Launch Slideshow

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Marine masters

Marine masters

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    Divers locate trestle bridge piles for engineers who designed the replacement Hendrickson Dam in Punta Gorda, Fla. Photo: Stanley Consultants Inc.

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    A $600,000 project to extend a near-shore discharge pipe 300 feet into a river included $130,000 for planning, design, permitting, subconsultants, and construction contract administration including full-time, onsite observation and ive services. Photo: Matt Dodds

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    Structural Engineer Ryan Bell (pictured left) enters a digester to plug the discharge outlet so a valve can be installed in the sludge withdrawal pipe. Meanwhile, Diving Supervisor Hank Mann works the dive station where communication, video, and air supplied by the portable high-pressure cylinders are controlled. Photos: Matt Dodds

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    In addition to a condition assessment, the $81,000 professional services contract includes cleaning and preliminary design for repair options. Photo: Ben Boss

By Stephanie Johnston

Given the time and money required to become a professional engineer and certified commercial diver, it's not surprising that so few people — roughly 100 nationwide — claim both specializations. And given all the infrastructure straddling land and sea, it's not surprising that consulting firms that employ engineer-divers have an edge over competitors who must subcontract the underwater portions of client projects.

In addition to a potentially fatal equipment malfunction, engineer-divers are exposed to hazardous materials (including, as you'll soon see, wastewater sludge) as well as razor-sharp boat propellers, rapid currents, and marine inhabitants (like the alligators that make South Florida Water Management District waters their home) that don't want visitors. Many firms consider all of the above a liability not worth risking.

Unlike divers who carry compressed air with them, most infrastructure projects require surface-supplied air that, per Association of Diving Contractors International standards, involves at least three qualified people — diver, supervisor, and standby diver — using equipment worth $25,000. More complex jobs require more resources, like a $50,000 boat or $75,000 recompression chamber. Consulting firms pay $10,000 to $25,000 on tuition and living expenses as well as salary while their professional engineer takes the 12-week course necessary to sit for the certification exam.

Though firms amortize these expenses over time and other professional services are more expensive, rates are higher than average. Booking a dive is like booking a surveying crew; the easiest way for both you and the firm to handle billing is with a daily rate.

Qualifications make the difference between getting a professional versus someone who could put himself and your operation at risk. Make sure your project will be handled by a “commercial diver” as opposed to a “recreational diver.” Though many professional engineers dive recreationally, they may not be familiar with scuba equipment used in potable or contaminated water systems, water moving faster than 1 knot, dives of more than 130 feet, and confined space or overhead restricted environments.

The following three scenarios illustrate how your colleagues juggled internal and external resources to ensure assets under their care function safely and efficiently.