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Plumbers, Pipelayers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters - What They Do


Most people are familiar with plumbers who come to their home to clear a blocked drain or fix a leaking toilet. Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters install, maintain, and repair many different types of pipe systems. Some of these systems move water from reservoirs to municipal water treatment plants and then to residential, commercial, and public buildings. Other systems dispose of waste, supply gas to stoves and furnaces, or provide for heating and cooling needs. Pipe systems in powerplants carry the steam that powers huge turbines. Pipes also are used in manufacturing plants to move material through the production process. Specialized piping systems are very important in both pharmaceutical and computer-chip manufacturing.

Although plumbing, pipelaying, pipefitting, and steamfitting are sometimes considered a single trade, workers generally specialize in one of five areas. Plumbers install and repair the water, waste disposal, drainage, and gas systems in homes and commercial and industrial buildings. Plumbers also install plumbing fixtures - bathtubs, showers, sinks, and toilets - and appliances such as dishwashers, waste disposers, and water heaters. Pipelayers lay clay, concrete, plastic, or cast-iron pipe for drains, sewers, water mains, and oil or gas lines. Before laying the pipe, pipelayers prepare and grade the trenches either manually or with machines. After laying the pipe, they weld, glue, cement, or otherwise join the pieces together. Pipefitters install and repair both high-pressure and low-pressure pipe systems used in manufacturing, in the generation of electricity, and in the heating and cooling of buildings. They also install automatic controls that are increasingly being used to regulate these systems. Steamfitters install pipe systems that move liquids or gases under high pressure. Sprinklerfitters install automatic fire sprinkler systems in buildings. Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters use many different materials and construction techniques, depending on the type of project. Residential water systems, for example, incorporate copper, steel, and plastic pipe that can be handled and installed by one or two plumbers. Municipal sewerage systems, by contrast, are made of large cast-iron pipes; installation normally requires crews of pipefitters. Despite these differences, all plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters must be able to follow building plans or blueprints and instructions from supervisors, lay out the job, and work efficiently with the materials and tools of their trade. When plumbers working construction install piping in a new house, they work from blueprints or drawings that show the planned location of pipes, plumbing fixtures, and appliances. Recently, plumbers have become more involved in the design process. Their knowledge of codes and the operation of plumbing systems can cut costs. First they lay out the job to fit the piping into the structure of the house with the least waste of material. Then they measure and mark areas in which pipes will be installed and connected. Construction plumbers also check for obstructions such as electrical wiring and, if necessary, plan the pipe installation around the problem.

Sometimes, plumbers have to cut holes in walls, ceilings, and floors of a house. With some systems, they may hang steel supports from ceiling joists to hold the pipe in place. To assemble a system, plumbers - using saws, pipe cutters, and pipe-bending machines - cut and bend lengths of pipe. They connect the lengths of pipe with fittings, using methods that depend on the type of pipe used. For plastic pipe, plumbers connect the sections and fittings with adhesives. For copper pipe, they slide a fitting over the end of the pipe and solder it in place with a torch.

After the piping is in place in the house, plumbers install the fixtures and appliances and connect the system to the outside water or sewer lines. Finally, using pressure gauges, they check the system to ensure that the plumbing works properly.

Work Environment
Plumbers work in commercial and residential settings where water and septic systems need to be installed and maintained. Pipefitters and steamfitters most often work in industrial and power plants. Pipelayers work outdoors, sometimes in remote areas, laying pipes that connect sources of oil, gas, and chemicals with the users of these resources. Sprinklerfitters work in all buildings that require the use of fire sprinkler systems.

Because plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters frequently must lift heavy pipes, stand for long periods, and sometimes work in uncomfortable or cramped positions, they need physical strength and stamina. They also may have to work outdoors in inclement weather. In addition, they are subject to possible falls from ladders, cuts from sharp tools, and burns from hot pipes or soldering equipment. Consequently, this occupation experiences rates of nonfatal injuries and illnesses that are much higher than average.

Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters often work more than 40 hours per week and can be on call for emergencies nights and weekends. Some pipelayers may need to travel to and from worksites.

Education & Training Required
Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters enter into the occupation in a variety of ways. Most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters get their training in jointly administered apprenticeships or in technical schools and community colleges. Pipelayers typically receive their training on the job.

Apprenticeship programs generally provide the most comprehensive training available for these jobs. Such programs are, for the most part, administered jointly by union locals and their affiliated companies or by nonunion contractor organizations. Organizations that sponsor apprenticeships include the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada; local employers of either the Mechanical Contractors Association of America or the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors; a union associated with a member of the National Fire Sprinkler Association; the Associated Builders and Contractors; the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors; the American Fire Sprinkler Association; and the Home Builders Institute of the National Association of Home Builders.

Apprenticeshipsóboth union and nonunionóconsist of 4 or 5 years of paid on-the-job training and at least 144 hours of related classroom instruction per year. Classroom subjects include drafting and blueprint reading, mathematics, applied physics and chemistry, safety, and local plumbing codes and regulations. On the job, apprentices first learn basic skills, such as identifying grades and types of pipe, using the tools of the trade, and unloading materials safely. As apprentices gain experience, they learn how to work with various types of pipe and how to install different piping systems and plumbing fixtures. Apprenticeship gives trainees a thorough knowledge of all aspects of the trade. Although most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are trained through apprenticeships, some still learn their skills informally on the job or by taking classes on their own.

Certifications Needed (Licensure)
Although there are no uniform national licensing requirements, most States and communities require plumbers to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary, but most localities require workers to have 2 to 5 years of experience and to pass an examination that tests 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. Licenses usually require a test, experience, or both.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)
Applicants for union or nonunion apprentice jobs must be at least 18 years old and in good physical condition. A drug test may be required. Apprenticeship committees may require applicants to have a high school diploma or its equivalent. For jointly administered apprenticeships approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, a high school diploma is mandatory, because these programs can earn credit from community colleges and, in some cases, from 4-year colleges. Armed Forces training in plumbing, pipefitting, and steamfitting is considered very good preparation. In fact, people with this background may be given credit for previous experience when they enroll in a civilian apprenticeship program. High school or postsecondary courses in shop, plumbing, general mathematics, drafting, blueprint reading, computers, and physics also are good preparation.

Plumbers, Pipelayers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters - What They Do - Page 2

Academic Programs of Interest

Gasfitter
A Domestic or Commercial Gasfitter program teaches a student how to install, test, maintain and repair propane and natural gas lines, appliances, equipment and accessories in residential and commercial premises. A Gasfitter Program will usually take 2 years to complete. Some of the key areas of study ...more
Pipefitter
The Pipefitter Program will teach a student how to use blueprints and project specifications to construct and repair piping systems that carry water, steam, chemicals and fuel. Steamfitters are typically Pipefitters who specialize in pipe systems that move liquids or gases under high pressure. The ...more
Plumber
A Plumbers Program will teach a student how to install, alter and repair the systems that keep our water and waste disposal systems running. A student will learn how to read and interpret blueprints and project specifications. The Plumbing Program will generally take a student 4 years to complete. ...more