Underwater welding, commonly known as hyperbaric, deep-sea, or marine welding, is among the most lucrative jobs commercial divers can do.
It’s a pretty exciting job. Not only does it sound intriguing and looks cool, but it also has a little danger factor in it to add to all the excitement.
That said, underwater welding has been around for quite some time now, and it has kind of become a routine job.
Underwater welding, which was invented in 1932 by a Soviet engineer named Konstantin Khernov, broke into the United States around the 1940s.
Cyril Jensen introduced it when he led a marine welding program for a brief time in the United States Navy. The way people used it in the past hasn’t changed that much now.
It’s still used to repair oil rigs, pipelines, dams, bridges, and other deep-sea infrastructure.
The most confusing thing most people will find about underwater welding is the mix of water and electricity.
It goes against everything you know and everything you learned in school. However, like dams, bridges, and power plants marine welders work on, humans have found ways to bend a few laws of nature.
Deep-sea welding shows how indomitable the human spirit is when it wants to expand on things that it traditionally believed impossible.
Marine welding is a skill set that takes patience and dedication to master.
While it had come quite a long way from when the Soviet engineer, Khrenov, first came up with waterproof electrodes, it still needs you to be aware of your surroundings, and you need to be dedicated to the craft, have both a strong body and mind as well as follow all the tested safety protocols.
How To Become An Underwater Welder
It’ll take you at least two and a half years to learn underwater welding.
It averagely takes around four to six years to start practicing marine welding. With that said, how long you take will all depend on a few variables:
- Have you practiced welding on the surface before?
- Program length and acceptance to underwater welding programs/school
- Earning certification
- On-the-job experience
Marine welders make around $55,000; however, it ranges from between $28,000 to $85,000 depending on the projects you’re handling and your experience.
Some welder can earn even as much as $300,000. Keep in mind; most marine welders don’t work all year through. Some may even take only 6 months to get their annual payment.
How Does It All Work?
Underwater welding projects can come with very many surprises sometimes.
Managers and engineers have to carefully evaluate each marine welding project brought across their desks and decide which is the most effective and safest method they should use.
The plans always fall under one of these two categories; dry or wet welding.
Commercial divers train in both wet welding and dry welding as specific situations will need you to use either wet or dry depending on the project’s urgency and environment.
Both techniques involve different methods and processes to finish the tasks at hand. Anyway, let’s take a closer look at both these two underwater welding methods.
Underwater Welding Methods
Wet welding uses the same methods and techniques used during surface-level welding. Many welder-divers will first sharpen their skills on the surface.
Marine welders employ arc welding techniques to get the job done. The tools are modified to allow them to get the job done underwater.
Waterproof materials will need to be used to coat the welding rod so that the rod’s powder flux coating doesn’t become wet.
It has a reverse polarity setting so that the machine’s electrical current doesn’t flow towards the welder but away from them.
The welding rod’s position and travel speed will work differently from how it would if it were topside to prevent the welding puddle from rapidly cooling underwater.
As far as protective gear is concerned. The driver’s helmet has a welding shield to protect the welder from the arc’s bright light.
You’ll have rubber gloves to protect you from electrical shock. A ‘knife switch,’ which is a circuit-breaking device, is placed inside the welding leads.
It is installed so that a supervisor, manager, or tender can stop the electricity flow going to the welder.
- Shielded Metal Arc Welding: This is a common kind of welding in both the topside and underwater industry. It’s used around 90% of the time in wet welding situations.Most people in the industry know it as ‘stick‘ welding. They call it this because you’ll have to use a long, thin cylinder accompanied by an electrical arc to get the job done.It’s an application for aluminum, stainless steel, and various other metals.
- Flux-cored Arc Welding: This has a spool that offers welders a continuous flow of filler metal. Application for cast iron, nickel-based alloys, and other metals.
- Friction Welding: This fuses metal via heat and high friction. Material melting doesn’t occur. It’s an application for thermoplastics and metals.
Surface welders always ensure their metal is clean before they place the beads. It works more or less the same way underwater.
When you reach the weld point, you’ll need to look carefully at the surroundings and ensure there are no safety hazards or destructions around it.
Welders can do this for numerous days before they’re ready to start welding.
Once the divers have given the green light, they put their electrodes at the starting points and then signal their crew above to turn them on.
Typically, wet welds are often executed with power supplies of up to 450-amps of electricity, which always come via direct current.
Direct currents are constant, one-way tickets. They create a more effective, safer weld in the water than alternating current.
Until recently, wet welding techniques were considered a temporary solution and “patchwork.”
New electrode tech has helped change wet welds in some aspects.
