Plumber vs Pipefitter: Which Trade Career Should You Choose?

When considering a career in the trades, two paths people often consider are becoming a plumber or a pipefitter. Though both work closely with piping systems, there are some notable differences between the two professions.

Plumbers specialize in the installation, maintenance, and repair of water supply, heating, and drainage systems in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. Their work keeps water flowing into homes and businesses and wastewater flowing out. Pipefitters, on the other hand, focus on assembling, installing, and repairing pipe systems that carry liquids, steam, or gases for industrial facilities. This includes systems with high pressure pipes and extensive ventilation and air conditioning networks.

While plumbers and pipefitters share some similar skills and training requirements, their typical work environments, tools, and day-to-day tasks can vary significantly. Plumbers are more likely to work alone servicing homes and businesses, whereas pipefitters collaborate on large construction projects or in industrial settings. When deciding between the two careers, it is important to consider whether you prefer working with water-based systems in buildings or industrial piping systems transporting other substances. Understanding these key differences will help you determine which career aligns best with your interests and talents.

Plumber and Pipefitter Defined

Before diving into the differences, let’s start with a brief definition of what plumbers and pipefitters do:

What is a Plumber?

Plumbers specialize in the installation, maintenance, and repair of water supply, heating, drainage, and waste disposal systems in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. Their primary responsibility is working with water-based systems specific to buildings, houses, schools, hospitals, and other facilities.

Plumbers install, inspect, maintain, and repair:

  • Pipes and fixtures for water distribution and drainage systems
  • Heating and air conditioning systems
  • Sprinkler systems for fire suppression
  • Appliances connected to the plumbing system like dishwashers or water heaters

Plumbing projects range from unclogging drains and repairing leaky faucets in homes to installing the complex water systems in a high-rise apartment building.

What is a Pipefitter?

Pipefitters assemble, install, and repair pipe systems that carry liquids, chemicals, acids, gases, steam, and other substances. They focus on both high-pressure and low-pressure piping systems used in manufacturing, power generation, heating, cooling, and other processes.

Pipefitters work on projects like:

  • Assembling and installing pipe systems in power plants, refineries, and other industrial facilities
  • Laying out, cutting, bending, threading, and welding pipe components
  • Following blueprints and piping specifications to build complex pipe networks
  • Testing pipe systems using air and water pressure checks
  • Maintaining and repairing existing piping systems

Pipefitters work primarily on industrial projects rather than in homes or businesses.

Key Differences Between Plumbers and Pipefitters

Now that we’ve defined both roles, let’s explore some of the major differences between being a plumber vs pipefitter when it comes to responsibilities, work environments, required skills, and training.

Types of Piping Systems

One of the biggest differences comes down to the types of piping systems plumbers and pipefitters work on:

Plumbers handle water-based systems specifically for buildings and homes, including:

  • Drinking water supply lines
  • Drainage pipes and sewer lines
  • Natural gas lines
  • Heating and cooling system pipes
  • Fire sprinkler system pipes

Pipefitters assemble and install piping systems that transport industrial fluids and gases, such as:

  • Chemicals like petroleum, acids, and corrosives
  • Steam lines
  • Compressed air lines
  • Oil and natural gas pipelines
  • Industrial heating and cooling systems

Pipefitters also work on high-pressure piping systems that need to withstand greater pressures and temperatures compared to residential plumbing systems.

Typical Work Environments

Due to the different types of piping systems plumbers and pipefitters work on, their typical work environments also tend to differ:

Plumbers often work at:

  • Residential homes
  • Schools and hospitals
  • Offices, retail stores, restaurants
  • Apartment buildings and hotels
  • Water treatment facilities

They may be employed by plumbing contractors, mechanical contractors, or facilities maintenance teams.

Pipefitters typically work at:

  • Manufacturing plants
  • Power plants
  • Oil refineries and pipelines
  • Chemical plants
  • Automotive plants
  • Food and beverage facilities
  • Large HVAC system installations

Pipefitters usually work for industrial construction contractors and maintenance teams. They more often collaborate on large teams rather than work independently.

