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Emergency welding with a high output alternator

How to turn most any alternator in an emergency welding machine

By: Scott Fratcher - Marine Engineer/Captain

Scott Fratcher explains how to make an emergency welder with a high-output alternator

It's possible to weld with nothing but an alternator driven by a small engine, and although it's not recommended as a day-to-day activity, it's useful in an emergency.

What if you were out at a remote island and broke a chain plate or your windlass mount cracked? This type of thing happens all the time with cruising boats.

Here's how it's done. Start with at least a 100amp alternator (120amp is perfect - Delco's CS144 alternator is great for this application).

You also need:

* A 110V 60W (or more) light bulb and socket;
* A few cables you can weld through (No. 4 or larger);
* A welding electrode (stinger);
* A small supply of 2.5mm welding rod (6013);
* A variable resister capable of passing four amps continuous. It should be a rugged variable resister, at least 50mm across.

To use your alternator as a welder you have to attach the welding cables to the back of the alternator. The ground lead is attached to the negative pole of the alternator and the positive lead connects to the welding electrode (or stinger as it's often called).



At the same time, wire the light bulb across the alternator's positive and negative output leads. This is important as the light will glow bright any time the welder is not burning a rod.

This light is what takes up the extra current and voltage when the welding is stopped. When welding, the voltage drops to about 20V and the light goes out. It kind of works backward from what you would expect. Light on at rest, light out while welding.

The variable resister is wired in line from the positive of a battery, through the variable resister and into the positive field brush, through the field and back to the negative of the battery. The boat's original alternator regulator is completely disconnected from the alternator.

The alternator should be a P-type (externally regulated). In other words, one field brush should be grounded and the second brush should need 12V positive to produce current (almost every high-output alternator is wired as a P-type externally regulated).

When ready to weld, hook up the cables and light bulb as described above, start the engine, turn off the battery switch connecting the alternator to the battery*. Gently turn up the variable resister. The light should begin to glow. Turn the light up bright, but not maximum and get ready to weld.


That's all there is to it.

* Normally turning off the battery switch with engine running would ruin the diodes of the alternator. This is because, while the alternator is producing power, the stator or outside of the alternator has an electrical field formed. When you disconnect the load (battery), that electrical field has to go somewhere. It looks for a path to ground. It finds the shortest path through the diode, thus ruining it along the way. The light bulb run in parallel with the welding leads prevents this disaster from happening and gives the electrical field somewhere to go.



Tip 1: If you find yourself in an emergency and just need to weld but don't have a variable resister, you can use a 12V light bulb wired in place of the variable resister to power the field. Put two bulbs in parallel or even three in parallel till you get the right resistance to strike a welding arc. This is kind of crude, but it will work in an emergency.

Tip 2: Don't try to back feed a battery switch as a simple method of switching between battery charge and welding. The switch will arc inside and weld itself together. I went through three battery switches before I worked out why this happens.

Tip 3: Make sure you use a good 110V light bulb (you can't use a 240V bulb) and a secure electrical connection to the alternator. If the light becomes disconnected or the bulb burns up, the diodes in the alternator will immediately fail. This is why it's important to carry a spare set of alternator diodes (even better is a complete spare alternator) if you're planning on using this “bush” welding technique.

Tip- Copy this article and keep it with some spare welding rod on the boat in the unlikely event it's ever needed.



Using batteries linked in series as a welding source

Occasionally someone mentions welding with a set of batteries linked in series as a welding power source. I highly discourage this practice. Here is a response to a post explaining why.


Batteries vs alternator welder

Thank you for your comment. If I understand correctly you say a better weld would be made in an emergency by linking batteries than by using an alternator welder.


I disagree for three reasons.

1. The alternator welder mimics the open and closed voltage of a stick welding machine very nicely. Open voltage is about 80v and welding voltage is about 18v. Both are pretty close the open/closed voltages of the old Lincoln transformer welders.

The open voltage allows easy arc starting because the 80 volts wants to jump the gap and start an arc.

A battery pack is inferior to an alternator welder as the arc starting voltage arc is lower thus starting an arc can be difficult.

2. With an alternator welder the current to the weld can be precisely controlled through the alternator field. I have set the field and welded with a steady 80 amps showing on an AC/DC clamp amp. I have welded this way for hours and the amperage remained steady. The stable amp flow allows the welder to lay a predictable and thus stronger weld.

A battery is inferior to an alternator welder because a battery does not have an easy and accurate way to control amps.

3. In a direct short of the welding leads the current potential of the alternator is about 120 amps while a battery bank might be capable of 800 amps. It is simply safer to work with a smaller maximum potential as the possible ramifications are lessened.

For example in the event of a direct short with an alternator welder the worst that may happen is the alternator overheats and is ruined. A direct short in a battery can cause the battery itself to explode with resultant blinding battery acid sprayed around the work zone.

For these reasons, if faced with an emergency I'll try welding with an alternator before a stack of batteries.






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