How to TIG Weld Underwater: The Complete Guide

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If you’ve ever driven past marinas with large ships docked, you may wonder how people could possibly weld them underwater. Here, we’ve compiled the complete guide of how to TIG weld underwater, to work on a ship, a submerged metal piece of a dock, or on oil rigs.

How do you TIG weld underwater? TIG welding, when done underwater, is completed with the welder inside a chamber similar to a submarine, which allows the welder to complete his welding in a dry environment.

TIG welding underwater has one of the highest average hourly pay of any welding process. This is because it’s difficult, tedious, and requires years of training. It’s also incredibly dangerous, adding the struggle of being underwater to the task of TIG welding.

The Complete Guild to TIG Welding Underwater

Tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding is a specialized welding process commonly used to deal with thin, soft metals. Some examples of these are aluminum, copper, or various other alloys. It works by using an electric current run through a tungsten welding “gun” to melt metals.

Most welding methods are protected from airborne contaminants and oxidation by flux electrodes. In TIG welding, you’ll use a gas, typically argon, to replace the flux electrodes and keep contaminants and oxidation away from your weld. This is the “inert gas” of tungsten inert gas welding.

TIG welding can be performed underwater and is useful because of the tough weld it produces. TIG welds are stronger and longer lasting, being resistant to corrosion and cracking. This can be vital when working on something underwater, as a crack could be the ruin of a ship.

Underwater TIG welding is done in a special welder’s “habitat,” a chamber where the water has been pumped out, and air is being pumped in. Unlike stick welding, which is more common, it isn’t as different from typical welding as you may think.

TIG Welding Can Only Be Done as Dry Underwater Welding

When it comes to underwater welding, there are two kinds. These are dry or wet welding and refers to the welder’s surroundings. While dry welding must be used when you’re TIG welding underwater, wet welding is more common and used with a “stick” welder.

Dry welding is done in a small chamber that’s been submerged and emptied of water. It’s filled with air that’s breathable for the welder, much like a submarine is. It can attach to whatever you’re working on in order to give you a dry space to weld inside of.

TIG welding must be done dry because the gas won’t protect your weld if you’re in the water. TIG welders inside the chamber must be careful, as the chamber is small, and if they have a gas leak, will fill up more quickly than if they were on land. They also can’t open the door to air it out, like you can in the shop.

Divers, both in dry and wet welding, may spend days underwater, traveling between the welding chamber and the sleeping chamber, both of which are submerged. This is standard for deep dives, as coming up too quickly will give divers the bends. It’s simpler for them to stay down until the job is done.

TIG Welding Cannot Be Done Wet, But Stick Welding Can Be

TIG welding is far from commonly used. The chamber to submerge a TIG welder is very expensive, both to purchase and to run. TIG welding is more tedious than other forms of welding, taking about twice as long to be completed as stick welding, which is more common.

Stick welding is also called shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) or manual metal arc welding (MMA). It uses electrodes to melt the metal, as we just mentioned with the special electrodes for underwater welding, and flux electrodes to protect the weld. It can also be done wet.

Stick welders working underwater only need to wear a wetsuit and protective gear, instead of a full chamber for TIG welding. Flux electrodes, which protect your weld in stick welding instead of the gas in TIG welding, typically come in a gel you can apply underwater.

You won’t have to pay for the extensive hours of TIG welding or the chamber to dry weld if you choose to use wet stick welding over TIG dry welding. However, keep in mind that TIG welds are stronger and more resistant to wear over the years.

The Dry Chamber Underwater TIG Welding Must Be Completed Inside Of

The chamber TIG welders use underwater is officially called a hyperbaric chamber, which is simply a pressurized chamber that can be submerged to varying depths. They’re typically filled with an atmosphere that’s both healthy for the welder to breathe and is optimal for welding.

The ability to fully control the welding environment is one of the largest appeals of underwater welding. In deep waters, welders struggle to maintain the structural integrity of the weld because the change in pressure when you’re so far underwater can cause bad welds.

Unlike wet welding, you’re safely inside the welding chamber. You won’t have to worry about any animals you may encounter on a wet welding dive. If you do, you’ll safely be inside the chamber, observing them instead of outside with them. However, you’ll typically have to dive to the chamber.

