As someone exploring the plumbing trade perhaps for the first time, you have probably noticed that plumbing is often mentioned in the same breath as pipefitting and steamfitting. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics considers all three of these occupations to be part of one trade, and the main plumbers’ union is actually the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada. So what’s the reason for the different titles? What do people in these three occupations do?
In general, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters all perform the same kinds of tasks—the differences lie mainly in the types of pipes and equipment they work with and in their work environments. Members of all three occupations install, repair, and maintain pipes and piping systems. They must know how to read blueprints and follow building codes, and how to perform tests and inspections. Most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are employed by the construction industry.
The difference appears in the type of pipes and systems they work with and where they work. Plumbers work on pipes and systems that supply water, drainage, and gas to residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. For example, all of the piping for the utilities in your home was done by a plumber. In contrast, pipefitters work on pipes and systems that supply things like acids and chemicals. These lines are most likely to be found in industrial and manufacturing settings, not in homes. Steamfitting is a special category of pipefitting that involves installing, repairing, and maintaining systems that transport steam, which requires special treatment because of the high temperature and pressure. These lines are most likely to be found in industrial settings like power plants.
In general, the process for becoming a plumber, a pipefitter, or a steamfitter is the same. Most workers in these trades get the majority of their training through a combination of technical school and an apprenticeship program. They usually take the same basic technical training program, and then specialize during the apprenticeship.
After earning their credentials, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters may have different opportunities. Many plumbers are self-employed, for example, those who have their own businesses providing emergency residential plumbing services. This is not true of pipefitters and steamfitters, who work on crews in large industrial environments. Over the next several years, the job outlook for members of all three trades will be good, but for different reasons. Plumbers are expected to have more work because of new residential construction and changes to building codes that require improved water efficiency. Pipefitters and steamfitters will find work in areas where new power plants and factories are being constructed. Overall, plumbing, pipefitting, and steamfitting are all growing fields, and qualified, well-trained workers will be in high demand across the board.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters. Occupational Outlook Handbook.