Everything You Need to Know About Underwater Welding
Most people wouldn’t dream of being in a situation that involved electricity and water, much less choose a career that combined them. Underwater welding involves both and is done by tough, quick-thinking welders who have put in hours of training.
Though it might sound too dangerous, these welders are professionals who work efficiently in challenging conditions. Underwater welding is a high-demand skill needed by many of today’s industries.
Maybe you’re just starting out in welding and are wondering what your future may hold, or perhaps you’re already a welder and you’re ready to advance your skills and position.
Underwater welding requires specialized diving training and high-risk situations, but the payoff is worth it. It’s one of the highest paying welding jobs you’ll find.
By now you’re probably wondering what this involves and how you can be a part of this elite welding force.
Here’s your one-stop guide to this rewarding career.
What is Underwater Welding and How Does it Work?
As the name implies, underwater welding is performing a welding job under the water. Welders complete their tasks while submerged in either shallow or deep water. They are often working at elevated barometric pressures, depending on water depth.
There are two types of underwater welding, each with its own set of pros and cons.
Wet welding takes place directly in the water. The process is similar to ordinary metal arc welding, but the equipment and materials are slightly different.
Wet welding involves an electrode with a waterproof coating, a very simple, well-insulated stinger, and a welding machine.
The machine is above water, run by a control team. Unlike topside welding, communication is critical for wet welding because the team controls the amperage while the welders make their joints.
Here’s a run-down of the pros and cons:
Pros of Wet Welding
- Fast and cost-effective
- Weld has high tensile strength
- Work spot is easy to access
- No construction or habitat required
Cons of Wet Welding
- Direct exposure of diver and electrode to water and elements poses shock risk
- Fighting water currents that can affect precision, tangle equipment or throw a welder off balance
- Risk of decompression sickness for diver
- Less visibility can lead to less precise work
- Strength of weld affected by bubbling and deposition rate
This form is also known as hyperbaric welding. In dry welding, a chamber is sealed around a work area and filled with a mixture of gases to push water out and create a dry working environment. The chamber is then pressurized appropriately.
These chambers are called habitats.
Dry Welding Techniques
Pressure welding is done in a chamber that has the same pressure as the air at sea level.
Habitat welding is done in a chamber that is the size of a small room, where the pressure inside is the same as the surrounding pressure at that working depth.
Dry Chamber Welding
Dry chamber welding is where work is done in a small chamber that accommodates the welder’s neck and shoulders and is entered from the bottom.
Dry Spot Welding
Dry spot welding is done in a habitat just large enough to accommodate the welder’s electrode.
The technique chosen depends on the size and nature of the specific job.
Pros of Dry Welding
- Welders can work more safely
- Higher weld quality, more precise
- Multiple welding processes can be used
- Better surface monitoring
- Welds can be tested without destruction risk
- Good for extensive jobs that will take longer to complete
- For extensive welds, large habitats can accommodate two welders, allowing them to take turns, or “shifts”
- Good visibility
Cons of Dry Welding
- More expensive for the company
- Longer set-up process
- Working conditions can be cramped
- Surrounding pressurized gases influence electrode arc and can affect accuracy
The type of underwater welding a company uses will depend on a number of factors, such as:
- Money available for the project
- Estimated time length of project
- Welder/diver skill level
- Safety issues
- Location and depth of job site
Work Locations: Inland or Offshore
Underwater welders will either work inland or offshore. The pay, work schedule, and risks are different for each.
Inland underwater welders work in water locations that are not the ocean, such as rivers, lakes, ponds, and tanks. Here’s what they’re usually working on:
- Small vessels
- Intake systems
Inland welders have a more regular schedule and most of them go home in the evening. Since you’re not out at sea, you don’t usually have to stay on the job site. Also, there is work available year round.
These welders are paid a little less than offshore welders but usually receive constant wages. Inland welder salaries range from $40,000 to $80,000 a year.
