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While welding repairs or hot tapping onshore pipelines is a common occurrence,

welding repairs on subsea pipelines is most often never even considered. However,
the risks involved with welding subsea in-service pipelines underwater is present and
needs to be managed by ensuring that, when conducted welding is performed in a
reproducible and consistent manner.

The fact that electric arc technology could operate

underwater has been 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 in the early 1900s and the specific waterproof electrodes and the
methods to use underwater were developed in Holland by Van der Willingen in 1946.
Increasing the underwater welding practice
In recent years, the number of offshore structures, pipelines, and platforms being
installed in deeper waters has increased. Some of these pipelines and structures will
experience failures. Any repair for these on location will require the use of
underwater welding.
When confronted with the issue of underwater welding, we often question: Why
should we consider underwater welding in the first place? The immediate answer is
Why not?

Its true; it is not a commonly-used technique and it does require meticulous

planning, availability of highly-skilled tradesmen and tenacity to be successful. Even
then, it is still a viable technique.

If the issues are analyzed, there is no valid reason not to consider underwater
welding, especially if production losses due to outage for repairs is punitive. Sunsea
welding generally needs specialized welding knowledge combined with diving skills,
which is more demanding than run-of-the-mill commercial divers can offer. Subsea
welding covers areas of repairing pipelines, offshore oil platforms and ships.

Subsea welding also reduces the cost for the company by directly carrying out the
welding work on location, saving time lost in production to the company.
Furthermore, because of the offshore exploration, drilling, and recovery of gas and oil
in deeper waters today, it is necessary to have the capability to repair pipelines and
the portion of drill rigs and production platforms which are deep underwater.

Risks and precautions

Welding underwater can be a dangerous profession if precautions arent taken. The
main risks are electric shock and the possibility of producing in the arc mixtures of
hydrogen and oxygen in pockets, which might set off an explosion. The other
common danger is breathing nitrogen in the air mix, which is absorbed into the blood
but not metabolized by the body at depths under pressure. This could turn into
bubbles on ascent and paralyze the diver. Curiously, the risk of drowning is not
considered in commercial diving because that is the first hurdle to overcome in this
The quantity of dives, dive repetitiveness, depth of the operations, time spent
underwater and the exhausting nature of a specific task increase these risks
significantly. Appropriate safety measures are provided to the diver via emergency air
or gas supply, stand-by divers and decompression chambers. The diving-related
health and safety procedures are managed by strict governing guidelines and work

When subsea welding is completed, both the welder and the structures being welded
are at risk. The welder has to be very careful to avoid receiving an electric shock. For
this, adequate precaution is taken by insulating the welder and limiting the voltage of
welding sets. Continuous control of hydrogen and oxygen build-up is managed by
removal and kept away from the arc to minimise any potential explosion.

Lastly, the welders time under water is controlled by using saturation diving
chambers and regular rest periods in between. Inspection of an underwater weld is
very difficult and complicated when compared to surface welding, but as it is the only
controlling process of the quality of the weld, it is always done. The weld is inspected
very carefully to confirm that no defects remain.

There are many underwater welding schools located in different parts of the world,
including Australia, to train commercial divers. Historically, underwater welding was
restricted to salvage operations and emergency repair work with limited depths of
less than 9 m.

Wet welding the way to go

There are two well-developed major categories of underwater welding process: one is
welding in a wet environment; the other is welding in a dry environment.
Working underwater to weld serves to provide a number of benefits. Firstly, there is
no need to pull the structure out from under water to perform work. In addition, many
structures like oil rigs and ship hulls may become damaged at sea, necessitating the
need for immediate work below the surface.

Because of the poor quality and difficulty in the process of welding underwater in the
past, welding in the wet environment was used primarily for emergency repairs in
shallow water. For example, to weld a patch for short duration until a complete repair
could be performed in dry docks. With more experience and the advent of special
welding rods and the persistence of some ambitious individuals and companies
improved results were achieved, which has made wet welding a common occurrence.
Todays underwater arc welding is accomplished in much the same manner as
ordinary arc welding the only variations being that the electrode holder and cable is
well-insulated to eliminate any possible current leakage and electrolysis of the
surrounding water and the coated water-proof electrodes are used so that the
electrodes do not get wet.

