Diving helmets are not cheap.
If you’re just starting underwater welding school, you may find a lower end model from another commercial diver for $1,500 – $2,000. But the higher end diving helmets may run anywhere from $6,000 – $10,000, depending the purpose and the types of accessories you purchase with them.
Because of the significant financial investment, make sure you’ve done your homework beforehand and think about your future income.
After all, a diving helmet is the most important piece of equipment you’ll purchase.
It’s what makes you a commercial diver, not a swimmer.
Comparing 2 Types of Helmets & Project Application
Commercial divers usually don one of two types of head gear, and each one has pros and cons.
Full-face Diving Mask: Less Protection & Higher Visibility
Sight, when you have it, means an enormous amount to your work efficiency.
During a project in shallow water, commercial divers may prefer a full-face diving mask over a diving helmet since it often allows for a wider range of sight. A full-face diving mask has several other advantages:
- Less drag
- Cheaper (product and maintenance)
But you can’t use a mask on HAZMAT jobs or heavy construction projects.
A full-face diving mask doesn’t seal off the welder divers head from polluted material, and it doesn’t have the reinforced top and sides that protect commercial divers from heavy objects falling on them. In addition, the full-face diving mask doesn’t provide the crystal clear communication that high quality diving helmets possess.
Finally, even if you deem the project “safe” for using a full-face diving mask, your supervisor may have other ideas and require you wear a deep sea diving helmet.
Diving Helmet: Heavier But Highly Capable
No matter what brand or size, diving helmets have a relatively equal amount of visibility compared to each other. Modern helmet face masks come in the “bean” or rectangular shape, though the bean is often used for space efficiency on open circuit diving helmets. Here’s a few tips to remember for finding optimum visibility.
Vision Span: The average human’s vision field spans about 120 degrees. Once you strap on a diving helmet, your vision span will cut in half to approximately 50 – 60 degrees. Since almost all diving helmets have about the same range, you won’t be able to control your tunnel vision.
Defog: Find a helmet that uses a defogging valve to maintain a dry, clear mask. Experiment with various defogging products (or just hock a loogy) to rub on your lens before you dive.
Underwater Welding Lens: For underwater welding jobs, look for a helmet that supports filter lenses. Lenses range from light shades (#4) to quite dark (#12). You’ll probably need at least two varieties of shades.
Deep Sea Diving Helmet Characteristics
Breathing Equipment Functions
Above everything else, your diving helmet is defined by its ability to allow you to breathe underwater. Make this priority number one in your decision-making. Look for helmets with extremely high breathing efficiency and stability.
The helmet regulator and valves control your breathing cycle, so make sure they’re composed of high quality material.
You’ll choose between one of two types of helmets.
- Open Circuit (on-demand air flow)
- Free-Flow (continuous air flow)
Find one made of an anti-rust material in external components, like stainless steel or hard plastic. Also, the higher the turning range, the better for pressure adjustments.
Communications Quality: Your Link to Surface Support & Direction
Communication is second only to breathing capability for a commercial diving helmet.
Lack of clear communication causes project delays at best and danger for an underwater welder at worst.
Commercial divers use communication wiring in addition to their surface supply cables, which all attach to their helmet.
The wiring for communications capabilities comes in two types:
- Two wire: Simple form with radio-style conversing; topside personnel and the welder diver cannot talk at the same time. Easier maintenance.
- Four wire: Complex setup with advanced capabilities to allow either party to speak at the same time.
For the clearest communications, divers rely on enclosed deep sea diving helmets with well-designed acoustics.
The denser the helmet material, the better it conducts sound. It also must possess high elasticity which is a fancy way of saying the sound doesn’t come back garbled. Therefore, steel (stainless or bronze) helmets are optimum for clear communication.
Size: With Diving Helmets, One Does Not Fit All
Still, you’ll want a deep sea diving helmet with a snug (but not tight) fit that’s not in any danger of popping off.
If you’ve watched American football, you understand the necessity of a helmet that fits snugly.
