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

Duties

Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters typically do the following:

  • Install pipes and fixtures
  • Study blueprints and follow state and local building codes
  • Determine the amount of material and type of equipment needed
  • Inspect and test installed pipe systems and pipelines
  • Troubleshoot systems that are not working
  • Replace worn parts

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

Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters install, maintain, and repair many different types of pipe systems. Some of these systems carry water, dispose of waste, supply gas to ovens, or heat and cool buildings. Other systems, such as those in power plants, carry the steam that powers huge turbines. Pipes also are used in manufacturing plants to move acids, gases, and waste byproducts through the production process.

Master plumbers on construction jobs may be involved with developing blueprints that show where all the pipes and fixtures will go. 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.

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.

Plumbers and fitters sometimes cut holes in walls, ceilings, and floors. With some pipe systems, workers may hang steel supports from ceiling joists to hold the pipe in place. Because pipes are seldom manufactured to the exact length, plumbers and fitters measure and then cut and bend lengths of pipe as needed. Their tools often include saws and pipe cutters.

They then connect the pipes, using methods that vary by type of pipe. For example, copper pipe is joined with solder, whereas steel pipe is often screwed together.

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

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

Plumbers install and repair water, drainage, and gas pipes in homes, businesses, and factories. They install and repair large water lines, such as those which supply water to buildings, and smaller ones, including lines that supply water to refrigerators. Plumbers also install plumbing fixtures—bathtubs, showers, sinks, and toilets—and appliances such as dishwashers, garbage disposals, and water heaters. They also fix plumbing problems. For example, when a pipe is clogged or leaking, plumbers remove the clog or replace the pipe. Some plumbers maintain septic systems—the large, underground holding tanks that collect waste from houses not connected to a city or county’s sewer system.

Pipefitters, sometimes referred to as just fitters, install and maintain pipes that carry chemicals, acids, and gases. These pipes are mostly in manufacturing, commercial, and industrial settings. Fitters often install and repair pipe systems in power plants, as well as heating and cooling systems in large office buildings. Some pipefitters specialize:

  • Gasfitters install pipes that provide natural gas to heating and cooling systems and to stoves. They also install pipes that provide clean oxygen to patients in hospitals.
  • Sprinklerfitters install and repair fire sprinkler systems in businesses, factories, and residential buildings.
  • Steamfitters install pipe systems that move steam under high pressure. Most steamfitters work at college campuses and natural gas power plants where heat and electricity are generated, but others work in factories that use high-temperature steam pipes.
Work Environment

Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters held about 386,900 jobs in 2012, of which 59 percent were employed in the plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning contractors industry. About 11 percent were self-employed.

Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters work in factories, homes, businesses, and other places where there are pipes or septic systems.

Plumbers and fitters often must lift heavy materials, climb ladders, and work in tight spaces. Some plumbers travel to a variety of worksites every day. A few work outdoors, even in bad weather.

Injuries and Illnesses

Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters have a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than the national average. Cuts from sharp tools, burns from hot pipes and soldering equipment, and falls from ladders are common injuries.

Work Schedules

Nearly all plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters work full time, including nights and weekends. They are often on call to handle emergencies, and overtime is common.

About 11 percent of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters were self-employed in 2012. Although self-employed plumbers can set their own schedules, they are also more likely to deal with after-hours emergencies.

Education and Training

Although most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters learn on the job through an apprenticeship, some start out by attending a technical school. Most states and localities require plumbers to be licensed.

Education

A high school diploma or equivalent is required.

Technical schools offer courses on pipe system design, safety, and tool use. They also offer welding courses that are considered necessary by some pipefitter and steamfitter apprenticeship training programs.

Training

Most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters learn their trade through a 4- or 5-year apprenticeship.  Each year, apprentices must have at least 1,700 to 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training and a minimum of 246 hours of related technical education. Apprentices learn safety, local plumbing codes and regulations, and blueprint reading. They also study mathematics, applied physics, and chemistry.

