“Underwater welders are divers first and welders second,” says Cecil Thompson. He is a project supervisor with an underwater repair and construction company.
Thompson says welding is just one skill a commercial diver needs to find and keep work. “In all honesty, you’ll want to have more in your back pocket than underwater welding,” he warns.
If you can weld and perform a number of other underwater construction and survey duties, those in the field say this is a good time to be a commercial diver.
So just how do you bond two pieces of metal together while underwater? It turns out there are a couple of ways. Instead of the gas weld rods used on dry land, underwater welders use special electric arc welding rods. Most underwater welding is done with the help of a dry chamber system, which is used to keep water from the work area. These are called hyperbaric chambers or habitats.
Hyperbaric chambers are expensive and not always readily available. The alternative is a wet welding technique with no mechanical shielding from water. But wet welding also has its drawbacks.
Sometimes the hot metal is cooled too quickly by cold water, which results in a lot of cracking. “Wet welding is an emergency or temporary thing,” explains underwater welder Jeff Peters.
Applications of underwater welding include underwater pipelines, offshore oil drilling rigs, docking facilities, mining, ships, barges, dams, locks, sub-sea habitats and nuclear power facilities.
Some underwater welders are self-employed. Most work for commercial diving contractors, shipping and marine construction companies, oil and gas companies and the armed forces.
Wherever they work, underwater welders are usually called on to perform a wide variety of commercial diving tasks — everything from construction and repair to technical survey work.
“Welding is only about five percent of the market,” says Roger Thacker, a commercial diving instructor.
Thacker says most of the work for commercial divers is in general underwater construction in the offshore oil fields. “In oil fields, the commercial diver is an underwater roustabout,” he says.
A roustabout assembles or repairs oil field equipment using hand and power tools, and performs other tasks as needed.
Underwater, they lay pipeline, set flanges (the big brackets that help hold pipe together) and risers (where the pipe comes up to the platform), and clamp pipes to rigs.
Underwater welding repair of offshore, inland waterway and port facilities is becoming a top priority for both military and industrial communities. Many of these facilities are operating well beyond their intended life. Underwater welders are needed for maintenance and repair.
Underwater welding is not a glamorous job. “The places you’re working are very dark and very cold,” warns Peters.
Commercial divers need to be in good mental and physical shape for diving. Even the common cold can cause equalization difficulties. Underwater welding and construction work require a good level of fitness and coordination.
Underwater welders work an average workweek. But weekend work and overtime are possible if the work is urgent.