The most commonly used wet welding technique is shielded metal arc welding,
informally known as stick welding. The main differences in wet welding equipment
versus onshore welding equipment is that wet welding uses DC current only.

AC is not used as it can electrocute the diver and it is difficult to maintain a welding
arc underwater with AC. The inclusion of a single or dual circuit breaker switch and
the use of double-insulated cables protect the diver from electrocution. The power
source should be a direct current machine rated at 300 or 400 amperes. Motor
generator welding machines are most suitable for underwater welding.

Typical pipeline repair methods

Typical repair methods, as described in DNV RP F113, are to use fittings for repairs
and tie-in of submarine pipelines.
These fittings include: couplings, clamps, T-branch connections and isolation plugs.
Mechanical means are used to connect fittings such as sleeves/couplings and T-
branches to the pipeline and welding subsequently used to make the repair

The section on the strength of the mechanical attachments is also applicable to

pipeline recovery tools. Couplings connect pipes by direct attachment to the pipe
walls via mechanical means and welded. Flange joins pipes via thick, machined
pieces of additional material that is welded to the pipe ends prior to installation.
Clamps are fitted externally to the pipeline to prevent leaks or add strength. Hot-tap
T-branch connections are fitted externally to the pipeline assembly even during
operation. A pressurized pipeline is machined open to allow fluid flow through the
branch. Pipeline isolation plugs or smart plugs are pumped with the pipeline fluid to
the repair site and then activated to form an isolating barrier that can resist
differential pressure.

The pipe itself represents the key member of the repair assembly with consequential
limitations such as, but not limited to, pipe wall strength, surface irregularities, and
deviations in shape. Fittings for sub-sea repair must be installed with caution to
reduce the likelihood of damage. Coupling strength should be sufficient in resisting
stresses from all relevant loads, within a factor of safety as defined in the standard.

Avoiding pipeline damage

Pipeline damage after installation may be caused by internal and external corrosion,
hydrogen-induced stress cracking, unstable seabed conditions, anchors, and dropped
objects from the surface.
The risk of damage depends on the intensity of surface activities such as ship
transport and offshore operations, depth, seabed conditions and the design of the
pipeline itself. The extent of possible damage will vary from insignificant to a fully
buckled or parted pipeline. Consequently, the repair and repair preparedness
strategy depends on this.

The following steps have to be taken to select an appropriate repair method:

Detailed selection criteria this can be location type and strength requirement
of sleeve, sleeve design and fabrication mechanical attachment requirements,
handling requirements; and,
A pipeline repair procedure manual.
This manual should include:

Avoiding burn-through, factors affecting burn through such as wall thickness,

heat input, and operational parameters such as pressure, temperature and flow
Prevention of hydrogen cracking concerns factors;
Selecting an appropriate procedure welding procedure options, predicting
required heat input, inter-pass temperatures, pre-heating and maintaining;
Proper electrode handling, welding sequence, and control of heat-input level;
Welder/procedure qualification;
Welder training;
Code and regulatory requirements (changes to API 1104);
Code requirements for weld deposition repair; and,
Inspection and testing.
Final thoughts
My experience has shown that defects found in sub-sea pipelines can be permanently
repaired by using mechanical intervention and underwater welding technology more
safely, quickly and economically than any alternative technique. However, significant
amounts of time and resources are still being applied to test and research programs
to provide proven solutions for new repair applications. These will in turn provide the
worldwide pipeline community with the correct answers and operational security
required in the future.
Vijayaraghavan, Vijay. Application of Underwater Welding Processes For Subsea
Pipelines. The Australian Pipeliner October 2011. Principal Integrity and QA
Engineer, Santos