For projects that are deep underwater, it’s not uncommon for companies to set up two chambers, as we mentioned before. This is to prevent the bends, a major struggle for divers everywhere, whether they’re diving to weld or not. 

Two Hyperbaric Chambers for Underwater TIG Welding

Welding has been done thousands of feet underwater, as this article from Science Direct explains. So far, we haven’t found a designated depth where welding cannot be done, but welders are exploring their limits. In some cases, it’s easier for them to stay underwater for days.

Depressurizing, which we talk about in the section on dangers of working as an underwater welder, is hard on the body. To avoid putting themselves through it repeatedly for a single project, welders will have a sleeping chamber underwater with them.

The sleeping chamber isn’t anything fancy. It’s merely a place for any and all welders who may be working on a project or projects to come and eat and rest in between shifts. It’s common for wet welders to do this as well, as they would have to depressurize as well if not.

TIG welders commonly work for 12-16 hours on a project at one time. In order to come up, they’d have to depressurize, which takes hours. It simply doesn’t make sense to have them come up, depressurize, and then return down almost immediately.

How Much Do Professional Underwater TIG Welders Make?

According to Pay Scale, a website that finds the average salary of different professions, underwater welders make an average annual salary of nearly $70,000. The lowest earner will make around $35,000 or less a year, and the highest will make nearly $150,000 a year.

As we’ve just gone through everything a TIG welder must do on a daily basis, this number seems fairly fitting for the job. There’s been a shortage of workers for most technical positions, such as welding, for the past few years. This has caused the average wage to increase steadily.

Before you decide you should drop your current career and become an underwater welder, consider the drawbacks of the job. Most of the pay is hazard pay for the risks they’re taking by working so far under the water.

If you’re still interested in becoming a TIG welder, read through to see the steps to become a certified TIG welder underwater. It’s important also to note that many underwater welders retire after just 10-15 years due to the physical strain it puts on your body.

How Do You Become a TIG Underwater Welder?

To become a certified TIG welder, you’ll have to attend a school with an accredited program in both diving and TIG welding. There are other options we’ll discuss as well, but first, we’ll go through the most traditional path to becoming an underwater welder.

Most welding programs offered in school allow you to choose a special process of welding to specialize in. If you’re interested in TIG welding, obviously, you should choose to focus on that. You’ll also need to be able to pass the diver’s exam to get your commercial diving certification.

The diver’s exam is made up of a physical exam and an actual dive. You’ll need to be deemed strong and healthy enough to make multiple dives as well as show the ability to do so. You cannot work as an underwater welder if you don’t have your diver’s certification.

The easiest way to do all this is at the same school. Many schools offering welding degrees don’t offer any diving lessons, but if they have a pool, they may offer commercial diver’s certifications. If you don’t have a local school offering one or both of these, we have some other suggestions.

Become an Underwater TIG Welder as an Apprentice

Welding programs are frequently offered in community colleges and technical schools, but what if you aren’t near either of these? Another option is to apprentice as a welder for a time while learning to dive and working towards getting your diver’s certification.

Welding apprenticeships can be hard to come by, but are a great option for people who can’t attend school for a number of reasons, be it an absence of nearby schools or lack of funds. You can find diving courses at most local pools.

Some of the benefits of an apprenticeship are:

  • A weekly paycheck. If you’re working as an apprentice, you’ll be getting paid for your work. It won’t be a full welder’s wage until you’re certified, but you’ll be paid to learn, instead of paying a school to teach you.
  • The knowledge of a variety of welders. When you apprentice with a welding company, you have the resource of all the welders you’re working with. Many have been around the welding jobsite for many years, if not decades, and can teach you a few tricks.
  • A more focused approach. Not all certification courses are like this, but most community colleges have general education requirements for their welding students. An apprenticeship won’t require this.

Diving Courses to Become an Underwater TIG Welder

A community college or technical school is not your only option for diving courses, as we just touched on. You can find diving courses at several pools or local marinas if you live near water.

