Underwater Welding

Hyperbaric welding is the process of welding at elevated pressures, normally underwater. Hyperbaric welding can either take place wet in the water itself or dry inside a specially constructed positive pressure enclosure and hence a dry environment. It is predominantly referred to as “hyperbaric welding” when used in a dry environment, and “underwater welding” when in a wet environment. The applications of hyperbaric welding are diverse—it is often used to repair ships, offshore oil platforms, and pipelines. Steel is the most common material welded.

The fact that electric arc could operate was known for over a 100 years. The first ever underwater welding was carried out by British Admiralty – Dockyard for sealing leaking ship rivets below the water line. Underwater welding is an important tool for underwater fabrication works. In 1946, special waterproof electrodes were developed in Holland by ‘Van der Willingen’. In recent years the number of offshore structures including oil drilling rigs, pipelines, platforms are being installed significantly. Some of these structures will experience failures of its elements during normal usage and during unpredicted occurrences like storms, collisions. Any repair method will require the use of underwater welding.

Underwater welding can be classified as

  1. Wet Welding
  2. Dry Welding

Hyperbaric welding is carried out in chamber sealed around the structure o be welded. The chamber is filled with a gas (commonly helium containing 0.5 bar of oxygen) at the prevailing pressure. The habitat is sealed onto the pipeline and filled with a breathable mixture of helium and oxygen, at or slightly above the ambient pressure at which the welding is to take place. This method produces high-quality weld joints that meet X-ray and code requirements. The gas tungsten arc welding process is employed for this process. The area under the floor of the Habitat is open to water. Thus the welding is done in the dry but at the hydrostatic pressure of the sea water surrounding the Habitat.

Dry hyperbaric welding is used in preference to wet underwater welding when high quality welds are required because of the increased control over conditions which can be exerted, such as through application of prior and post weld heat treatments. This improved environmental control leads directly to improved process performance and a generally much higher quality weld than a comparative wet weld. Thus, when a very high quality weld is required, dry hyperbaric welding is normally utilized. Research into using dry hyperbaric welding at depths of up to 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) is ongoing. In general, assuring the integrity of underwater welds can be difficult (but is possible using various nondestructive testing applications), especially for wet underwater welds, because defects are difficult to detect if the defects are beneath the surface of the weld.

Wet Welding indicates that welding is performed underwater, directly exposed to the wet environment. A special electrode is used and welding is carried out manually just as one does in open air welding. The increased freedom of movement makes wet welding the most effective, efficient and economical method. Welding power supply is located on the surface with connection to the diver/welder via cables and hoses

Although wet welding is widely used for underwater fabrication works, it suffers from the following drawbacks:

  1. There is rapid quenching of the weld metal by the surrounding water. Although quenching increases the tensile strength of the weld, it decreases the ductility and impact strength of the weldment and increases porosity and hardness.
  2. Hydrogen Embrittlement – Large amount of hydrogen is present in the weld region, resulting from the dissociation of the water vapour in the arc region. The H2 dissolves in the Heat Affected Zone (HAZ) and the weld metal, which causes Embrittlement, cracks and microscopic fissures. Cracks can grow and may result in catastrophic failure of the structure.
  3. Another disadvantage is poor visibility. The welder some times is not able to weld properly.

The main risks for the welder performing Underwater-welding are the potential for electric shock, the possibility of producing in the arc mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen in pockets, which might set up an explosion, and the common danger sustained by divers, of having nitrogen diffuse in the blood in dangerous proportions. Curiously the risk of drowning is not listed with the hazards of Underwater-welding.

First there were no demands for quality. Underwater-welding was just applied to weld a patch until a more thorough repair could be performed. But as soon as more experience was gained, ambitious individuals and companies joined forces to improve results and to establish achievable specifications.

There is a risk to the welder/diver of electric shock. Precautions include achieving adequate electrical insulation of the welding equipment, shutting off the electricity supply immediately the arc is extinguished, and limiting the open-circuit voltage of MMA (SMA) welding sets. Secondly, hydrogen and oxygen are produced by the arc in wet welding.

Precautions must be taken to avoid the build-up of pockets of gas, which are potentially explosive. The other main area of risk is to the life or health of the welder/diver from nitrogen introduced into the blood steam during exposure to air at increased pressure. Precautions include the provision of an emergency air or gas supply, stand-by divers, and decompression chambers to avoid nitrogen narcosis following rapid surfacing after saturation diving.

For the structures being welded by wet underwater welding, inspection following welding may be more difficult than for welds deposited in air. Assuring the integrity of such underwater welds may be more difficult, and there is a risk that defects may remain undetected.


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