Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters keep civilization in running water, sanitation, and heat for comfort and cleaning. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters install and repair pipe systems to transport water, chemicals, and waste. They use saws to make holes in floors and walls and pipe cutters to size pipe accurately. Plumbers work on water, drainage, and gas pipes in homes and businesses. They also install plumbing fixtures and appliances. They rescue homeowners from leaks, clogged drains, and malfunctioning septic systems. Pipefitters install and repair pipes that carry chemicals, acids, and gases— usually in power plants and industrial settings. Some install fire sprinkler systems. Steamfitters install pipe systems that move steam under high pressure; most work at college campus facilities and natural gas power plants. With high rates of injury on the job, precautions must be taken with common tasks such as lifting heavy materials, handling tools, and climbing ladders. Work schedules are full time, and may include nights, weekends, and emergency calls. A 4- to 5-year apprenticeship is typically required, combining paid on-the-job training with classroom study. A license is generally required for plumbers, and some states license pipefitters and gas line workers. Helpers assist experienced trades professionals, haul tools and materials, and clean work areas. They typically have a high school education, and learn on the job.

Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters install and repair pipes that carry liquids or gases to, from, and within businesses, homes, and factories.

What Plumbers, Pipefitters and Steamfitters Do.

Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters typically do the following:

  • Prepare cost estimates for clients
  • Read blueprints and follow state and local building codes
  • Determine the material and equipment needed for a job
  • Install pipes and fixtures
  • Inspect and test installed pipe systems and pipelines
  • Troubleshoot malfunctioning systems
  • Repair and replace worn parts

The movement of liquids and gases through pipes is critical to modern life. In homes, water is needed for both drinking and sanitation. In factories, chemicals are moved to aid in product manufacturing. In power plants, steam is moved to drive turbines that generate electricity. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters install and repair these pipe systems.

Although plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters perform three distinct and specialized roles, their duties are often similar. For example, they all install pipes and fittings that carry water, steam, air, or other liquids or gases. They determine the necessary materials for a job, connect pipes, and perform pressure tests to ensure that a pipe system is airtight and watertight. Their tools include drills, saws, welding torches, and wrenches.

Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters may use many different materials and construction techniques, depending on the type of project. Residential water systems, for example, use copper, steel, and plastic pipe that one or two plumbers can install. Power plant water systems, by contrast, are made of large steel pipes that usually take a crew of pipefitters to install. Some workers install stainless steel pipes on dairy farms and in factories, mainly to prevent contamination.

In addition to performing installation and repair work, journey- and master-level plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters frequently direct apprentices and helpers.

Master plumbers on construction jobs may be involved with developing blueprints that show the placement of all the pipes and fixtures. Their input helps ensure that a structure’s plumbing meets building codes, stays within budget, and works well with the location of other features, such as electric wires. Many diagrams are now created digitally with the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM), which allows a building’s physical systems to be planned and coordinated across occupations.

The following are examples of types of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters:

Plumbers install and repair water, drainage, gas, and other piping systems in homes, businesses, and factories. Plumbers install plumbing fixtures such as bathtubs and toilets, and appliances, such as dishwashers and water heaters. Plumbers also maintain septic systems—the large, underground holding tanks that collect waste from houses that are not connected to a sewer system.

Pipefitters, sometimes simply called fitters, install and maintain pipes that carry chemicals, acids, and gases. These pipes are used mostly in manufacturing, commercial, and industrial settings. Fitters install and repair pipe systems in power plants, as well as heating and cooling systems in large office buildings. Some pipefitters specialize as gasfitters, sprinklerfitters, or steamfitters.

Career Snapshot

Very simply, Commercial and Residential Plumbers assemble, install, or repair pipes, fittings, or fixtures of heating, water, or drainage systems, according to specifications or plumbing codes.

(Other job titles in this sub-sector may include:  Commercial Plumber; Drain Cleaner, Plumber; Drain Technician; Journeyman Plumber; Master Plumber; Plumber; Plumber Gasfitter; Plumbing and Heating Mechanic; Residential Plumber; Service Plumber)

Job Details

Commercial and Residential Plumbers typically do the following:

  • Assemble pipe sections, tubing, or fittings, using couplings, clamps, screws, bolts, cement, plastic solvent, caulking, or soldering, brazing, or welding equipment.
  • Install pipe assemblies, fittings, valves, appliances such as dishwashers or water heaters, or fixtures such as sinks or toilets, using hand or power tools.
  • Keep records of work assignments.
  • Fill pipes or plumbing fixtures with water or air and observe pressure gauges to detect and locate leaks.
  • Direct helpers engaged in pipe cutting, preassembly, or installation of plumbing systems or components.
  • Maintain or repair plumbing by replacing defective washers, replacing or mending broken pipes, or opening clogged drains.
  • Locate and mark the position of pipe installations, connections, passage holes, or fixtures in structures, using measuring instruments such as rulers or levels.
  • Measure, cut, thread, or bend pipe to required angle, using hand or power tools or machines, such as pipe cutters, pipe-threading machines, or pipe-bending machines.
  • Review blueprints, building codes, or specifications to determine work details or procedures.
  • Anchor steel supports from ceiling joists to hold pipes in place.
  • Estimate time, material, or labor costs for use in project plans.

Education and Experience

Most plumbers learn on the job through an apprenticeship. Some also attend vocational-technical school. Most states and some localities require plumbers to be licensed.  Over 50% of licensed plumbers have earned a post-secondary certificate in the trade.

Career Outlook

  • Annual pay: In May 2019, Commercial and Residential Plumbers earned an average salary of approximately $55,000
  • Employment of commercial and residential electricians is projected to grow 14 percent from 2018 to 2028
  • Entry-level education: Post-secondary education and/or an apprenticeship

Career Growth Opportunity

Workers with knowledge of Building Information Modeling (BIM) software should have the best opportunities.

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