pressed, turn the casing upside down, so the pin protrudes upwards. Hold it there.
On the end of the pin you should see the e-clip groove. Carefully put the e-clip opening against the groove, and use the dull end of the wooden stick to push it all the way in. Make sure all three points of the e-clip are properly seated before letting go of the button. Push the button several times to spread the grease film over working surfaces. Feel the difference?
Done! Repeat the procedure with all the button commands of your camera casing.
Don’t fret – once you have done it a couple of times, it will take less time than what you have just spent reading through this Guide!
Generally, you should wash the casing after every diving session, and service the pin commands after every diving season. However, since lubricants are gradually removed with every use of the case in water, the grease will have to be re-applied.
Frequency of cleaning will actually depend upon your frequency of usage, but also dependent upon the kind of watery ambient the camera was used in. You should decide, for it is your diligence and care that lets you enjoy your equipment for a long time.
And then… just take your cam and boldly go where no cam has gone before!