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Understanding the Difference Between Plumbers and Pipefitters

Plumbing and pipefitting are often confused with each other. While both professions have similarities such as installing, maintaining and repairing pipes, it is important to understand the differences between the two crafts when applying for apprenticeship.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes plumbing and pipefitting jobs in the same group, so let’s break down these two alike but unique craft professions.

What do Plumbers and Pipefitters do?

According to NCCER, “Plumbers install and repair the water, waste disposal, drainage and gas systems in homes and commercial and industrial buildings. Pipefitters, on the other hand, install and repair both high- and low-pressure pipe systems used in manufacturing, in the generation of electricity, and in the heating and cooling of buildings.”

A plumber’s duties include:

  • Fixing and replacing water fixtures.
  • Assembling, installing, repairing, and maintaining water supply systems, drain systems, and gas systems.
  • Unclogging pipes and drains.

Plumbers do a lot more than unclog toilets, fix sinks and garbage disposals – just ask Carly Carey. She was inspired to become a plumbing apprentice after watching home remodels on HGTV. Read Carey’s story.

“Success to me is having the skills and knowledge to be a master at my work and then be able to teach and mentor other women and minority members in the trades,” Carey said. “I love my work. I love building relationships within my union and within my community. Taking time to reflect on my own interests and career aspirations has changed my life for the better; I hope other women do the same.”

Most states also require a plumber to pass an exam and get a license to practice.

Education extends far beyond the boundaries of the traditional four-year university degree. Plumbers will undergo several years of learning both on the job and in the classroom before reaching journeyperson level.

A pipefitter’s duties include:

  • Assembling, installing, repairing, and maintaining pipes that transport chemicals and gases, as well as pipe systems that generate electricity and heat.
  • Work with pipes that handle high pressure materials.

“The work of plumbers and pipefitters seems similar, but we see a big difference in the substances that their pipe systems deal with,” said Sam Ebute, Construction Careers Foundations’ Trades Navigator. “Plumbers mostly deal with water and water-based systems, while pipefitters often deal with the transport of chemicals.”

Here’s an example: Plumbers work on systems that transport clean water for drinking and bathing while removing wastewater from toilets and sinks. Pipefitters more commonly handle systems that transport other types of substances, such as chemicals, which often means working with systems that use different materials that endure higher pressure.

Plumbers commonly work with copper and PVC piping, while pipefitters use heavier materials and different kinds of metal.

Differences in Skills

Plumbers and pipefitters master and apply many similar skills, such as dexterity, an understanding of math and physics, and the ability to read blueprints. Due to the greater complexity of the systems and the nature of the materials they work with, pipefitters may also require additional skills like welding and knowledge of metallurgy.

Differences in the Workplace

Both plumbers and pipefitters can be found on construction sites of all types, but most of their work comes on different types of projects.

“Plumbers tend to work more in residential and commercial locations like homes and apartments,” Ebute said. “Plumbers lay out the pipework for kitchens and bathrooms during construction and help to repair these systems as needed as well as help install the appliances that use these systems, like refrigerators and washing machines.”

Pipefitters, on the other hand, tend to work in factories and other industrial settings installing and maintaining heavy-duty and high-pressure pipes that are crucial to the operations of that facility, such as manufacturing or energy generation.

Ready to Start a Career in Plumbing or Pipefitting?

Check out the ConstructionCareers.org to plan your own apprenticeship path towards being a plumber or pipefitter. The Construction Careers Foundation website has all the information you need to find a rewarding career in the building and construction trades.