The more common between the two is probably dry welding. This method uses a hyperbaric habitat or chamber, which covers the area that’s being welded.
The lack of water does not make this technique any less challenging.
There’s a great skill level that you need to have to work under these variables, like pressure, atmospheric gas, and space.
There are 4 dry welding techniques commercial divers can use. While the methods are kind of the same, how big the habitat is is what’ll help divers decide how they’ll execute the job.
Dry welding, just like wet welding, is a specialized industry that’s loaded with expert divers.
That being said, dry welders still have way more variables to think about compared to their surface welder counterparts.
Some of these things include limited space, equipment, pressure, and atmospheric gas. Here are the four techniques we talked about earlier;
- Pressure Welding: Using pressure vessels that measure atmospheric units of pressure (one at a time, just like what you do with sea level pressure)
- Habitat Welding: Using a habitat with ambient pressure (similar to the surrounding pressure at the weld point). These chambers are like a small room. Before you enter the habitat, it displaces the surrounding water into the lake or ocean.
- Dry Chamber Welding: This is just like habitat welding but now with a tinier chamber. The chamber holds only the diver’s shoulders and head, who should be donning diving gear. The diver enters the suit from the bottom up.
- Dry Spot Welding: Here, you’ll have to think even smaller. The chamber gets smaller to about the size of the diver’s head and becomes completely clear. It’s placed on the weld site, and the diver puts the electrode inside.
Dry spot, dry chamber, and habitat welding all use ambient pressure, which means the deeper you, the harder it becomes to come up with a good weld.
The pressurized gases surrounding the electrode arc and weld make it so difficult. Thinner gases contract the arc ‘roots’ more.
Gas Tungsten Arc Welding
This technique, also commonly referred to as “TIG,” is done using an electrode manufactured using non-consumable tungsten.
An electric arc is used to supply heat. Its application is for aluminum and stainless steel.
Gas Metal Arc Welding
Plasma Arc Welding
This method uses an electric arc; however, it constricts the arc slightly, similar to how water is pressurized in small hoses.
It allows for intense heat and high arc speeds in the weld sites. Its application is for aluminum and stainless steel.
If divers need to perform extensive welds in deep waters in big hyperbaric chambers, they’ll typically opt to work in pairs.
Operators will lower the chambers to the site and then fill it with gas. The welder-divers will then diving bell to reach the weld site and then swim into the habitat to start work.
Since they’re working in twos, they’ll be able to work in shifts of 6 to 8-hour shifts.
Other Common Welds
- Shielded Metal Arc Welding
- Flux-Cored Arc Welding
How To Choose Between Wet Or Dry Welding
As you’ve seen, all marine welding isn’t created equal. Both dry and wet types have their pros and cons.
There’s no real formula to know what kind of welding you’ll need to use in a given scenario. Several key factors will help determine what welding method needs to be applied.
These factors include:
- The diver’s skill
- Project budget
- Safety concerns
- Location and depth
- Project time length
In the past ten years or so, the offshore industry has grown a lot, and there’s always going to be a high demand for skilled marine welders.
Most dry welding is usually done in shallow waters, more so offshore operations.
Overall, most companies have limited marine weld operations, usually around 450 meters or less.
Further depths tend to increase safety concerns for the welders. Some welding scenarios show how dry welding can be performed in depths of 2,400 meters.
However, this can only be achieved in very controlled situations.
Is Underwater Welding Dangerous?
The most dangerous thing about marine welding is when you don’t have enough knowledge and preparation.
While numerous incidents have occurred, like drowning, decompression sickness, or electric shock, most welder-divers and their crew are incredibly skilled, know how to handle the risks that come their way, and are prepared to handle them.
When safety is of top priority, incidents will rarely occur, and even when they do, the divers will know what they need to do.
Because this industry is constantly evolving and growing, the safety protocols will always be scrutinized.
If you’ve never worn a wetsuit or laid a bead in your life, don’t fret too much.
If you’re willing to learn, the mental and physical stamina to endure as well as the patience to master your craft, then attending a trade school can help make your dreams come true.
Regardless of how skilled you currently are, employers are attracted to skill levels. Meaning, the better you are, the more likely you’ll get contacted for work.
The best divers are constantly perfecting and learning new abilities.
This is fantastic news when you think about all the long-term options of a commercial welder-diver.
Down the stretch, this kind of diver has the option of working as a consultant, engineer, or diving operations instructor.
Your experience as a welder-diver can also be used to get a CWI (Certified Welding Inspector) certification. Such certifications will help give you even more career options.
Hopefully, this article is what you needed to get your welder-diver journey finally. So, what are you waiting for? Start the process today.