It’s important to note that part of the diving certification exam, you’ll go through a physical exam to determine whether or not you’re considered fit enough to be a certified diver. This isn’t to be prejudiced or judgmental, but to ensure you can safely dive.

No matter which part they failed, divers who don’t pass the exam can reapply again at any time. However, if you’ve failed the physical exam, it’s advised that you wait until you’re confident you’ll be able to pass it before attempting it a second time.

The Dangers of Underwater TIG Welding

This wouldn’t be completed without a list of some of the dangers faced by underwater TIG welders. As you can imagine, there is a plethora.  Everything from the same dangers faced by every welder to the dangers of being a diver play into TIG welding underwater.

Some of the dangers of underwater TIG welding, or any underwater welding, are:

  • Drowning
  • The bends
  • Being shocked by equipment
  • Explosions
  • Hypothermia
  • Ocean animals

There are more, of course, but we’ll start with these. You should also keep in mind that there are varying degrees of each of these. In some cases, welders will begin to drown but survive, or only have a small explosion. In these cases, they may be injured but will return to work after.

Can You Drown While Underwater TIG Welding?

TIG welding is done in the chamber, so your chances of drowning are significantly less so than stick welders. However, they aren’t gone. In deep dives, you’ll have to go down in the chamber to survive the pressure, but in shallower dives, you may have to dive to your chamber.

Diving down to your chamber and back up can be risky, and people have drowned doing so. While it may not seem that far when done on the regular, underwater welders dive up to 130 feet. On average, they’re going about 60 feet down, according to ScienceDirect’s article.

Some of the normal risks of drowning while drowning include currents, differential pressures, and assorted accidents. Part of the reason you have to go through a physical before getting your certification is to make sure you’re strong enough to withstand the currents.

There is also the chance your chamber may fail. While they’re made of high quality and construction, it’s important to check your chamber regularly for any signs of wear. Any spot that’s grown weak from time or corrosion needs to be immediately dealt with.

What Are the Bends and Why Do Underwater TIG Welders Get Them?

The bends refers to a medical condition that occurs when the body is under great pressure and comes out from under it too quickly. It’s common for deep sea divers, whether they’re working commercially as welders or otherwise, and quite painful if not deadly.

The technical aspect of the bends is tiny nitrogen bubbles forming in your blood vessels as your body pulls the nitrogen from your bloodstream. These bubbles block your small blood vessels, which can cause them to rupture or even cause a heart attack, as howstuffworks says.

When under great pressure, your body is processing the oxygen you’re breathing, but it leaves the nitrogen in your blood stream till you depressurize. Upon being freed from the pressures of being so deep underwater, your body quickly absorbs the nitrogen from your bloodstream, leaving the bubbles. 

TIG welders and other deep-water divers have to slowly depressurize in a depressurizing chamber after they’ve made a deep dive. This allows the nitrogen to slowly come out of your bloodstream. Many TIG welding jobs are deep underwater and require depressurization.

Underwater TIG Welders May Have Nose, Lung, and Ear Damage

The pressure of being that far underwater can lead the bends, as we just covered, but even if you’re careful to depressurize, you may still have long term damage. Offshore Injury Firm is a legal firm specializing in underwater welding lawsuits, including damage to the nose, lungs, and ears.

The intense changes in pressure can also damage your sinus and nose. The constantly changing pressure on your sinuses leads to inflammation and pain, which doesn’t always go away with time. Many retired underwater welders still struggle with nasal issues caused by their job.

 Your lungs will also experience pain from the changing pressure. Many times, the changing pressure will lead to costochondritis, a condition where the cartilage connecting your ribs will get inflamed, leading to a tight feeling in the chest similar to a heart attack, but long lasting.

Your ears are carefully balanced with bones, cartilage, and fluids. Repeatedly diving deep has proven to throw off the balance of your ears, which over time, can become permanent. Not only will this affect your hearing, but it will also affect your balance, as your sense of balance is based on the fluid in your ears.

Can You Be Shocked When Underwater TIG Welding?

One of the first questions people have when it comes to underwater welding is whether you’re constantly being shocked or not. This is a valid question, as you are working with electricity and metal underwater. To most people, this is a perfect setup for shocking yourself, and it certainly can be.

