Plumber and Pipe Fitter
Plumber and Pipe Fitter
Education and Training: Vocational program or apprenticeship
Salary: Median—$19.85 per hour
Employment Outlook: Very good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Plumbers and pipe fitters assemble, install, and make changes in pipe systems used to carry water, steam, air, and other liquids and gases. They install plumbing fixtures, such as bathtubs and toilets. They also install heating and refrigeration units. Plumbing and pipe fitting are generally considered to be separate trades, though many qualified craft workers are skilled in both fields.
Many plumbers and pipe fitters work for contractors on the construction of new buildings, while others are steadily employed by plants and factories to do maintenance work. Plumbers and pipe fitters may work on the construction of ships and airplanes. Plumbers may also connect the water, gas, and waste disposal pipes to the city or town supply.
Before installing plumbing, plumbers study blueprints to see what kind and size of pipes are needed. They install plumbing in a new building in three basic steps. The first step is to run pipes inside the foundation before the concrete is poured. These pipes are used for water and waste. The second step is to install the pipes for the kitchen and bathroom. This is done after the carpenters have built the frame of the building. The plumbers must drill holes through the framework to run the pipes. The pipes must be bent, cut, and then connected to each other with solder or glue. Copper pipe, used for water and heat, is joined by soldering. Plastic pipe, used for waste lines and air venting, is joined with glue.
After the piping has been installed, plumbers must check for leakage. To do this, plumbers cap all the pipe outlets and then pump air through the system to check for loss of pressure.
After the walls have been installed, the plumbers complete the final step. They put in plumbing fixtures, such as bathtubs, sinks, and toilets. When these fixtures are in place, the plumbers check to make sure that they are operating correctly.
Pipe fitters work with very large pipes, some of which can withstand high pressures. Pipe fitters work in industries such as oil refineries, chemical plants, and food processing plants. They install, maintain, and repair the pipes through which these products pass. Pipe fitters also install boilers, oil burners, furnaces, and air-conditioning and sprinkler systems.
Pipe fitters follow many of the same procedures that plumbers do. After checking the blueprints and work area to find out where they should lay the pipes, the pipe fitters cut and thread the piping. To thread piping, pipe fitters use a machine to make a spiral ridge in the pipe. Then they bend the piping by hand or machine. The pipes are connected with the pipe joints by means of welding, brazing, soldering, gluing, caulking, or threading, depending on how the pipes are to be used.
Plumbers and pipe fitters use many tools, including benders, wrenches, drills, reamers, chisels, hammers, and other hand tools. They also use gas or acetylene torches and welding and soldering equipment for their work.
Education and Training Requirements
While many residential and industrial plumbers learn the trade in vocational or technical schools or in the armed forces, a large number of plumbers and pipe fitters enter four- to five-year apprenticeship programs. The apprenticeship programs' standards are set by local union-management committees, which determine what type of training is necessary and how many apprentices are needed for each geographical area. Apprenticeships combine on-the-job training with at least 144 annual hours of classroom instruction. To be considered for the program, applicants must usually be eighteen years old and pass a test given by the state employment service. The results of the test and the applicant's qualifications are then evaluated by the local union-management apprenticeship committee. A high school diploma is recommended. Courses in mathematics, shop, chemistry, and physics are helpful for those planning a career in plumbing and pipe fitting.
At first, apprentices in the program work as assistants to experienced craft workers as they learn to use the tools and materials of the trade. As they gain experience, their duties on the job become more complex. In the classroom, apprentices learn welding, soldering, applied mathematics, physics, and chemistry. They are taught how to read blueprints. In most states, a worker must have a license to work as a qualified plumber or pipe fitter. In order to be granted the license, the worker must pass a written test to demonstrate knowledge of the trade and of local building codes.
Many plumbers and pipe fitters have learned their trade informally, by working with and observing experienced workers. This generally takes longer and is less complete than a formal apprenticeship program.
Getting the Job
Local contractors and union offices have information about openings in apprenticeship programs. Individuals who have been trained in plumbing and pipefitting in the armed forces usually get some credit toward the requirements of the program. High school students can gain experience through summer jobs as helpers. Plumbing and heating contractors often offer such employment. The Yellow Pages, state employment services, and newspaper classified ads are sources for job openings.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
While plumbers and pipe fitters are already at the top of their trade, experienced craft workers can move up to become supervisors. Some plumbers are self-employed, doing mainly repair, alteration, and modernization work. Many plumbers and pipe fitters open contracting businesses and employ other workers. In most areas, contractors are required to have a master plumber's license.
More than 500,000 plumbers and pipe fitters are employed in the United States. Employment is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2014. The plumbing trade is less sensitive to the economy than other parts of the construction industry, in part because old pipe systems must be continuously maintained or replaced and in part because plumbing requirements change due to building codes and consumer demand. For example, sprinkler systems are now required in many commercial buildings, and the remodeling of residential bathrooms continues to be a strong market. New, more efficient, longer-lasting products may have some effect on total employment, but the demand for well-trained workers is expected to far exceed the supply. Those workers willing to undergo the intensive training programs available will find themselves at an advantage.
Plumbers and pipe fitters do active and strenuous work. They must frequently stand for long periods of time. They also do extensive kneeling, squatting, and stooping, often in cramped quarters. Generally, they work forty hours per week, with higher wages paid for overtime hours. The amount of work time lost due to bad weather is not as great as in other construction trades because plumbers and pipe fitters most often work indoors. The risk of injury among plumbers and pipe fitters is lower than in most construction trades. Many plumbers and pipe fitters belong to labor unions.
Where to Go for More Information
Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors—National Association
180 S. Washington St., Box 6808
Falls Church, VA 22046
Home Builders Institute
1201 Fifteenth St. NW
Washington, DC 20005
United States Department of Labor
Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services
200 Constitution Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20210
Earnings and Benefits
Plumbers and pipe fitters are among the most highly paid craft workers in the construction industry. Their median wage in 2004 was $19.85 per hour. Apprentices start at about fifty percent of the qualified worker's wage and earn periodic increases until they finish the program. Union workers generally receive paid holidays, life insurance, and hospitalization and pension plans. The number of vacation days they receive depends on the number of days they work each year. Other benefits are negotiated separately for each union contract.