“Bottom time” in diving jobs can last anywhere from a few minutes to several days, so treat your diving helmet like you would a new pair of shoes: Try it on. Or, if you’re purchasing the helmet online, make sure you’ve tried a similar-fitting helmet. Make sure it has plenty of padding and a high quality lining. The foam padding on most helmets can be substituted with thinner or thicker pieces, depending on your head size.
Weight & Balance: Why the Best Commercial Diving Hats Aren’t Always the Lightest
Most modern commercial diving helmets weigh about 32-33 pounds, a necessary weight for buoyancy in the water during dives. More important is the weight distribution, as this can vary from helmet to helmet.
When you try your helmet on, assess your balance.
Does your head have a strong tendency to fall forward or lean back? If so, you may have some uneven weight distribution.
Obviously, you can’t fully test the balance feature until you’ve spent some time with it underwater. That’s why you should only purchase a helmet with a warranty and minimum two-week return policy. This will allow you time to test it under the water in various pressures.
External & Internal Materials
Many diving helmets consist of a mixture of various materials like plastics, alloys and metals. Some manufacturers use stainless steel and brass for the external shell, while others prefer bronze. Bronze lasts longer in saltwater than stainless steel, but it’s harder to clean. Of course, the most common external shell is made of a hard carbon fiber that works well in most situations.
You obviously want a full range of motion in your limbs and head.
This movement comes through a proper marriage of your neck dam and helmet (I feel a sexual reference coming on).
Test out your movement by securing your rubber collar first, then judge its fitting on its own: You don’t want one that’s too large for your neck, creating a strain when you turn your head. Afterward you can test your movement with your helmet on.
Find a neck dam that fits correctly, and don’t try to “modify” it for inappropriate uses. For example, you shouldn’t rig a wet suit neck dam for a dry neck dam. This may cause leakage in the collar area, destroying the insulation between your skin and the water.
Accessory Friendly: How Helmet Attachments Support Your Work
As I mentioned earlier, you should look for a deep sea diving helmet that has the capability to add attachments. Accessories are often used on diving projects that require a recorded inspection or exploration of a new area. They also allow you to operate hands-free without having to carry something in one hand.
Underwater welders make use of these common accessories:
- Welding Lenses
- Cameras (pictures and/or video)
Choose accessories on an as-needed basis, since you won’t know how often you’ll use them for projects.
Holding Up Under Pressure: Reliability
Have you ever tried to repair you car engine, and realized it’s a computer problem?
As grandpa says, “things ain’t what they used to be.”
Purchasing your own commercial diving helmet comes with the responsibility to properly maintain it if you want something long lasting.
In your search for the proper head gear, look for commercial diving helmets that are constructed with solid, high quality material and a straightforward design. The more difficult the helmet is to take apart, the more likely you may break something and or improperly assemble it.
Simple is better.
Also, check your helmet thoroughly for anything loose or not sealed correctly. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about leaks, it’s that they only grow bigger over time. Don’t buy a used helmet with “small” problems like insulation.
What Versatility Means in a Commercial Diving Helmet
Every day is different for welder divers.
Diving tasks range from salvaging to inspection, from underwater welding to rubbish removal. A versatile career requires a helmet that can be used in a variety of situations. These are some general characteristics that represent versatility.
- Attachments for accessories
- Hard outer shell
- Multiple internal straps for adjustment
- Multi-use side block
Obviously, this concept only goes so far. Free-flow is often used over open circuit in HAZMAT situations due to these helmets’ cost and pressurization. In most situations, open circuit will serve you best in the area of versatility.
Better Investment Return: New or Used?
New helmets often come with warranties and policies on theft.
You won’t get this with a used commercial diving helmet, though it may run half the price of a new one.
If you’re looking into a used helmet and know that the owner has taken excellent care of it, then it may be the right decision for you – at least starting out.
If there’s one piece of equipment to not skimp on, it’s this one.
Your commercial diving helmet is your life blood – make your purchase count.
Featured image credit: USACE Photo by Leon Roberts