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Choosing the Right Auto-Darkening Welding Helmet

May 11, 2012
A welding helmet is one of the most important pieces of personal protective equipment a welder can have. A good helmet protects the eyes and skin not only from severe sparks but also from potentially vision-damaging ultraviolet and infrared rays emitted by the arc.

As one of the most visible pieces of safety attire, a welding helmet, in addition to offering necessary protection to the face and eyes, gives wearers an opportunity to add a bit of personal flair to their welding gear. With this is mind, welding helmets today are available in a wide range of colors and graphics. These visual features obviously command attention, but a helmet’s protective features, combined with comfort considerations, are what welders should consider when selecting the right helmet for their needs.

The right helmet must be easy to wear, adjustable and comfortable for a full day’s work, while protecting employees’ eyes and face from spatter and sparks and harmful light rays.

Today’s helmets are considerably more functional than those of even 10 or 15 years ago. They are designed to accommodate a welder’s specific needs on any job. All, including the most inexpensive, must meet strict safety standards across the globe. In the United States, that standard is ANSI Z87.1 and in Canada it is CAN/CSA Z94.3. These standards address concerns such as light leakage and flame and impact resistance.

Traditional Helmets

Some welders, particularly many professional pipe welders, still opt to wear conventional welding helmets with a traditional glass lens and fixed shade, which remains darkened at all times. While these helmets do provide rugged and inexpensive safety protection, they also have a few disadvantages.

Welding helmets featuring a fixed shade can be more difficult to use because a welder has to lift the helmet every time he or she wants to examine the weldment and joint, set a position and prepare for welding, and then flip the helmet down when it’s time to strike the arc. This repetitive movement can cause neck strain and fatigue after a full day’s work. Additionally, in tight or restricted spaces, it can be difficult to move the helmet up or down.

Also, for less-experienced welders, it can be difficult to keep the MIG gun, TIG torch or stick electrode in the correct position to begin welding in the joint after the helmet is lowered into place. Poor weld starts can result in weld defects, something any welder obviously wants to avoid.

Because of these issues, many welders are turning to auto-darkening helmets with continuously variable controls that adjust the shade from a light state to a dark one and back. These helmets protect from harmful light emissions at all times and darken to almost any pre-selected shade in milliseconds, thanks to quick-changing LCD (liquid crystal display) technology in the auto-darkening cartridges.

With auto-darkening helmets, welders clearly can see while the helmet already is in a down position, so that setting up to weld in a weldment joint can be done with the hood in position. These helmets permit more continuous work, reducing unnecessary stop-and-start time and the need for a welder to readjust a helmet and set up positioning.

Selection Considerations

The most important factors to consider when selecting an auto-darkening helmet are safety, comfort, convenience and style. There are a number of general selection considerations that will help welders choose a helmet that best meets their needs, as well as find one that wears comfortably all day on the job.

When assessing various auto-darkening helmets, look for models that have a full-coverage shell that sheds spatter and resists impact. The helmet’s viewing size also is a major factor to consider. While it is based on preference, the amount of out-of-position welding performed can affect the amount of viewing area needed in a helmet. Some of the largest view sizes in auto-darkening models have a view size that measures 97x 62 mm (3.82 x 2.44 inches) or larger, which aids in delivering a clear natural view in combination with the helmet’s LCD technology.

Also review the helmet’s light sensitivity settings. Many helmets have settings that toggle between ranges, providing shades ranging from 6 to 9 or 9 to 13. This scale allows welders to optimize the shade for greater comfort on any given application. Anyone who moves between applications, requires changes in welding machine voltage, amperage or wire feed speed settings or changes between welding processes can benefit from this flexibility. For example, welding on thick materials at high amperages generally requires higher shade levels. Low amperage MIG or TIG welding is best performed with low shade levels to assure adequate visibility of the welding arc puddle.

Some models allow the user to control delay and sensitivity. Modifying the helmet’s arc sensitivity helps assure it will darken as the user desires. For example, if there are other welders operating very close by, the helmet’s arc sensor sensitivity can be reduced to help prevent triggering or darkening when those nearby welders strike their arc.

