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Most people are familiar with plumbers who come to their home to unclog a drain or install an appliance. In addition to these activities, however, plumbers and pipefitters install, maintain, and repair many different types of pipe systems. For example, some systems move water to a municipal water treatment plant, and then to residential, commercial, and public buildings. Others dispose of waste. Some bring in gas for stoves and furnaces. Others supply air-conditioning. Pipe systems in power plants carry the steam that powers huge turbines. Pipes also are used in manufacturing plants to move material through the production process.
Although plumbing and pipefitting sometimes are considered a single trade, workers generally specialize in one or the other. Plumbers install and repair the water, waste disposal, drainage, and gas systems in homes and commercial and industrial buildings. They also install plumbing fixturesbathtubs, showers, sinks, and toiletsand appliances such as dishwashers and water heaters. Pipefitters install and repair both high and low-pressure pipe systems that are used in manufacturing, in the generation of electricity, and in heating and cooling buildings. They also install automatic controls that are increasingly being used to regulate these systems. Some pipefitters specialize in only one type of system. Steamfitters, for example, install pipe systems that move liquids or gases under high pressure. Sprinklerfitters install automatic fire sprinkler systems in buildings.
Plumbers and pipefitters use many different materials and construction techniques, depending on the type of project. Residential water systems, for example, use copper, steel, and increasingly plastic pipe that can be handled and installed by one or two workers. Municipal sewerage systems, on the other hand, are made of large cast iron pipes; installation normally requires crews of pipefitters. Despite these differences, all plumbers and pipefitters must be able to follow building plans or blueprints and instructions from supervisors, lay out the job, and work efficiently with the materials and tools of the trade.
When construction plumbers install piping in a house, for example, they work from blueprints or drawings that show the planned location of pipes, plumbing fixtures, and appliances. They lay out the job to fit the piping into the structure of the house with the least waste of material and within the confines of the structure. They measure and mark areas where pipes will be installed and connected. They check for obstructions, such as electrical wiring, and, if necessary, plan the pipe installation around the problem.
Sometimes plumbers have to cut holes in walls, ceilings, and floors of a house. For some systems, they may have to hang steel supports from ceiling joists to hold the pipe in place. To assemble the system, plumbers cut and bend lengths of pipe using saws, pipe cutters, and pipe-bending machines. They connect lengths of pipe with fittings; the method depends on the type of pipe used. For plastic pipe, plumbers connect the sections and fittings with adhesives. For copper pipe, they slide fittings over the end of the pipe and solder the fitting in place with a torch.
After the piping is in place in the house, plumbers install the fixtures and appliances and connect the system to the outside water or sewer lines. Using pressure gauges, they check the system to insure that the plumbing works properly.
Because plumbers and pipefitters frequently must lift heavy pipes, stand for long periods, and sometimes work in uncomfortable or cramped positions, they need physical strength as well as stamina. They may have to work outdoors in inclement weather. They also are subject to falls from ladders, cuts from sharp tools, and burns from hot pipes or from soldering equipment.
Plumbers and pipefitters engaged in construction generally work a standard 40-hour week; those involved in maintaining pipe systems, including those who provide maintenance services under contract, may have to work evening or weekend shifts, as well as be on call. These maintenance workers may spend quite a bit of time traveling to and from work sites.
Plumbers and pipefitters held about 375,000 jobs in 1994. About two-thirds worked for mechanical and plumbing contractors engaged in new construction, repair, modernization, or maintenance work. Others did maintenance work for a variety of industrial, commercial, and government employers. For example, pipefitters were employed as maintenance personnel in the petroleum and chemical industries, where manufacturing operations require the moving of liquids and gases through pipes. One of every 5 plumbers and pipefitters is self-employed.
Jobs for plumbers and pipefitters are distributed across the country in about the same proportion as the general population.
Virtually all plumbers undergo some type of apprenticeship training. Many programs are administered by local union-management committees made up of members of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada, and local employers who are members of either the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, Inc., the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors, or the National Fire Sprinkler Association, Inc.
Nonunion training and apprenticeship programs are administered by local chapters of the Associated Builders and Contractors, the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors, the American Fire Sprinkler Association, and the Home Builders Institute of the National Association of Home Builders.
Apprenticeshipsboth union and nonunionconsist of 4 to 5 years of on-the-job training, in addition to at least 144 hours annually of related classroom instruction. Classroom subjects include drafting and blueprint reading, mathematics, applied physics and chemistry, safety, and local plumbing codes and regulations. On the job, apprentices first learn basic skills such as identifying grades and types of pipe, the use of the tools of the trade, and the safe unloading of materials. As apprentices gain experience, they learn how to work with various types of pipe and install different piping systems and plumbing fixtures. Apprenticeship gives trainees a thorough knowledge of all aspects of the trade. Although most plumbers are trained through apprenticeship, some still learn their skills informally on the job.
