Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters install and repair piping fixtures and systems. Although plumbers, pipe fitters, and steamfitters have distinct responsibilities, they often have similar duties. For example, they all install pipes and fittings that carry water, gas, and other fluids and substances. They determine the necessary materials for a job, connect pipes, and test pressure to ensure that a pipe system is airtight and watertight. Their tools include drills, saws, welding torches, press fitting tools, and drain cleaning tools.
Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters may use different materials and construction techniques, depending on the project. For example, residential water systems use copper, steel, and plastic pipe that one or two plumbers install. Industrial plant water systems, in contrast, are made of large steel pipes that usually take a crew of pipefitters to install.
Journey- and master-level plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters frequently direct apprentices and helpers.
Master plumbers on construction jobs may help develop blueprints that show the placement of pipes and fixtures. Their input ensures 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 created digitally with Building Information Modeling (BIM), which allows workers in several occupations to collaborate in planning a building’s physical systems.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters was $55,160 in May 2019. 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 $32,690, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $97,170.
In May 2019, the median annual wages for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Manufacturing $57,150
- Government $56,790
- Plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning contractors $54,760
- Heavy and civil engineering construction $52,820
Most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters work full time, including nights and weekends. Plumbers are often on call to handle emergencies. Self-employed plumbers may be able to set their own schedules.
Plumber Job Outlook
Employment of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters is projected to grow 4 percent from 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
Most demand for plumbers will stem from new construction and the need to maintain and repair plumbing systems in existing residences and other buildings. Employment of sprinklerfitters is expected to increase as states continue to adopt changes to building codes that require the use of fire suppression systems.
Education, Training & Certification
Most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters learn on the job through an apprenticeship. Some also attend vocational-technical school. Most states and some localities require plumbers to be licensed.
A high school diploma or equivalent is typically required to become a plumber, pipefitter, or steamfitter. Vocational-technical schools offer courses in pipe system design, safety, and tool use. They also offer welding courses that are required by some pipefitter and steamfitter apprenticeship training programs.
Most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters learn their trade through a 4- or 5-year apprenticeship. Apprentices typically receive 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training, as well as some technical instruction, each year. Technical instruction includes safety, local plumbing codes and regulations, and blueprint reading. Apprentices also study mathematics, applied physics, and chemistry. Apprenticeship programs are sponsored by unions, trade associations, and businesses. Most apprentices enter a program directly, but some start out as helpers or complete a pre-apprenticeship training programs in plumbing and other trades.
Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters complete an apprenticeship program and pass the required licensing exam to become journey-level workers. Journey-level plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are qualified to perform tasks independently. Plumbers with several years of plumbing experience who pass another exam earn master status. Some states require master plumber status in order to obtain a plumbing contractor’s license.
Most states and some localities require plumbers to be licensed. Although licensing requirements vary, states and localities often require workers to have 2 to 5 years of experience and to pass an exam that shows their knowledge of the trade before allowing plumbers to work independently.
Plumbers may also obtain optional certification, such as in plumbing design, to broaden career opportunities. In addition, most employers require plumbers to have a driver’s license.
Some states require pipefitters and steamfitters to be licensed; they may also require a special license to work on gas lines. Licensing typically requires an exam or work experience or both. Contact your state’s licensing board for more information.