The Science of Balloons

Let’s face it inflating balloons is not exactly science – or is it? Actually you would be surprised.

There are different sizes, shapes, types and quality of balloons which all affect how and when you can blow them up and how long they will last.

As a quick guide anything under 11" would be best inflated with only air, ie from the best balloon pump you can buy or if you can beg, borrow or steal one a professional inflator such as from the Conwin, Zibi or Heidi ranges. Lungs don’t get you many done and if you need 500 to cover a dance floor at a wedding or party you could be a while!

The reason being is the float times. Standard quality 11" latex balloons made by manufacturers such as Amscan or Qualatex will float when correctly inflated and untreated for around 18 hours. They look their best in the first 3 hours so should be done at the last possible minute.

Now being a bride in your gown with a helium cannister filled with balloon gas, a load of pre-cut 5mm curling ribbon and a handful of weights is not what I would wish to be doing just before I say "I do". What do you think?

Different people want to do different things but in that insstance I would call in a professional balloon artist and let them take the stress. Look for CBA which stands for certified balloon artist, NABAS which shows membership of the balloon trade association – The National Association of Balloon Artists and Suppliers, and City and Guilds qualifications. Nabas members all carry £5 million in indemnity insurance. Then you know they know what they are doing rather than leaving it to Auntie Doris and Uncle Keith who blow them up to different sizes the night before so they are nestling nicely in your salad bowl when you arrive.

Smaller balloons such as 9 and 10" are ideally kiddies balloons inflated on the day at the last minute and added to a weight such as a bangle. There are loads of colours to choose from and this sort of balloon suits the occasion perfectly. Cheap, cheerful and difficult to escape.

But balloons have evolved… Not only have we got sophisticated wedding dove and bell balloons that co-ordinate with ribbon and weights; brilliant birthday balloons from ages 1 to 100; fun and funky pirate and princess designs to name a few. But we can also get every licensed product from Pooh to Tinkerbell, Witch, Bratz, Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Barbie, Disney Pixar Cars and every other fad of the moment you can possibly imagine. With matching tablewear and accesories.

Balloon releases, columns, swags, sculptures, balloon walls, company logos, arches, exploders and myriad other specialities are becoming more popular for events from product launches such as cars to company openings and huge indoor and outdoor promotional functions.

Both foil and latex balloons can be printed to show names, companies and special occasions in smaller quantities than ever before and we are only dipping our toe into the market of what is available.

Smaller balloons such as 6" hearts, 5" plain and printed latex, geo blossoms and modelling balloons are ideal for small scupltures, twisters (those clever people who in the most part make balloon flowers, animals and hats and entertain at parties and events)and table arrangements. They should not be inflated with balloon gas unless inside a larger helium filled balloon – preferably on you can see through as there wouldn’t be much point otherwise – as they are too small to have a float time. But as helium transfers between the two they are quite of inside and very useful for special effects such as double bubbles and gumball balloons.

There are loads of larger latex balloons such as 16", 18", 24", 36" and even larger versions in Chloroprene such as 5′. Great for making an impact and holding net or fabric to make a statement at a function or within a design. Extra weight such as ribbon, net etc will affect float times so care should be taken with anything smaller than 16" and try to practise first. There are charts available that show the pull these balloons have so you can play and see what works for you. 16" are most popularly used in Cloud Nine Arches above top tables at weddings.

There is a wonder product that allows the latex to last longer. Here’s the science bit as they say on the ads: latex is a natural substance tapped from a tree, 100% biodegradeable unless fillers have been added (usally the cheaper latex you buy from a supermarket will be made like this which is why they don’t float as long). Hi-float is a latex derivative which is placed in a measured dose inside the balloon before inflation and moved around to cover as much as possible. It is important is it not near the neck as when you inflate the balloon it could come out and get gooey on your hands or worse get on the outside of the balloon and dry which could cause it to burst early. It dries within the hour and the helium molecules which currently think the latex balloon is like a string vest suddenly have their escape route blocked off for a while so the helium which is lighter than air makes the balloon float for longer. Bursting balloons just filled with hi-float is not fun – it gets stuck in your hair and looks disgusting but apparently is safe to eat – I’ll that leave for someone else to prove.

More science; helium is an inert gas which means it is colourless, odourless and does not react with anything so is very safe. It is also the only gas that should be used to float balloons using it propertie so fbeing lighter than air for the lift. It will extinguish a flame rather than ignite it and the main risk is the pressure it is stored in in the cannister if it is knocked hard enough to remove the top or it falling on your foot – not very nice! Balloon Gas actually has some air in to help the molecules move faster and therefore keep things floating longer. End of lesson.

Most people think the air is only escaping from the neck of the balloon but with helium filled latex that is not the case, although with air filled it is. Now with a foil or mylar balloon (toy shops and funfairs with funky characters on them usually? although there are very sophisticated ranges now for every occasion)the helium escapes from the neck, so if you carefully roll it up when tying on your ribbon – you really wouldn’t leave the nasty piece some manufacturers tape on there would you? then it has further to go to escape so should last longer.

The standard 18" foils you see all have self seal valves in and if correctly inflated with filling kits such as Conwin Foil Inflators or those on the back of a dual split second sizer you can correctly fully inflate the foil without risk of bursting and therefore make it last as long as possible and look professional for longer. Using a nozzle not intended for foils does not reduce the pressure to the balloon risking bursting and it will not cut off when the balloon is full so could cost you money in wasted foils. These can be done the night before without a problem and standard ones float for about a week depending on termperature and altitude.

They should however be weighted and conform to the California Law means they should be weighted individually in arrangements and bouquets and not on metallic ribbon. Foil balloons or Mylar balloons can conduct electricity and are not biodegradeable so should never be released deliberately or accidently, and especially not in balloon releases.

Smaller foils do not normally have valves and are too heavy to float as they cannot hold enough helium for any length of time. hearts, stars and rounds in smaller versions can be air filled and heat sealed to be used in designs and can even be added to larger floating designs.

There are lots of professional courses which teach the basics of balloons and more structured ones to learn effects and fun things to do with them after you have mastered the basics.

Will you think a balloon is just a balloon again? Thought not!