What Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters Do
Pipefitters install a variety of pipes to move liquids and gasses.
Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters install and repair pipes that carry liquids or gases to, from, and within businesses, homes, and factories.
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
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 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 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 using Building Information Modeling (BIM), which allows a building’s physical systems to be planned and coordinated across occupations.
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 pipefitters 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 exact lengths, plumbers and pipefitters 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 often is screwed together.
In addition to performing installation and repair work, journey- and master-level plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters frequently 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. In addition, they 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 used 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 steampipes.