Delay controls can be used to lengthen or shorten the amount of time it takes for the helmet to return to the light state following the completion of a weld. This can be helpful when tack welding, when the weld duration is short and the operator plans to move quickly. On the other hand, performing lengthy welds on thick materials may require that the delay be set for longer periods of time so the operator does not have to view the larger, hotter weld nugget at the end of the weld until it has cooled for a second or two. Generally, delay can be set for 0.5 seconds up to 2 seconds.

Auto-darkening helmets will feature either external or internal controls for functions like shade or grind control. The external controls add convenience, allowing some adjustments to be made while the helmet is on the head. On the other hand, external controls include additional wiring and can be exposed to additional impacts or damage as they are positioned on the outside of the helmet. Internal controls positioned on the lens cartridge are more protected and do not require external wiring, but might require removing the helmet to change settings.

Powering Up

Auto-darkening helmets are powered in different ways. Some feature replaceable lithium batteries. Others use a combination of solar cells with user-replaceable lithium batteries, while other models feature solar power with a battery assist. Any of these methods work well. The choice comes down to personal preference.

Helmets with user-replaceable batteries offer the potential for longer total service life of the helmet. Those with non-user replaceable batteries generally will have a service life of 5 to 7 years. Users handling models with replaceable batteries are advised to have replacement batteries on hand. If the helmet has an on/off switch, the user must remember to turn the helmet off after use.

Weight and Comfort

For anyone involved in extensive welding, a heavy helmet significantly can increase fatigue. Newer, lightweight helmets weigh only between 534 and 602 grams (18 to 21 ounces), even with a full-coverage shell. Some models, with smaller view sizes and more compact shells, are approaching weights as low as 13-15 ounces.

Don’t forget to try a helmet on to ensure a comfortable fit. Check the adjustments for the headgear and ensure the helmet is a comfortable distance from the face. This can be a factor for persons with large heads or especially large facial features. Also, make sure it can be tightened around your head.

Try it on and see if the rate of fall and degree of tilt allow it to lower in a controlled manner. Some helmets allow the user to set the resistance and therefore control the rate of fall and the end point to which the helmet stops when lowered into welding position. Also, check how the helmet behaves in the upward position. Does it lock into a detent, helping to keep it in the upward position while you work at your station? Is it well balanced in both the down and up positions, so that the helmet does not pull the user forward? Helmets with poor balance will add to neck strain and general fatigue over the course of a work shift.

Also be sure to check the standard sweatband at the forehead. Is it soft and absorbent or not substantial enough to increase comfort while keeping perspiration from your eyes?

Beyond auto-darkening capabilities and easy-to-wear fit, today’s high-tech helmets can feature other options. Many models, for instance, can be modified with magnifying “cheater” lenses, to help older and/or near-sighted welders to see the weld puddle with sufficient clarity. For environments requiring hard hats, such as construction and many other job site environments, some models can be equipped with an adapter that allows the user to wear both the hardhat and welding helmet for full-site safety compliance while welding.

Some auto-darkening helmets also feature grind modes, allowing the helmets to double as grinding shields. This feature is great for weld prep or post-weld clean-up activities.

Personal Style

Because helmets are highly visible and worn constantly on the job, they also are a great vehicle for welders to show their personalities at a jobsite or on the shop floor. There’s more to them than safety and utility.

Today’s welding helmets come in a variety of colors, not just standard black. Personalization doesn’t to stop there. Many models offer personalization kits with decals, while others come with a range of available pre-imprinted graphics, including such novelties as comic book superheroes, hot rods, flags, skulls, tattoo patterns and even angel wings, which were designed with female welders in mind.

Choosing the right helmet for your needs might at first seem daunting, considering the wide variety of safety features, convenience and comfort options and personalization available. But in this sea of choice, there is a helmet out there for every welder … and every welder’s budget.

Jamy Bulan is a commercial equipment product manager with the Lincoln Electric Co.

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