Offshore welders work in the ocean. Most offshore jobs involve bigger operations such as:
- Petroleum pipelines
- Large ships, including military ships
- Oil rigs
Offshore welders have a demanding schedule and must be away from home for long periods. Jobs usually last 4-6 weeks and the workdays are long, with shifts that are 10 hours plus. 80 hour work weeks are pretty common.
Offshore welding, unlike inland, is seasonal. With hurricanes and tsunamis, welding jobs in the ocean are too risky in winter and early spring. Operations are shut down and there isn’t work available during these times.
Offshore welders work more overtime, are often away from home for long periods, and face more significant risks than inland welders, so their pay is higher. Salaries for inland welders range from $80,000 to $100,000 a year and up.
What Kind of Training is Required?
Underwater welding requires the welder to have intensive training in two areas.
Underwater welders must be able to skillfully perform all welding tasks that any other welders perform. They certified welders and have underwater welder training. able to accurately accomplish a wide range of tasks, including underwater fitting, cutting, rigging, inspection, testing, and photography.
What really sets underwater welders apart is that in addition to having thorough welding skills, they must be trained divers who have earned a commercial diving certification.
In fact, underwater welders are referred to as welder-divers, because that’s exactly what they are. Whether it’s a shallow dive to reach a work spot or a plunge to a deeper job, these professionals are fully trained in all aspects of diving.
Gearing Up and Getting to Work: Special Underwater Welding Equipment
Since welder-divers will be submerged in water, their equipment needs will be markedly different from an ordinary welder.
Equipment needed will vary from job to job. Wet welding and dry welding jobs will require slightly different equipment to ensure welder safety and weld quality.
Protection is Paramount
Wet welding requires that the welder-diver wear appropriate underwater gear. Most use a drysuit, which provides better climate control and more protection than a typical wetsuit worn by divers.
For additional protection, some welders wear coveralls over their drysuit. This prevents molten metal from burning through their drysuit if an accident should occur. Thick rubber gloves over several layers of latex cover the hands.
A Breath of Fresh Air Under the Water
A commercial diving helmet is necessary for situations where you’ll be either diving to reach a site or working beneath the surface of the water.
These keep water out and oxygen-rich air in. They also feature a welding screen that attaches to the front of the helmet and can be flipped up or down while working.
SSA versus SCUBA
Wet welding uses SSA, or surface supplied air, as opposed to air tanks like SCUBA divers. From their helmets, welders are attached by supply hoses called umbilical cables to a compressor above the water. All air comes from this compressor, through the hose, so the supply is steady.
The advantage of SSA in underwater welding is that it can provide air for a longer period of time, unlike portable tanks which must be refilled. More work can be done without having to worry about air supply.
Welders also carry a bailout tank in case of emergencies.
Occupational Hazards of Underwater Welding
Underwater welding is not without risks. It’s considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
Of course, there are the usual safety concerns and measures involved with welding. But there are some that are unique to working in the water.
Here are the tops safety hazards in this line of work:
- Electric shock
- Underwater explosion from gases produced by welding
- Decompression sickness, or “the bends,” when divers surface too quickly
- Freezing from exposure to cold in a deep-water setting
This is where rigorous training and thorough safety measures pay off. With the right equipment, a solid plan in emergency situations, and superior knowledge and experience, many of the major risks of underwater welding can be avoided.
A Career for the Best of the Best
Underwater welding is essential in modern industries and valuable for a number of reasons. There are jobs all over the world in need of professional welder-divers with specialized training.
Timing, attention to detail, and a mastery of welding are crucial in the underwater environment. Only the most dedicated, skilled welders are able to handle the work pressures and dangers that are part of the package with this job.
If you’re ready to take your welding career to the highest level, consider the challenge of underwater welding.
For more information on welding and the best equipment, visit our blog. You’ll find reviews, loads of information on everything from events to techniques to equipment, and much more.