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A submarine (or sub) is a watercraft capable of independent operation underwater. It differs from a submersible, which has more limited underwater capability. It is also sometimes used historically or colloquially to refer to remotely operated vehicles and robots, as well as medium-sized or smaller vessels, such as the midget submarine and the wet sub.

Most large submarines consist of a cylindrical body with hemispherical (or conical) ends and a vertical structure, usually located amidships, which houses communications and sensing devices as well as periscopes. In modern submarines, this structure is the "sail" in American usage and "fin" in European usage. A "conning tower" was a feature of earlier designs: a separate pressure hull above the main body of the boat that allowed the use of shorter periscopes. There is a propeller (or pump jet) at the rear, and various hydrodynamic control fins. Smaller, deep-diving and specialty submarines may deviate significantly from this traditional layout. Submarines use diving planes and also change the amount of water and air in ballast tanks to change buoyancy for submerging and surfacing.

By the mid-18th century, over a dozen patents for submarines/submersible boats had been granted in England. In 1747, Nathaniel Symons patented and built the first known working example of the use of a ballast tank for submersion. His design used leather bags that could fill with water to submerge the craft. A mechanism was used to twist the water out of the bags and cause the boat to resurface. In 1749, the Gentlemen's Magazine reported that a similar design had initially been proposed by Giovanni Borelli in 1680. Further design improvement stagnated for over a century, until application of new technologies for propulsion and stability.

In 1864, late in the American Civil War, the Confederate navy's H. L. Hunley became the first military submarine to sink an enemy vessel, the Union sloop-of-war USS Housatonic. In the aftermath of its successful attack against the ship, the Hunley also sank, possibly because it was too close to its own exploding torpedo.

Discussions between the English clergyman and inventor George Garrett and the Swedish industrialist Thorsten Nordenfelt led to the first practical steam-powered submarines, armed with torpedoes and ready for military use. The first was Nordenfelt I, a 56-tonne, 19.5-metre (64 ft) vessel similar to Garrett's ill-fated Resurgam (1879), with a range of 240 kilometres (130 nmi; 150 mi), armed with a single torpedo, in 1885.

Commissioned in June 1900, the French steam and electric Narval employed the now typical double-hull design, with a pressure hull inside the outer shell. These 200-ton ships had a range of over 100 miles (161 km) underwater. The French submarine Aigrette in 1904 further improved the concept by using a diesel rather than a gasoline engine for surface power. Large numbers of these submarines were built, with seventy-six completed before 1914.

The U-boats' ability to function as practical war machines relied on new tactics, their numbers, and submarine technologies such as combination diesel-electric power system developed in the preceding years. More submersibles than true submarines, U-boats operated primarily on the surface using regular engines, submerging occasionally to attack under battery power. They were roughly triangular in cross-section, with a distinct keel to control rolling while surfaced, and a distinct bow. During World War I more than 5,000 Allied ships were sunk by U-boats.

Mine-laying submarines were developed in the early part of the 20th century. The facility was used in both World Wars. Submarines were also used for inserting and removing covert agents and military forces in special operations, for intelligence gathering, and to rescue aircrew during air attacks on islands, where the airmen would be told of safe places to crash-land so the submarines could rescue them. Submarines could carry cargo through hostile waters or act as supply vessels for other submarines.

The primary defense of a submarine lies in its ability to remain concealed in the depths of the ocean. Early submarines could be detected by the sound they made. Water is an excellent conductor of sound (much better than air), and submarines can detect and track comparatively noisy surface ships from long distances. Modern submarines are built with an emphasis on stealth. Advanced propeller designs, extensive sound-reducing insulation, and special machinery help a submarine remain as quiet as ambient ocean noise, making them difficult to detect. It takes specialized technology to find and attack modern submarines.

In a typical operation a surface vessel carries passengers to an offshore operating area and loads them into the submarine. The submarine then visits underwater points of interest such as natural or artificial reef structures. To surface safely without danger of collision the location of the submarine is marked with an air release and movement to the surface is coordinated by an observer in a support craft.

For general submersion or surfacing, submarines use the forward and aft tanks, called Main Ballast Tanks (MBT), which are filled with water to submerge or with air to surface. Submerged, MBTs generally remain flooded, which simplifies their design, and on many submarines these tanks are a section of interhull space. For more precise and quick control of depth, submarines use smaller Depth Control Tanks (DCT) also called hard tanks (due to their ability to withstand higher pressure), or trim tanks. The amount of water in depth control tanks can be controlled to change depth or to maintain a constant depth as outside conditions (chiefly water density) change. Depth control tanks may be located either near the submarine's center of gravity, or separated along the submarine body to prevent affecting trim.