Underwater Welding: Challenges, Techniques, and Safety Tips

February 02, 2024 · Leave a comment · Red-D-Arc
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Underwater welding is an extremely challenging, technical, and complex task. It’s also extremely dangerous. Welding has many dangers of its own, from fumes to UV rays to the fire and shock hazards of sparks and arcs; add to that doing it all underwater and you can see why it’s an extremely specialized task.

Yet there are always people who will seek it out as a profession. Why? The $200-$300k per year take-home is certainly a draw.

The reality is that those numbers are on the high end, for a skilled and lucky underwater welder. Since underwater welding pays by the project, not as a steady salary, it’s very inconsistent. A single project could be worth $30,000 and take a few days or weeks, but it might be months in between projects. Aggressive and skilled welders can find more frequent work, but that’s not always easy.

And, of course, there’s a lot of difference between rookies and veterans, inland and offshore, and other variations in the career. There are even bonuses based on depth; the deeper the project is underwater, the more dangerous it is, so the more pay is involved. Still, it’s a significant draw for many who love both welding and diving.

What Do Underwater Welders Do?

Underwater welding involves a lot more than just diving under the sea with a welding torch and adhering a few pieces of metal to one another.

There’s much, much more to the job:

  • Photographing pieces, parts, and underwater damage, so that projects can be evaluated and planned.
  • Drafting plans and drawing up welding specifications and diagrams for the exact processes handled underwater.
  • Performing nondestructive testing on existing welds and identifying defects.
  • Assisting in the planning and development of projects using knowledge of welding and construction.
  • Configuration and setup of hyperbaric chambers for underwater dry welding.

All of this, in addition to carrying out the actual process of welding. It’s far from an easy job, and encompasses a lot more than what most people think. While, yes, some part of the job involves donning a wetsuit, taking a torch under the waves, and welding metal to metal in the ocean depths, that’s only a small part of what you’ll be expected to do. There’s a lot of planning, paperwork, and complex materials mathematics and engineering to be considered.

The Hazards and Challenges of Underwater Welding

Welding itself is challenging. Consider how steady you need to be with your hands for appropriate welds. Consider all of the knowledge you need, to pick the right filler rods, the right welding process, the travel speed and current, and everything else necessary to create a solid, flaw-free weld.

Now imagine doing all of that:

  • While underwater, floating and at the whim of the current.
  • While recognizing that the current can make objects behave unnaturally.
  • With low, potentially near-zero visibility even before a vision shield.
  • While managing your own oxygen supply and all of the considerations of a commercial diver.

They say that electricity and water don’t mix, and yet that’s exactly what you’re faced with while welding underwater. AC current is never used explicitly because it can be deadly; you’re working with DC for underwater welding projects. Electrocution deaths for underwater welders are very rare, primarily because safety is so massively drilled into you that you have to be doing several things very wrong to be at risk in the first place. Other dangers, though? They make standard welding look safe.

Consider common scenarios with welding in a safe, above-water, controlled shop.

Fumes are a danger, so you have a fume extractor in place to vent the gases away from you. That’s great, but underwater, you don’t have that. You don’t have anywhere for the gasses to go; not only can they build up around you, they can even react to solvents or materials in the environment and create a concentration of explosive gas. Even an explosion above-water, while nothing to scoff at, is more often startling than dangerous; underwater, and explosive pressure wave can be deadly.

Sparks and drops of molten metal are a danger above-water too. A speck of molten metal can burn skin, burn a hole through clothing, or ignite some part of your PPE or environment. Underwater, that clothing is your dive suit, and compromising it can be damaging or even deadly. Imagine a glob of molten metal dripping down onto your air line or your mask, flooding you with ice-cold water unexpectedly.

Imagine cutting parts for repairs in situ. In a shop, the pieces you cut free fall down; you can predict their behavior easily and intuitively. Underwater, a coiled wire can lash out like a spring, a flat panel can catch the current and list sideways, and objects can behave unexpectedly because the environment they’re in is not what you’re used to.

Being underwater is not a natural state for humans. Working underwater, with electricity, is an immensely unnatural, counterintuitive, and dangerous task. It’s no wonder that it can take years of grunt work before you’re even allowed to do anything deeper than a few feet.

One of the most dangerous professions in America is logging, where isolation from help, heavy machinery, wildlife, and a variety of other issues can lead to medical issues or fatalities on site, and the fatality rate for loggers is 0.13%. Meanwhile, underwater welding is over 100x more dangerous; the fatality rate for underwater welders is a shocking 15%. In large part, this is because the environment is so hostile that even minor mistakes have a near-zero chance of recovery.

There’s even the (very minor) risk of sea life interrupting the process. Sharks don’t typically attack divers – shark attacks aren’t common for any divers, welders included – but sharks are much like dogs; they don’t have many ways to sense or explore the world around them, so one of the tools they use is their mouths. Their mouths just happen to be full of sharp teeth, so an exploratory gnawing can be devastating to a fragile human.

The Two Different Underwater Welding Techniques

Underwater welding can take two different forms.