Typical Projects and Tasks

The day-to-day work of plumbers and pipefitters also varies based on the types of systems and facilities they work on:

Plumbers’ typical tasks include:

  • Installing and repairing pipes, drains, water heaters, faucets, toilets, etc. in homes and buildings
  • Locating and repairing leaks
  • Unclogging drains and toilets
  • Ensuring plumbing systems comply with codes
  • Designing and sizing plumbing systems for new constructions
  • Providing maintenance and repair services for residential, commercial, and industrial clients

Pipefitters’ typical tasks include:

  • Reading blueprints and piping plans
  • Sizing, cutting, threading, and welding pipes from materials like steel, iron, copper, and plastic
  • Assembling and installing high-pressure piping systems
  • Connecting piping to equipment like boilers, pumps, and tanks
  • Testing pipe systems and troubleshooting issues
  • Repairing and maintaining existing industrial pipe networks
  • Fabricating specialty piping elements and sub-assemblies

Specialized Tools and Technology

To complete their daily tasks, plumbers and pipefitters must be skilled using some specialized tools and technology:

Plumbers regularly use:

  • Wrenches, cutters, saws, solders, glues
  • Snaking tools to clear drain blockages
  • Video inspection cameras for locating issues
  • Computerized locating equipment to find underground pipes
  • Water pressure testing gauges
  • Specialized software for designing plumbing systems

Pipefitters regularly use:

  • Cutting, bending, and welding equipment for pipes
  • Hoists and rigging tools for lifting and placing pipes
  • Levels, squaring tools, protractors for pipe alignments
  • Pneumatic tools like pipe threaders and impact wrenches
  • Pressure testing equipment for checking pipe system tightness
  • Handheld computers and tablets with pipemapping software

Level of Demand and Job Outlook

Both plumbers and pipefitters are in steady demand in the construction industry. However, some projections indicate stronger growth for pipefitting jobs in the coming decade:

  • Plumbing jobs are projected to grow 4% from 2019-2029, adding about 25,900 jobs (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • Pipefitting jobs are projected to grow 9% from 2019-2029, adding about 27,600 jobs (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

This increased demand for pipefitters may be driven by growth in the oil industry, natural gas distribution, and large scale industrial and HVAC projects. However, quality plumbers are still very much in demand, especially since much of the current workforce is aging toward retirement.

Training and Licensing Requirements

Plumbers and pipefitters follow similar training pathways, typically through apprenticeship programs:

Plumber Training:

  • Complete a 4-5 year plumbing apprenticeship combining paid on-the-job training with some classroom education.
  • Journeyman license – requires 2-5 years of work experience, plus passing an exam.
  • Master plumber license – requires additional experience as a journeyman.

Pipefitter Training:

  • Complete a 4-5 year pipefitting apprenticeship through paid on-the-job training and classroom tech courses.
  • Obtain any licenses required by local jurisdictions. Some states require passing an exam.
  • Certifications like welding are common to prove specific skills.

Both careers require continuous learning to stay current with changing technologies, codes, and installation best practices.

Key Factors In Deciding Between Plumbing or Pipefitting

If you’re trying to choose between becoming a plumber or pipefitter, consider the following factors:

Working With Water-Based vs. Industrial Systems

Plumbing systems operate at lower pressures and temperatures compared to industrial pipefitting. Some may find working with residential water supplies or drainage systems more understandable and accessible than the complex chemical and gas systems pipefitters assemble.

However, others may be drawn to pipefitting specifically because it involves more sophisticated piping challenges. Pipefitting allows you to build very complex pipe networks requiring specialized knowledge.

Variety of Projects and Locations

Plumbers generally have more variety in terms of project locations, working on everything from single family homes to large commercial sites. Pipefitters usually work on a fewer number of large industrial projects.

If you like the idea of variety in job sites and the ability to work independently, plumbing may be more appealing. But for those who like delving deep into complex projects, pipefitting offers immense challenges and rewards.

Interacting With Clients vs. Collaborating With Crews

Plumbers often interact directly with residential and commercial clients to diagnose issues and complete repairs. Pipefitters collaborate as part of larger construction crews at industrial job sites.

Determine whether you prefer the customer service nature of plumbing or being part of a coordinated construction team on major projects.

Interest in Specific Skills Like Welding

Some pipefitting specialties like welding involve very specialized skills. If you’re interested in learning very specific trades skills like welding, pipefitting has defined specialization paths to follow.

Plumbing also has some specialties like medical gas piping installation, but overall has a more generalist nature than pipefitting.

