On the job or in the garage, every welder needs protection to prevent eye damage.

As a general rule, spending more on a welding helmet will increase comfort, improve your welding ability, result in higher quality welds and ensure your safety.

Unfortunately, selecting a helmet can be confusing if you're not familiar with the latest auto-darkening lens technology and national safety standards.

This article will help you sort through the clutter and point out the most important things to consider before investing in this important piece of safety gear, while showcasing some of the industry's top trends and designs.

Auto-Darkening or Standard Glass Lens

The first question to ask when buying a welding helmet is which type of lens is right for you.

Standard — or passive — welding helmets are as common today as they were 50 years ago.

Although now made of molded plastics instead of thick leather, these helmets provide basic protection and budget prices, from $20 to $30.

The viewing lens — or filter — is a special piece of dark tinted glass, most often with a #10 shade and ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) coatings.

When the welder is ready to begin welding, a quick nod or snap of the neck flips the helmet down before striking an arc. When finished, the welder reaches to pivot the helmet up and away from his face to view the work piece and to reposition for the next weld.

Although inexpensive, standard helmets have several disadvantages:

It is difficult to keep the gun/torch in the correct position to begin welding after lowering the helmet in place, especially for beginners.

When welding in restricted spaces, such as under cars or trailers, there isn't enough room to flip a helmet up and down.

The repetitive task of flipping up and down causes neck discomfort after a day of welding.

And, finally, lifting and lowering a helmet is inefficient especially while doing a lot of tack welding.

Auto-darkening welding helmets resolve all of these problems.

Instead of a standard piece of tinted glass, helmets with auto-darkening filters have an electronic filter lens and often are equipped with adjustable features to make welding easy. These features are discussed below.

The auto-darkening filter lens, or ADF, is a special liquid crystal display (LCD) that is similar in design to the technology used to display numbers on a digital alarm clock.

Most filter cartridges are powered by a combination of battery and solar power.

Several light sensors are mounted near the lens to detect the welding arc. When the lens is not activated, an auto-darkening LCD filter usually has a #3 or #4 shade, which is relatively easy to see through, similar to sunglasses.

This makes arc starts easier because the welder can see the position of his MIG gun, TIG torch or stick electrode relative to the material he is welding.

Once an arc is initiated, sensors on the helmet darken the lens to a shade #9 to #13, depending on the settings, hundreds of times faster than you can blink an eye.

Because the filter has UV and IR coatings applied to it, eyes are protected from harmful rays regardless of active/inactive shade setting.

Best of all, the helmet stays down before, during and after the job is being done.

Auto-darkening welding helmets enable you to setup a welding joint with the hood in position.

No more head snaps to lower the helmet.

No more sloppy starts because the torch moved.

Fixed or Variable Shade

If most of your welding involves one type of material, such as steel, of the same thickness, using the same welding process, such as stick, at the same amperage, then a fixed shade #10 lens is all you'll ever need.

Standard glass lens helmets obviously are fixed shade, and the least expensive auto-darkening helmets also are available in fixed shade.

However, most people weld different materials, such as mild steel, stainless steels, and aluminum, and with different thicknesses that require the use of different welding processes, such as stick, MIG and TIG, for specific jobs. That means the welding amperage can vary from 40 amps to more than 200 amps.

With that variance comes varying degrees of brightness in the arc.

To properly protect your eyes and get the best view of the weld puddle, you need to have an adjustable or variable shade lens.

These adjustments are found either inside the helmet on the lens, or outside on the side of the helmet. Most variable shade lenses adjust from shade #9 through #12 or #13. It may be unlikely you need the shade #13 setting as seen on the suggestion chart below unless you weld at extremely high amperage or have very sensitive eyes.

Switching Speed (Lens Reaction Time)

As you shop for an auto-darkening helmet, you'll notice that most manufacturers advertise the lens switching speed.

This number tells how fast the lens will switch from its natural light state — usually shade #3 or #4 — to the darkened shade when welding begins.

The quicker a welder's eyes are shaded from the high-intensity light, the better. Too slow a reaction time will cause eye discomfort that feels like a dry scratchy sensation sometimes referred to as arc flash.