The first is simply what you likely think of when you think of underwater welding. A diver in a wetsuit, wielding a welding torch, welding right there in the water. It’s fast, comparatively easy (though no underwater welding task can ever accurately be described as easy), and doesn’t require a swath of preparation or advanced equipment. This is called Wet Welding. It has many dangers of its own, and while it’s faster to perform, the presence of water and all of the contaminants in the water directly adjacent to the weld surface means the weld is likely to be substandard and poor quality.

The second is much more complicated, and is known as hyperbaric welding. When you need to weld underwater, the work area is defined, and a specialized structure is constructed around that area. This structure, large enough for you to enter, is pumped full of an inert gas mixture and the water removed. This leaves a dry, more predictable, and vaguely safer environment for welding. Since the environment is dry and the atmosphere can be controlled, this allows for much higher-quality welds. The drawback is, it’s much more time consuming, costly, and difficult to set up this welding environment before you can get to work.

A third, specialized form of hyperbaric welding is called saturation welding. This is welding where an entire underwater habitat is formed, and the welder acclimates to the depth for a long-term project. These can leave an operator underwater for days or weeks at a time, are immensely dangerous, and are very rare and very, very lucrative.

It’s no wonder that experienced underwater welders make significant amounts of money.

How to Become an Underwater Welder

Being an underwater welder is no easy task. It’s extremely difficult to jump from surface welding to underwater welding; you essentially need to learn even the most basic tasks from scratch all over again, because even the basic techniques don’t work quite the same way in those environments.

So, your first requirement to become an underwater welder is extensive training and experience with welding in general. You need to know your way around different welding machines and processes, how to adjust current and gas flows as necessary, and critically, how to accurately follow a welding specifications document. You can’t “wing it” when something like the structural integrity of a ship hull, an oil rig, or an oil pipeline is at stake.

Your second major requirement is extensive experience as a diver. You need to be familiar with and trained in the use of underwater diving gear, from your diving suit and mask to your air supply. Welding is hard enough when you aren’t wearing two sets of gloves and a secondary mask while breathing through a tube, right?

Commercial diving is also very different from leisure diving. Commercial diving requires certification, and teaches you everything from how to set up those hyperbaric chambers, to how to communicate with other divers, to how to surface appropriately so you don’t cause yourself health issues. Decompression sickness can be fatal, or can lead to other mistakes that become fatal. Earning certification as a commercial diver is required before you can even begin to pursue underwater welding as a career.

These are both skill sets that can take years of continual practice to master, and that’s before you combine them.

On top of all of this, underwater welding is an intensely physical task. Particularly for wet welding, you’re being buffeted by currents and fighting just to maintain your position. It’s not as simple as bracing yourself and moving your hands at the right pace and direction. Underwater welders need to be physically fit and have excellent breathing control. You will need to pass intense physical examinations and training, including being able to swim for at least 400 meters without assistance.

Many aspiring underwater welders fail at this point, often due to previously undiagnosed health issues. For example, lung or cardiovascular diseases, congenital defects, or other problems can disqualify you on the grounds of safety. Even if you’re otherwise physically fit, the depths of ocean pressure can be devastating, and it’s not a risk that any certifying body is willing to take.

Once you have this baseline level of experience, you can pursue certification as an underwater welder. Underwater welding training courses can range from six months to two years in length, and cover all sorts of skills and knowledge you need to succeed underwater.

Once you pass this course and obtain your certification, only then can you begin to work as an underwater welder. Even then, you’re generally going to be doing grunt work, assisting more experienced divers, or even doing above-water preparation. It will likely feel like being an apprentice again, because that’s exactly what you will be; an apprentice to a more experienced underwater welder. Only after several years of this, will you be experienced enough to start handling projects on your own.

Is Underwater Welding a Worthwhile Career Path?

This isn’t an easy question to answer.

While the high end of the pay range for underwater welders is quite high, it also requires skill, experience, and a good amount of luck, along with networking and willingness to assume a lot of danger to reach those numbers. With high fatality rates, some might even consider it a gamble.

Meanwhile, surface welding can be very lucrative as well. For mid-range salaries, there’s often not much difference between skilled pipefitting and construction projects versus underwater welding. Underwater welding can also be much more stressful and has much steeper physical health requirements.

For those who seek adventure, who love being underwater, and who would be found in some kind of diving-related career no matter what, underwater welding can be a viable and lucrative field. For surface welders looking to progress their careers, there are much better options.

One thing is certain; underwater welding is not for the faint of heart, metaphorically or physically. It’s dangerous, demanding, and sought-after, but it takes a special kind of person to pull it off. If you’re that kind of person, by all means, go for it.

Choosing the right gear is essential for all welding jobs, sure, that includes underwater and hardfacing. Now, let me tell you what we need: A welder that can stick around for long duty cycles, is good at depositing materials, and helps reduce the heat-affected zone on the base material.

Red-D-Arc understands the specific needs of professional welders. To support these needs, we offer a chance to rent a variety of welding equipment. This provides an opportunity to try and find appropriate machines for your specific welding needs. Now – with flexible rental options, if a piece of gear doesn’t meet your standards, it is no big ordeal to return it and give a different one a shot.

Our skilled experts are always ready to assist in finding the best gear for your welding jobs. Reach out to an expert at any time and begin the interesting task of getting good at the welding craft, whether done submerged underwater or above it.

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