After completing an apprenticeship program, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are considered to be journey workers, qualifying them to perform duties on their own.

With additional courses and several years of plumbing experience, plumbers are eligible to earn master status. Some states require a master plumber to get a plumbing contractor’s license.

Apprenticeship programs are offered by unions and businesses. Although most workers enter apprenticeships directly, some start out as helpers. To enter an apprenticeship program, a trainee must meet the following requirements:

  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Have a high school diploma or equivalent
  • Pass a basic math test
  • Pass substance abuse screening
  • Know how to use computers

Some plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters learn on the job through specific task-oriented training. Employers provide training that enables workers to complete a variety of tasks.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Most states and localities require plumbers to be licensed. Although licensing requirements vary, most states and localities require workers to have 2 to 5 years of experience and to pass an exam that shows their knowledge of the trade and of local plumbing codes before they are permitted to work independently. Several states require a special license to work on gas lines. A few states require pipefitters to be licensed. Obtaining a license requires taking a test, gaining experience through work, or both. For more information, check with your state’s licensing board.

Important Qualities

Business skills. Plumbers who own their own business must be able to direct workers, bid on jobs, and plan work schedules.

Customer-service skills. Plumbers work with customers on a regular basis, so they should be polite and courteous.

Mechanical skills. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters use a variety of tools to assemble and repair pipe systems. Choosing the right tool and successfully installing, repairing, or maintaining a system is crucial to their work.

Physical strength. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters must be strong enough to lift and move heavy pipe.

Troubleshooting skills. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters find, diagnose, and repair problems. For example, pipefitters must be able to perform pressure tests to pinpoint the location of a leak.

Pay

The median annual wage for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters was $49,140 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,020, and the top 10 percent earned more than $84,440.

The starting pay for apprentices usually is between 30 percent and 50 percent of the rate paid to fully trained plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters. As they learn to do more, apprentices receive pay increases.

Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters work full time, including nights and weekends. They are often on call to handle emergencies, and overtime is common.

About 11 percent of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters were self-employed in 2012. Although self-employed plumbers can set their own schedules, they are also more likely to deal with after-hours emergencies.

Union Membership

Compared with workers in all occupations, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2012. The largest organizer of these workers is the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada.

Job Outlook

Employment of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters is projected to grow 21 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations.

Demand for plumbers will stem from new building construction and stricter water efficiency standards for plumbing systems, such as low-flow toilets and showerheads.

The construction of new power plants and factories should spur demand for pipefitters and steamfitters. Employment of sprinklerfitters and plumbers is expected to increase in states that adopt changes to the International Residential Code, which requires new single- and double-family homes to have fire sprinkler systems.

Job Prospects

Overall job opportunities are expected to be good as some employers continue to report difficulty finding qualified workers. In addition, many plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are expected to retire over the next 10 years, resulting in more job openings. Workers with welding experience should have the best job opportunities.

As with other construction workers, employment of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters is sensitive to fluctuations in the economy. On the one hand, workers may experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. On the other hand, shortages of workers may occur in some areas during peak periods of building activity.

However, maintenance and repair of plumbing and pipe systems must continue even during economic downturns, so plumbers and fitters outside of construction, especially those in manufacturing, tend to have more stable employment.

For More Information

For details about apprenticeship or other opportunities in this trade, contact the offices of the state employment service; the state apprenticeship agency; local plumbing, heating, and cooling contractors or firms that employ fitters; or local union–management apprenticeship committees. Apprenticeship information is available from the U.S. Department of Labor’s toll-free help line, 1 (877) 872-5627, and Employment and Training Administration.  

For more information about apprenticeships for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters, visit

United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada

For more information about plumbers and pipefitters, visit

Mechanical Contractors Association of America

NCCER

Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association

For general information about sprinklerfitters, visit

American Fire Sprinkler Association

National Fire Sprinkler Association

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.

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