Applicants for union or nonunion apprentice jobs must be 18 years old and in good physical condition. Apprenticeship committees may require applicants to have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Armed Forces training in plumbing and pipefitting is considered very good preparation. In fact, persons with this background may be given credit for previous experience when entering a civilian apprenticeship program. Secondary or post secondary courses in shop, plumbing, general mathematics, drafting, blueprint reading, and physics also are good preparation.
Although there are no uniform national licensing requirements, most communities require plumbers to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary from area to area, but most localities require workers to pass an examination that tests their knowledge of the trade and of local plumbing codes.
Some plumbers and pipefitters may become supervisors for mechanical and plumbing contractors. Others go into business for themselves.
Job opportunities for skilled plumbers and pipefitters are expected to be good as the growth in demand outpaces the supply of workers trained in this craft. Employment of plumbers and pipefitters is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2005. However, the pool of young workers available to enter training programs will also be increasing slowly and many in that group are reluctant to seek training for jobs that may be strenuous and have uncomfortable working conditions.
Construction activityresidential, industrial, and commercialis expected to grow slowly over the next decade. Demand for plumbers will stem from building renovation, including the increasing installation of sprinkler systems; repair and maintenance of existing residential systems, and maintenance activities for places that have extensive systems of pipes, such as power plants, water and wastewater treatment plants, pipelines, office buildings, and factories. However, the growing use of plastic pipe and fittings, which are much easier to use; more efficient sprinkler systems; and other technologies will mean that employment will not grow as fast as it has in past years. In addition, several thousand positions will become available each year from the need to replace experienced workers who leave the occupation.
Traditionally, many organizations with extensive pipe systems have employed their own plumbers or pipefitters to maintain their equipment and keep everything running smoothly. But, in order to reduce their labor costs, many of these firms no longer employ a full-time in-house plumber or pipefitter. Instead, when they need one they rely on workers provided, under service contracts, by plumbing and pipefitting contractors.
All construction projects provide only temporary employment, so when a project ends, plumbers and pipefitters working on it may experience short bouts of unemployment. Because construction activity varies from area to area, job openings, as well as apprenticeship opportunities, fluctuate with local economic conditions. However, employment of plumbers and pipefitters generally is less sensitive to changes in economic conditions than some of the other construction trades. Even when construction activity declines, maintenance, rehabilitation, and replacement of existing piping systems, as well as the growing installation of fire sprinkler systems, provide many jobs for plumbers and pipefitters.
Median weekly earnings for plumbers and pipefitters who were not self-employed were $530 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $373 and $742 weekly. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $284; the highest 10 percent earned more than $970 a week.
In 1993, the median hourly wage rate for maintenance pipefitters in 160 metropolitan areas were about $18.70. The middle 50 percent earned between about $16.90 and $20.90 an hour. In comparison, the average wage for all nonsupervisory and production workers in private industry, except farming, was $10.80. In general, wage rates tend to be higher in the Midwest and West than in the Northeast and South.
Apprentices usually begin at about 50 percent of the wage rate paid to experienced plumbers or pipefitters. This increases periodically as they improve their skills. After an initial waiting period, apprentices receive the same benefits as experienced plumbers and pipefitters.
Many plumbers and pipefitters are members of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada.
Other occupations in which workers install and repair mechanical systems in buildings are boilermakers, stationary engineers, electricians, elevator installers, industrial machinery repairers, millwrights, sheet-metal workers, and heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics.
For information about apprenticeships or work opportunities in plumbing and pipefitting, contact local plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning contractors; a local or State chapter of the National Association of Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling Contractors; a local chapter of the Mechanical Contractors Association; a local of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada; or the nearest office of the State employment service or State apprenticeship agency. This information is also available from:
The Home Builders Institute, National Association of Home Builders, 1201 15th St. NW., Washington, DC 20005.
For general information about the work of plumbers, pipefitters, and sprinklerfitters, contact:
National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors, P.O. Box 6808, Falls Church, VA 22046.
Associated Builders and Contractors, 1300 North 17th St., Rosslyn, VA 22209.
National Fire Sprinkler Association, P.O. Box 1000, Patterson, NY 12563.
American Fire Sprinkler Association, Inc., 12959 Jupiter Rd., Suite 142, Dallas, TX 75238-3200.
Mechanical Contractors Association of America, 1385 Piccard Dr., Rockville, MD 20850.
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