Unfortunately for divers, their work gear always demands a diving suit – there’s no such thing as casual Fridays.
Though we think of it as a “suit”, divers don’t always had the luxury of wearing a sleek, shiny ninja spandex. Once upon a time, people used really, really baggy uniforms.
Or metal shells.
Today, underwater welders wear their diving suits in a garment fashion, though atmospheric diving suits are used in saturation diving. As with all your other underwater welding equipment, you must choose which one “suits” you best.
Diving Suits Types & Costs
Dive Skin ($30 – $100)
Water Temperature: Above 77 °F
This is the long underwear of the diving world. You can use it to keep away from jellyfish attacks and the sun rays. Underwater welders probably won’t use dive skins unless they wear them under their wet or dry suit for comfort.
Wetsuit ($60 – $300)
Water Temperature: 50 – 77 °F
As the most popular option, wetsuits have universal application among scuba divers, commercial divers and almost every other diver type. Modern day wetsuits have excellent insulation capability, as their synthetic material keeps much of the warm water away from the cold water. The drawback is in the name – you get wet.
The semi-dry suit is sometimes distinguished from the wetsuit because of the temperature usage. Wetsuits are worn from 50 – 77 °F, while semi-dry suits drop the maximum temperature to 68 °F; above that, you’ll start sweating. They usually come in two pieces for the top and bottom portion, and they have much thicker neoprene material and seals.
Dry Suit ($400 – $5,000+)
Water Temperature: 28 – 60 °F
Now for the big leagues. Underwater welders use dry suits in waters a little below freezing. Unlike their wetsuit cousins, industrial dry suits completely seal off the diver from his or her environment, with attachments such as zippers at the boots, wrists and neck.
Some dry suits are made of fabric; others of thick, neoprene rubber. Underwater welders often use the latter, due to its thicker protection in industrial waste and other hazardous materials.
Hot Water Suit ($1,500 – $5,000+)
Water Temperature: Below 28 °F
Used for extreme cold temperatures, these suits have a built-in valve for pumping hot water into the suit throughout the course of the dive. Besides the valve and pipe, this full-fledged wearable has many similarities to the dry suit. However, to allow water to flush through, the wrist and ankle openings remain unsealed. Only professional divers use these suits due to their cost and complexity.
Since diving suits are relatively specific in their uses, I won’t spend time talking about the advantages of wet versus dry. However, as an underwater welder, you need to know what qualities make diving suits durable and long-lasting so you know which one to purchase. Let’s focus on the three suits that you’ll wear most often.
Diving Suit Features
If you’re practicing diving inland, you’ll probably find yourself in spandex more often than a superhero. Inland diving means more freshwater and mild temperatures. And underwater welders hate putting on more gear than they need, so simplicity usually wins out. Obviously this will change during the winter when the water gets much colder in the norther river ways and lakes.
Because of the stretchy nature of wetsuits, you’ll want to make sure you’re looking at a guide to the proper length and width. Find a wetsuit size chart like Bodyglove‘s to find the suit that fits within your range. Before you choose, remember to account for your “unique” attributes such as a shorter torso or large gluteus maximus.
You’ve probable heard the word neoprene thrown around quite a bit when reading about your diving suit. This special synthetic rubber allows for great abrasion, buoyancy and – most importantly – insulation. Wetsuits come in multiple thicknesses depending on the water temperature and desired mobility. It’s like picking out a snowsuit, but without the cute furry collars.
Look for the thickness gauge in millimeter fractions. The first number represents the torso thickness and the second number is for limb and extremity thickness.
- 3/2 mm: Mild – Warm (Spring and Summer)
- 4/3 mm: Mild – Cold (Autumn and Winter)
- 5/4 mm: Cold – Very Cold (Winter)
Many wetsuits range from 30% – 100% flexibility.
As with most attributes, you won’t miss it until you don’t have it.
Find a highly flexible wetsuit so that your arms don’t feel like slingshots.
When working on a construction project underwater, you’ll find that more flexibility equals less frustration and more control for body movements. For example, when underwater welding, you’ll want complete range of movement in your elbow and shoulder joints but very little movement for your torso and legs. If you don’t have this control, you’ll compensate by moving other parts of your body, obstructing the weld.
If you’re just starting out, you might want a suit with 60 – 75% flexibility, since highly flexible wetsuits cost a pretty penny.
Underwater welders rank the zipper as one of the biggest factors in choosing a suit. If it breaks, you have nothing to hold your diving suit together, and some zippers have a hard-to-reach position on the suit.
Here’s the most common locations of zipper seams:
As the most popular choice, welder-divers usually operate vertical back zipper with a lanyard. The length and size of the zipper seam will remain relatively snug even when you bend your back. The top area connecting to your neck might leak slightly.
