What is the Difference Between a Plumber and a Pipefitter?

Plumbers and pipefitters are both highly trained professionals who install, maintain and repair piping systems. However, training for each of these professions is different, as they specialize in specific types of plumbing systems used for different purposes. When choosing between these career paths, it might be helpful to have more information about what each of these professionals does and how they differ in salaries, opportunities and day-to-day work. 

Types of Plumbing Systems

Typically, if we think of plumbing at all, it is in the context of drinking water and waste removal. But did you know that plumbing systems are capable of so much more? As one of modern society’s most crucial infrastructures, piping systems are used in heating and cooling, electrical generation, medical facilities and manufacturing. It is not an exaggeration to say that without plumbing systems, and plumbers and pipefitters to maintain them, society as we know it would collapse. So, who is responsible for which type of system in this complicated network of pipes? 

  • Plumbers — Plumbers work mainly in private residences and businesses to keep water delivery systems and waste removal systems running optimally. Their tasks include unclogging pipes, installing and repairing heating systems, repairing leaks and fixing garbage disposal systems. If you think about it, without plumbers the activities of daily living would be a lot more complicated and take a lot more time to complete.
  • Pipefitters — Pipefitters are responsible for pressurized piping systems. These pipes are specially designed to handle chemicals, acids and steam. Found in medical, agricultural or industrial settings, the systems maintained by pipefitters are integral to the tasks being performed. For instance, in a medical facility, pipes carry various gasses used to provide lifesaving treatments and diagnostic testing. In an industrial setting, pressurized lines may be used to run certain types of machinery or carry dangerous byproducts for safe removal. 

Tools Used in Plumbing versus Pipefitting

While both plumbers and pipefitters will need to learn to weld and read blueprints, and both work to fit pipes together without leaks, there are many more differences than there are similarities between the two professions. In fact, the systems they work on are so different that plumbers and pipefitters will have very different tools in their toolbox. They also do not work with the same materials, and they have specific techniques for the systems they repair. 

Plumbers will usually work with materials like copper, PVC, PEX, cast iron, black iron, chromed brass, chromed copper and galvanized iron. It is essential for the plumber to know which types of pipe will work best on the various systems they work with, and which are safe in different situations. For instance, a plumber who is installing a system for drinking water will need to know which materials could cause contamination. Tools plumbers typically use for work include basin wrenches, toilet augers, pipe wrenches, flashlights and tube cutters.

Pipefitters also use pipes in a variety of materials including plastic, copper, carbon steel and clay. Since the pipes pipefitters work with are often carrying hazardous or toxic materials, it will be essential for those in the trade to know which are safe in certain situations. Some standard tools for pipefitters include fitter grips, cutting torches, welders, saws and pressure gauges. 

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Education for Plumbers and Pipefitters

For many people, whether you become a plumber or a pipefitter may depend on the availability of training where you live. Plumbers and pipefitters can learn their trade through an apprenticeship, a trade school or a combination of the two. In fact, those who attend training through a trade school can usually expect to be placed in an apprenticeship either during training or upon graduation.

Regardless of the style of training you prefer, it will be essential to choose which career you wish to specialize in prior to seeking a training program. You can search for training programs here, find apprenticeships here, or reach out to your local trades union to inquire about training opportunities. 

Licenses for Plumbers and Pipefitters

Plumbers face licensing requirements in most places, either through a statewide licensing system or through licensing in the city or locality in which they work. By contrast, only a few states require licensing for pipefitters. However, pipefitters should be aware that they may need to procure specialty licenses for the various types of systems on which they work. For instance, working on gas lines requires a special permit in most places. In either career, you will need to carefully check the regulations in the areas in which you work to ensure you are in compliance with all local codes. 

How Much Money do Plumbers and Pipefitters Make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the salary data for plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters as a single category. Data collected by the site for 2019 showed a range of annual salaries between $32,690 and $92,170. It is important to keep in mind that the data show wages from all levels of the trade, from apprentices to journeymen to masters. In general, the earnings of plumbers and pipefitters are similar. However, wages can depend significantly on how much you want to advance your career and where you find employment.

Where Do Plumbers and Pipefitters Work?

There is a wide variety of places where plumbers typically find employment. Since plumbing is a necessity in nearly every home and place of business, plumbers can find full-time work in a variety of industries. These include working for a national plumbing company like Roto-rooter, working in an apartment building as part of building maintenance or even working in a hospital or office complex. Plumbers who have reached the master plumber level are also eligible to own and run their own business

Pipefitters, who work on more specialized piping systems, have less variability in their professional lives. Those who choose this career can expect to find work with utility companies, hospitals, oil refineries, industrial plants, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning contracting companies. Whichever choice you make, you can expect a secure future working in either of these trades.