Entry-level lenses often are rated at 1/3,600 of a second switching speed. Intermediate and professional level helmets switch at speeds as high as 1/16,000 of a second or faster. Some manufactures advertise this rating in a decimal; to compare those ratings, divide 1 into 3,600 for the decimal equivalent. Generally speaking, the faster the switching speed, the more expensive the helmet and lens.

So why pay more for a faster lens? In a word: Comfort.

If you spend all day welding with a lens rated at 1/3,600, which I considered a slower reaction time, your eyes will feel fatigued by the end of the day and could have the dry, scratchy symptoms of arc flash as mentioned earlier.

With faster switching speeds, these effects are eliminated.

Solar Power and Battery Life

Some auto-darkening helmets are designed with an internal, non-replaceable battery and solar assist panel. These helmets often require a charging period in direct sunlight prior to first use, and a similar charging period if they are stored for an extended time, which can be a real bummer when you want to weld right away.

The disadvantage with this type is once the battery wears out the lens doesn't work.

A better investment is a helmet powered by a replaceable battery and solar assist panel that enables you to start welding right away.

Choose a lens with an AAA battery for economical replacement cost and availability everywhere. Choose a lithium battery model for extended battery life. However, lithium batteries have higher replacement costs and are slightly more limited in availability. Typical AAA battery life is approximately 2,000 hr for MIG welding.

Adjustable Sensitivity and Delay Controls

Both intermediate and professional level auto-darkening helmets usually provide the ability to adjust how much brightness will trigger the lens to darken.

Sensitivity control is useful when welding at low amperages — especially with a process such as TIG, when the arc isn't as bright as it is with other welding processes.

A delay control is another useful feature.

This control enables you to set how long the lens stays dark after the welding arc stops.

When tack welding on a large project, a short delay helps to get the job done faster as you reposition for the next weld. A longer delay time is helpful when welding at very high amperages to prevent you from looking at the weld zone after the arc extinguishes.

Depending on the manufacturer and price, these features often are controlled by toggle switches for high/low sensitivity and fast/slow delay. Professional level helmets typically will use infinite range dials to deliver greater adjustment capability. Entry-level auto-darkening helmets typically do not have either of these features.

Helmet Weight

A lighter weight helmet minimizes strain on the user's neck and reduces fatigue while increasing comfort.

You will notice a big difference between a helmet that weighs 1 lb versus one that weighs 2 lb.

While 1 lb might not seem like much for a few short welds, it can become a great weight when working on an all-day project.

Think of the old trick of holding a book out at arm's length. It's easy for the first few seconds, but it seems to weigh a ton after a minute or two.

The same goes for a heavy helmet vs. a lighter option: sooner or later, greater weight will cause discomfort.

National Safety Standards

The most recent safety standard for welding helmets is ANSI Z87.1 – 2003. This standard requires helmet and auto-darkening lens manufacturers to validate their advertised specifications such as switching speeds, darkness shade settings, and other specs, through independent laboratory tests to advertise compliance.

These rigorous tests require the helmet and lens to survive high velocity impact tests from flying objects, provide 100 percent ultraviolet and infrared filtering regardless of shade setting, and meet advertised switching speeds and darkness shades in extreme temperatures.

The auto-darkening lens must engage and perform at temperatures as low as 23 degrees F and as high as 131 degrees F to ensure consistent protection. If you live in Texas or Minnesota, that's real world welding.

Buyer Beware

Not all helmets on the market meet the current safety standard.

Prior to 2003, the ANSI standard dated back to 1989.

At that time, there were no temperature test guidelines required.

Even today, nothing prevents a manufacturer from selling helmets made under the old standard.

The switching speed and shade level can be much slower than advertised, exposing your eyes to the welding arc.

What should you look for? Be sure the helmet packaging and product advertises either “ANSI Z87.1 – 2003” or “Z87+.” That means the helmet has the latest approval of the American National Standards Institute and Society of Safety Engineers. Just because the product says “ANSI Approved” does not mean it passed the 2003 standard.

For more information on selecting the right helmet suited for light to moderate applications, visit http://www.hobartwelders.com/weldit/safety_equip/.