The front location seems like the obvious choice, as the wearer can access it quite easily similar to a button-up shirt. However, if you’re working on a project stomach down, the zipper seam may become irritating. There’s also the matter of flexibility, since it’s placed over your chest and diaphram – areas that constantly expand and deflate.
This arrangement puts a lot of tension around the top and bottom portions, where movement is most extreme (shoulders especially). Still, the zipper position can provide sealing to the entire diving suit, allowing for some to put these suits in the “semi-dry” classifications.
Dry Suit & Hot Water Suit
For many projects offshore and in colder waters, dry suits and hot water suits offer the best protection. They also represent a significant investment of resources, and most divers can’t afford one right out of underwater welding school. With dry suits, there’s little gray area in terms of “effectiveness.” Either they completely seal you off from hazardous temperatures and liquids…or they don’t. Hot water suits’ best quality lies in its ability to flex evenly and flush out cold water.
In short, don’t skimp on quality with dry suits and hot water suits. A high quality suit should give you 5-10+ years of use.
Seams & Seals
Areas around your neck, wrists and ankles are usually composed of one of two materials, each with their own set of advantages and disadvantages:
- Latex Rubber: Greater sealing effectiveness, but less flexibility. Better for wrist seals when holding equipment. More susceptibility to wear and tear.
- Neoprene: More flexibility and comfort, but may not 100% seal and allow small trickles in. The neck joint often seals best with the top of the seal inverted in, like a turtleneck.
Dry suit and hot water suit zippers are similar to wetsuits in terms of position and effectiveness. For greater sealing capacity, the zipper might have a “double zipper layer” or a simple flap that folds over the first zipper.
I would recommend choosing the flap as opposed to the double zipper option for simplicity. Make sure your zipper is high quality by looking at the seam that sewed/glued the zipper on. Also, check the thickness and material of the zipper and lanyard.
Older suits don’t have air exhaust valves, but modern suits usually have an automatic automatic vents on the shoulder and settings for manual control on the wrist. These valves give the underwater welder full control over buoyancy and flexibility. For example, if you need to ascend two meters, you can adjust your valve to allow a small amount of air inside the suit.
Since most air exhaust valves function similarly on dry suits, there’s little difference in quality. However, make sure you find a valve that freely rotates to allow your connected pressure hose full range while working. A tangled hose can cause some real problems.
Many times, underwater projects can take several hours to complete. During that time, you’ll probably have the need to go number 1 into nature’s toilet. P-Valves provide an outlet for liquid waste to travel through (don’t worry, it’s a one way valve so the urine can’t be pulled back in to your suit).
The valve usually opens on the lower portion of the thigh and connects through a drain hose back to your genitals. Some divers prefer adult diapers to P-Valves, but we won’t judge. Just remember, it’s a dry suit, so it should probably stay that way. If you want more detail, you can read about it yourself, sicko.
Specific to hot water suits, this primary connector usually fastens on the left or right side above the waistline. It continuously pumps warm air into the suit to keep the diver at a comfortable temperature. Topside members have control of the water temperature, so the connector simply serves as a gateway to the suit. Since all connectors function the same way, just make sure you inspect it beforehand for any leaks or lack of adjustment.
As someone who works with underwater equipment, pockets can hold your smaller items such as screwdrivers or flashlights. If your dry suit or hot water suit doesn’t come equipped with pockets, they can be attached later through a custom fit shop.
Underwater welders prefer pockets on the thighs for easy access. Stay mindful of the pocket shape and width, since they may not hold the tools you often use. Also, pockets can actually anchor you down if you’re swimming for long periods of time to get to your work site. As you swim, the pockets will fill with water and add more resistance.
Construction workers who work on their knees consider knee pads as a necessity. Underwater welders may need these as well, especially if your projects focus on horizontal rather than vertical repairs and installments. Cheaper pads may come in a light, thin rubber form that attaches to the suit with glue or thread.
Thicker knee pads often have a thick, tough neoprene surface with grooves on the external side. Internally, they should provide a comfortable flex to save your knees and shins. The most desirable dry suits have kevlar for detachable knee pads – these can be attached for specific projects or replaced when they wear out.
As with diving helmets and other underwater welding equipment, you can utilize some customization options on your diving suit. Everything from suit color to fitting may have custom options, depending on the company through which you purchase your suit. Choose practical options that will give you the best bang for your buck:
- Zipper type
- Seam material
- Accessory items
And don’t buy a brightly-colored suit unless you want the (negative) attention. That’s like tattooing a ship on your belly.
Diving Suit Purchase
There’s a lot of factors to consider before buying a diving suit, but it’s worth it to save up for a high quality product. Used suits work perfectly fine if you can test it first to make sure it’s still in good condition. The best diving suits will give you complete freedom and protection, the best “casual Friday” that underwater welders can hope for.