Physical Demands

Both careers involve considerable physical labor and require strength, stamina, and coordination. Plumbers often have to work in cramped, awkward spaces like under sinks. Pipefitters work at heights on ladders and scaffolds, and handle very heavy pipes.

Evaluate whether your physical abilities and comfort with tight or high-up spaces align more with plumbing or pipefitting.

Earning Potential

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for plumbers is $56,330 while the median for pipefitters is $55,160 (2021 figures). However, top earners in both fields can make over $90,000 annually. Geographic location also impacts salaries significantly.

Overall earning potential is fairly even between plumbing and pipefitting. With either career, your ultimate income depends on factors like skills, certifications, work experience, and where you live.

Comparison of Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Related Trades

ProfessionWork EnvironmentTypical DutiesTools/Technology UsedTraining RequirementsJob OutlookAverage Salary
PlumberResidential homes, commercial buildings, schools, hospitalsInstall, repair, and maintain water, drainage, heating and cooling systemsWrenches, cutters, drain snakes, locating equipment, water pressure gauges4-5 year apprenticeship program4% growth$56,330
PipefitterManufacturing plants, power plants, refineries, construction sitesAssemble, install, and repair high-pressure piping systems carrying liquids, gases, chemicalsWelding equipment, pipe threaders, pneumatic tools, pipemapping software4-5 year apprenticeship program9% growth$55,160
ElectricianHomes, businesses, factories, construction sitesInstall, connect, test, and maintain electrical systems and equipmentVoltmeters, oscilloscopes, conduit benders, cable pullers4-5 year apprenticeship program8% growth$56,900
HVAC TechnicianResidential, commercial, industrial sitesInstall, maintain, and repair heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration systemsHand tools, test gauges, voltmeters, thermometers, soldering ironsCertificate programs, apprenticeships4% growth$48,730
CarpenterResidential and commercial construction sitesBuild, install, erect, and repair structures made of wood, concrete, and other materialsHammers, drills, saws, lasers, power toolsApprenticeship or on-the-job training8% growth$47,600

Frequently Asked Questions about Plumbers vs. Pipefitters

What is the main difference between a plumber and a pipefitter?

Plumbers work on water supply, drainage, heating, and cooling systems in buildings while pipefitters assemble and install piping systems that transport industrial fluids and gases.

What types of systems do plumbers work on?

Plumbers work on drinking water, drainage, gas lines, heating/cooling systems, and fire sprinklers in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings.

What types of systems do pipefitters work on?

Pipefitters work on piping systems that carry chemicals, compressed gases, steam, oil/gas, and industrial heating/cooling systems. They focus on high-pressure industrial piping.

Where do plumbers usually work?

Plumbers typically work in homes, schools, hospitals, office buildings, apartment complexes, and water treatment plants.

Where do pipefitters usually work?

Pipefitters typically work in power plants, manufacturing plants, oil refineries, chemical plants, and on other large industrial construction projects.

What tools and technology do plumbers use?

Plumbers use wrenches, drain snakes, locating equipment, pressure gauges, and plumbing design software among other tools.

What tools and technology do pipefitters use?

Pipefitters use welding equipment, pneumatic tools, rigging equipment, pipe threading/bending machines, and pipemapping software.

How can I decide between becoming a plumber or pipefitter?

Consider whether you prefer working on buildings or industrial sites, with customers or construction crews, and your interest in specialties like welding.

Finding the Right Career Fit

We’ve covered a lot of ground comparing pipefitters vs plumbers! In summary:

As a plumber, you’ll enjoy working independently, interacting with customers, and tackling a wide variety of projects. Your days will be spent installing, troubleshooting, and repairing water-based plumbing systems in homes, businesses, schools, and other buildings.

As a pipefitter, you’ll thrive assembling intricate piping networks as part of construction teams. Your work will focus on manufacturing plants, power plants, and industrial facilities that need specialized high-pressure piping systems.

Ultimately, choosing between plumbing or pipefitting comes down to deciding whether you want to work on residential and commercial buildings or industrial facilities. Plumbing provides variety, independence, and customer service opportunities. Pipefitting involves complex projects, specialized skills, and collaborating with construction crews.

Carefully consider which environment sounds most appealing. Talking to professionals in each field can provide additional insights. With quality training and determination, you can build an exciting, stable career in either plumbing or pipefitting.

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