Tube & Pipe

Pipe dream as reality

By Nick Wright

A view from the front lines of America’s heartland as an energy pipeline rig welder

December 2015 - Life as a pipeliner isn’t an easy, glamorous one. With each TIG root, hot pass, 7018 fill and cap come long days of sweat and fatigue. But the hours translate to pay. When those four days of 10 hour shifts are done, pipeliners reap some of the highest satisfaction of any metalworker.

That satisfaction is what led FFJournal to David Ray Gutierrez, a pipeliner from Enid, Oklahoma. He shares his stoke on social media platform Instagram, which if you’re not familiar, lets anyone armed with a smartphone to post and edit photos with short captions. Welders and fabricators are a visible, active bunch on Instagram, because photos of clean weld beads and sparks flying lend themselves well to grabbing attention.

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In Griever Canyon near Chester, Oklahoma: A tricky uphill 12 in. natural gas pipeline for a DCP Midstream Partners joint venture. This pipeline stretches 240 miles from Kingfisher, Oklahoma, to Liberal, Kansas.

Gutierrez has been a pipeliner since he was 19. Now, 35, he’s a rig welder—working for himself as jobs come up. He’s joined pipe in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Montana, Kansas, Tennessee and Arizona. Among the noteworthy jobs he’s welded is the Pony Express Pipeline (PXP), a 690-mile crude 24 in. pipe connecting Guernsey, Wyoming, to the oil hub of Cushing, Oklahoma. He and his fellow pipeliners worked on the 150-mile spread from Cushing to Wichita, Kansas. 

“The thing I love most about pipelining is your work is always outside,” says Gutierrez. “I love being outdoors. You have good exercise and it halfway keeps you in shape.” 

That, and he’s never in the same location. “Especially when I started welding I was able to see the country as well as get paid doing it,” Gutierrez says.

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Tools of the trade

His rig is a 2013 Dodge 3500 cab crew. “I took the back seat out and made a bench out of wood to hold more tools since we never really need the back seat anyways.” He’s accustomed to both Lincoln Electric and Miller welding machines, though he has a Lincoln SAE-300 from 2011. He’s used the Lincoln SA-200 welding machines but prefers the 300 because it’s diesel and thus better on fuel. 

Almost all the pipe he and the pipeliners weld is carbon steel, from grade X52 to grade X70 hardnesses. The pipe thickness ranges from 0.188 in. wall to 0.500 in. wall or greater. The diameters range from 2 in. to 24 in., although “sometimes we weld bigger and thicker pipe.”

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“The pipe lengths when we’re on a mainline range from 40 to 60 footers,” he adds. That’s characteristic of the pipelines for the oil and gas industries that run across Oklahoma and surrounding states.

However, Gutierrez points to West Virginia for the hardest job he ever had. The crew worked 7 days a week, 12 hours a day doing fabrication. Along with long hours, the welders combatted rain everyday. “We dealt with getting shocked by the stinger, and everything being wet made things kind of dangerous,” he says.

The second hardest job was in Utah. “Some of the mountains were very steep,” making it tough to take tracked equipment up. “They had to tie off the equipment with a dozer and winch at the top of the hill to work. They actually rolled a side boom on that same job and thankfully no one was injured,” he says.

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In Calumet, Oklahoma: Gutierrez working on a 20 in. fabrication that bolts to a valve setting for a future pipeline hookup. His 2013 Dodge 3500 serves as his rig.

No shortage of work

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline Safety Awareness statistics, pipelines stretch more than 2.6 million miles across the country. The majority—81 percent—of those pipelines are for gas distribution. More than half of the nation’s pipelines were laid in the 1950s and 1960s, driven by the demand for energy in the post-World War II economy. The Bakken formation, as well as other shale plays around the country, are keeping pipeline construction active.

There’s no one way to get into pipeline welding, although welding school and networking are common ways to find jobs.

Gutierrez got into the line of work when a friend’s dad, who owned a pipeline company, asked if he was interested in a job. At the time, Gutierrez was a teenager and had been helping his mom run a convenience store. Without a dad in the picture, he was helping raise his brother and sister.

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He started off as a welder’s helper and worked his way up running equipment and driving a truck part time. In 2006, he attended Tulsa Welding School. “They taught us how to weld uphill with low hydrogen rod and TIG,” he says.

For two years after school, he worked in fab shops, nuclear plants and stations doing shutdowns. Gutierrez realized he needed to get back to pipelining “because that’s where my heart is.” In 2008 he went back to where it all started, his hometown pipeline company and welded for them. 

In 2010 he began welding out of his own welding rig and has continued doing so ever since. “I’ve been all over the U.S. working for different companies and love every minute of it. I have my CPWI [certified pipeline welding inspector] certification so that’s where my next step will be when the opportunity arises,” which he earned in 2014 from the National Welding Inspection School in Burton, Texas.

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One of the many tie-in pipeline welds Gutierrez has laid down.

Technically, Gutierrez—and this is the case with many other pipeliners— aren’t self-employed unless he gets hired as a contractor. Say an energy company has a pipeline project to get done. Several contractors will bid on the project. The contractor that is awarded the bid hires the welders. “That’s where we come into play,” he says.

He will work for that contractor, who will pay welders in one of two ways. For example, the arrangement will be referred to as 60/100, translating to $60 an hour pay, untaxed without overtime, but with a $100 per diem also not taxed. Or, the arrangement can be broken down as 35/15/100, where $35 is paid with taxes taken out, $15 per hour is what a welder’s rig makes for expenses, and $100 per diem. The hourly wages vary from company to company. 

Regardless of the work-pay structure, Gutierrez exhibits a fierce pride in his work, as well as a tight-knit camaraderie with other pipeliners. And if his photos  on Instagram (@davidraygutierrez) are any indication, he has a blast doing it. 

“I like having the freedom of being able to work wherever I want whenever I want. I enjoy having my own rig with that freedom,” he says. FFJ



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