Become a Plumber
If you’re considering a plumbing career and want to get a job as a plumber, then you need to know a) what a plumbing job is all about, and b) how to become a plumber.
Success in this trade requires a positive attitude and a willingness – an enthusiasm even – to work hard and learn. If you are reasonably smart, enjoy working with and learning from other people, like the challenge of designing systems and selecting materials as well as the hands-on work of assembling them, and enjoy a variety of manual labor (think: exercise!), then becoming a plumber may be perfect for you!
First, watch this informative video interview of a residential plumber who tells both the good and bad of his career in plumbing as well as how to become a plumber. He highly recommends a career as a plumber for the right type of person. He says the money is good, but he cautions that the job is not all roses!
Plumber Job Description & Kinds of Plumbing Jobs
The Government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”) tracks information about the U.S. job market. In their reporting, the BLS combines plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters. These jobs are combined because they have very similar core skills and knowledge. All three jobs typically require a multi-year apprenticeship period and study of plumbing courses followed by the need to get licensed in the state where the plumber will work.
1. What is the Difference Between a Plumber, Pipefitter and Steamfitter?
See the plumbing job description below. Also, be aware that there is career overlap since many plumbing trade professionals will get certified for more than one thing (meaning as both a plumber, pipefitter and/or steamfitter) as well as for fuel gas systems (such as propane or natural gas for fuels).
- Plumber: A plumber designs, installs and repairs residential and commercial installations of lower pressure pipes and fixtures for fresh water and wastewater (sewage), fluids for heating and cooling systems, and fire sprinkler systems. The materials are usually of a lighter grade than those used by pipefitters and steamfitters since the pressures in the piping are generally less. Materials may be copper, pvc, or other lighter types of piping. Connection methods are usually glues, solders, threads or light welding.
- Pipefitter: A pipefitter does similar work as a plumber, but designs and installs pipes that carry greater volumes and higher pressures than the systems normally handled by plumbers. Because of the larger volumes and higher pressures involved, the materials used are heavier and stronger, such as different types of steel and other specialty materials. Pipefitters are typically employed by industrial companies such as car manufacturers, oil companies and power plants, although some also work in residential and commercial building construction and maintenance.
- Steamfitter: A steamfitter does much the same work and is employed by the same types of companies as a pipefitter. The main difference between a steamfitter and a pipefitter is that the steamfitter specializes in systems for high-pressure fluids and gasses.
2. What Kinds of Plumber Jobs are There?
Digging into the category of “Plumber,” here are the main types of plumber jobs:
- Residential New Construction Plumber: Works to design and install pipes and fixtures for fresh water and wastewater (sewage), heating and cooling systems, and yard sprinkler systems. May have to design the systems themselves since often the architect or home designer only indicates a location for a fixture but does not design the plumbing layout.
From a business perspective, plumbers doing this kind of work as subcontractors may feel pressure to bid low to get the job, so it’s very important to have a good grasp of your costs so you don’t underbid. Also, plumbers doing this kind of work generally have to pick up the materials themselves and bring them to the job site.
- Commercial New Construction Plumber: Works to design and install pipes and fixtures for fresh water and wastewater (sewage), heating and cooling systems, and fire suppression sprinkler systems. Often the architects will have given more direction on the system design than on a residential job, so the plumbers may have less design work to do.
From a business perspective, there may be somewhat less financial pressure in the bidding since the jobs are larger and done for larger, “wealthier” commercial clients. Also, plumbers doing this kind of work are more likely to have the materials delivered to the site for them.
- Service and Repairs Plumber: Works to repair existing plumbing installations in commercial and residential buildings.
Many plumbers work in multiple job types at once, and many also work for years in one area (such as Residential New Construction) and then shift their careers to another area (such as Service and Repairs).
To Become a Plumber, Get a Plumbing Apprenticeship
Three basic professional levels are most common during a career in plumbing. These job levels indicate the general amount of training and experience that a person has as well as the license they hold. It is important to note that the job level also directly indicates the amount of autonomy a plumber has in their work.
- Apprentice Plumber: The Apprentice Plumber is the lowest of the three levels. Most new plumbers begin their career in a plumbing apprenticeship program, although it is also common to work outside an apprentice program.
If you begin your career as a plumbing apprentice, you will work either in an apprentice program of a plumbers union or in a non-union program. The minimum requirements to enter a plumbing apprenticeship are generally that you are at least 18 years old and have a high school degree or GED, although some plumbing apprenticeships may allow you to start younger and without a diploma. During the apprentice stage, which lasts from four to five years, the apprentice plumber must work under the supervision of a Journeyman or Master Plumber. Plumbing apprenticeships generally do not require a license.
This is an exciting period in the life of a new plumber! The plumbing apprentice gets paid, on-the-job experience during the day and takes plumbing courses at a school at night and/or on weekends. Classroom training covers areas important to your education and success as a plumber. You will likely study safety, math required for plumbing, plumbing system design, plumbing pipes and materials, and building code for plumbers, among others topics.
Once the apprentice time period is completed and you meet the experience and education plumbing license requirements to become a Journeyman Plumber, you can advance to the next professional level. Take the plumbing license exam in your state, and if you pass, you will become a Journeyman Plumber, where you will enjoy greater autonomy, responsibility and a higher average plumber salary!
- Journeyman Plumber: The Journeyman Plumber is the middle of the three levels. To become a Journeyman, you must first have completed the apprentice program and all required plumbing courses in formal classroom training. You can then register with the state or locality for a Journeyman Plumber license and register to take the Journeyman Plumbing license exam.
In most states the licensing and exam is done by the State, but in a few states it is done at the county or local level. As one example of the exam, the Westchester County, New York “Journeyman Plumbing Exam” is an open book, 120 question exam that takes four hours. Once the license exam is passed and the other licensing requirements satisfied, you will be issued a Journeyman Plumber license!
While a Journeyman definitely has more knowledge and experience than an apprentice and as a result earns higher pay and has more autonomy, the Journeyman is still generally required to work under the supervision of a Master Plumber.
- Master Plumber: The Master Plumber is the highest level. To become a Master Plumber, you must first have completed the years of work experience as a Journeyman plumber required by the state or locality in which you want to become a Master plumber. You may also need to take additional plumbing courses or complete an educational degree program relevant to plumbing. Having met these requirements, you can then apply to the state or locality for a Master Plumber license and register to take the Master Plumbing exam. As one example of the exam, the Westchester County New York “Master Plumber with Gas Exam” is an open book, 170 question exam that takes six hours.
Once the exam is passed and the licensing requirements satisfied, you will be issued a Master Plumber license. The Master Plumber is not required to work under anyone else’s supervision in performing his or her duties. The Master plumber often has his or her own business and may employ Journey or Apprentice plumbers. Also good to know, the Master Plumber salary is at the highest end of the plumber pay scale and can really be very good!
- Plumbing & Trade Schools
- How to choose plumbing courses and a professional plumbing school
- Choosing between a union plumbing apprenticeship and a non-union apprenticeship
- How much is a typical plumber salary
Congratulations on your search for information about how to become a plumber. Start with a plumbing apprenticeship and go from there!