You can shock yourself while TIG welding whether you’re dry welding underwater or simply welding in your garage. However, it isn’t any easier to do it underwater than it is above water. The chamber setting makes it easier for TIG welders to act as if they’re on land welding versus wet welders.

If you’re wet welding with a stick welder, you’ll have special protection, including rubber gloves to protect yourself against any stray currents. It’s still possible to shock yourself, of course, but there is no way to completely protect against shocks. This is true for welding done on land as well.

Explosions Can Happen While TIG Welding Underwater

Explosions aren’t the first thing most people think of when they’re underwater, but they’re more frequent than you may think. Even wet welders experience the occasional explosion, but it’s even easier for TIG welder, as they’re in the dry chamber. This can be a fatal situation.

Working with a welder, especially a TIG welder, can be a very dangerous and volatile job. TIG welding can arc up if you aren’t careful, which will start fires if it comes in contact with anything. Electricity can be one of the hardest things to control, even with the nicest TIG welding machine.

You’re also working with multiple pieces of large equipment. Any of these could spark or break down, which can easily lead to an explosion. Both your welding plant and gas machine will explode if they catch fire, which is typically deadly in such a small space.

An explosion can also damage your chamber, allowing water in. As long as it’s a small break, you should be able to exit the chamber in time. An explosion large enough to compromise the structural integrity would result in the pressure of the water destroying the chamber and rushing in. 

TIG Welders Experience Hypothermia Regularly

The further down you get, the colder the water gets. This is why many underwater welders and divers experience hypothermia on the regular, even in areas that are typically very warm. It’s rare for the water to warm that deep down.

As we covered earlier, underwater TIG welders have to dive to work inside a sealed chamber, which keeps them warm while inside. However, that dive down and the dive back up are both very cold experiences. It’s important for them to warm up quickly, or else the hypothermia will progress.

It’s important to slowly warm up when you’re experiencing hypothermia instead of trying to immediately get warm. For someone who’s experienced intense hypothermia, they won’t be able to stand anything more than lukewarm water initially.

Hypothermia simply isn’t something underwater welders can avoid. TIG welders have less of a chance than stick welders do of catching a severe case, at least. Stick welder’s wetsuits are designed to keep them as warm as possible, but in cold enough waters, this is little reprieve.

Many Underwater TIG Welders Struggle with Depression Caused by the Job

Dive deep enough, and you’ll lose the sun under the waves, leaving you in darkness. Now, imagine doing that every day for your job. It can get to even the strongest-willed person, wearing them down with the dark, cold environment every day.

The chamber you’re working in is lit enough for you to work, but is a very small, confined space. You won’t have much room to move around, aside from what you need to work, and the air you’re breathing is recycled, filtered through, and run down to you, much like an airplane.

Because of this workspace, many underwater welders struggle with depression. This is especially true for those who work deep enough under that they live in the chambers to avoid depressurizing. The welders working on projects for a week or longer won’t see the sun the entire time.

Many people find they can’t stand being in such a small, dark space for the extended periods of time the job requires. If you find yourself struggling to cope with your job, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Many welders are able to work underwater and balance their mental health, but it takes work.

Some TIG Welders Make Friends with Ocean Animals

The majority of your experiences as an underwater welder with animals will be harmless and occasional. For the most part, you’ll only see your standard fish and algae or barnacles. This is because ocean animals tend to avoid places heavily populated by people, such as the marina or oil rig you’d be working from.

However, it isn’t unheard of for a welder to encounter an animal while working underwater. Animals will approach welders for a number of reasons, some of which are better than others for the welders. Some of the reasons they may approach you are:

  • Curiosity
  • Searching for food
  • Injury

The biggest reason you’ll have an animal approach you underwater are simple curiosity. There are many photos online of curious fish swimming up to people underwater out of curiosity. Conversely, many people have fed wild animals food, and now the animals associate humans with food.

While you’ll usually only see an animal approach you out of curiosity or searching for food, be careful of injured animals. They may be aggressive towards you, even if you’re in the TIG welding chamber. Large enough animals could do damage to the chamber, but most won’t.

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