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What is the Difference Between Plumbers and Pipefitters?

By David Larson
Updated May 17, 2024
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The difference between plumbers and pipefitters is generally one of scale and skill. While both work with pipes and valves made of various materials, plumbers generally are engaged in residential or light industrial piping systems for potable water, waste disposal, and heating/cooling. Pipefitters, also referred to as steamfitters, work primarily in industrial, commercial, or military applications.

Skills required for pipefitter jobs are broader and often more demanding than those for a plumber. A journeyman plumber is a skilled professional trained to read blueprints and work with materials such as PVC, copper, and galvanized pipe, and to form and connect these pipes using threads, glue, and solder. In addition to building a connecting network of pipe, a plumber installs fixtures such as sinks, toilets, taps, and faucets.

A journeyman pipefitter uses some of these same skills and materials in the course of his work, but he also works with special metals and alloys capable of handling very high pressure. Pipefitting materials such as stainless steel, high-carbon steel and other alloys are often used in working with hazardous materials such as live steam. Connecting high-pressure pipes of metal alloys calls for a high degree of skill in specialized welding as part of a pipefitter job.

A wide variety of pipefitter careers are available in industries such as oil drilling and refining, navy and merchant marine, and manufacturing. In the petroleum industry, pipefitters build pipe systems to transport crude oil across large distances from oil fields to refineries and petroleum products from refineries to metropolitan distribution centers. In navy and merchant marine applications, pipefitter jobs include installation and repair of fuel, hydraulic, and ventilation systems.

Manufacturing often has need of both plumbers and pipefitters. Plumbers install and maintain the necessary water systems for drinking, washing, and waste disposal, as well as sprinklers for cooling and fire control. Pipefitters install and maintain high-pressure pipe-and-valve distribution systems that might handle a variety of material, including live steam, solvents, paint, or food processing ingredients.

In the United States, licensing for plumbers and pipefitters often varies from state to state. It is not unusual for plumbers and pipefitters to have dual certification because of the overlap of skills and apprentice training. Many industrial firms require that a person have formal certification and experience and pass a skills test in welding before an offer of employment is made. With the increase in industrial globalization, pipefitter jobs are regularly available around the world in oil fields, power plants, pipelines, and ship building.

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Discussion Comments
By anon998543 — On Jun 30, 2017

In General:

Plumber = Small scale - Residential , Commercial buildings. Materials - Copper Tube - CTS, ABS, PVC, Cast, Black and Galvanized Steel schedule 40 and 80. Primary joining methods - sweating / solder, glue, threading. Pressures- Low. Equipment - fixtures, faucets, toilets, water heaters, dishwashers, garbage disposals etc Primary substances transferred - water, fuel gas, waste, condensate. Blueprint reading and layout skills.

Pipe fitter = Large scale - Plants, Process, Pipelines, Stations, Utility, Military. Materials - Steel, Alloys, Stainless, Iron, Copper, Aluminum, Plastics. Primary joining methods - Threaded, Brazing, SMAW Welding, GMAW Welding, TIG, MIG, etc. Equipment - Pressure Vessels, Boilers, Chillers, HVAC and other specialized equipment. Substances transferred - Water, Chilled Water, Very Hot Water, Steam, Chemicals, Petroleum, Gases, Refrigerants. Pressures - Vacuum to very high. Blueprint reading, layout and rigging skills.

Sub- Specialties

Sprinkler Fitters for Fire Protection

Water and Steam Boiler Fitters for Hydronic Heating Systems.

By anon989887 — On Mar 26, 2015

@Strawcake: Most pipefitters do not want anything to do with plumbing for obvious sanitary reasons. As far having to travel for work. It does happen occasionally that a pipefitter would need to travel.

But it needs to be understood that pipefitters install and work on A/C and heating. However this is just a fraction of the work they do.

By anon357395 — On Dec 03, 2013

The two jobs are way different! I haven't met a plumber who can fit anything. Fitters are highly skilled in handling and welding very large pipe. Have you ever seen a plumber try to rig?

By anon357393 — On Dec 03, 2013

What would we do with out plumbers? We would have no showers, no indoor plumbing, and the poop? Both trades require skills that those in the other trade need. I have both cards, but the rivalry between the trades is ridiculous. Oh, by the way: not all pipe fitters are welders, and not all pipe welders can fit, either.

By anon357379 — On Dec 03, 2013

Steamfitters have three rules: plumb, level and square! For plumbers it's one: all crap rolls downhill!

By anon357366 — On Dec 03, 2013

Plumbers are not sprinkler fitters. They fall under the category of pipefitters.

By anon357332 — On Dec 03, 2013

I am a female pipefitter/welder. My advice: go to college!

By anon357266 — On Dec 02, 2013

As a journeyman pipefitter, I know the jobs are similar but not the same, it is true the we both have demanding jobs and need a good skill set, and expectations are very high, yet not every fitter can plumb and not every plumber can weld. The health hazards are different but the end results are that pipefitters deal with a lot of chemicals and plumbers deal with fecal matter. Both are very nasty and not many want to do it.

There was a study done at one time and more people in the pipe trade die every year than people who join the police force. It is a dangerous job that requires training and continued education. I wish anyone luck who aspires to be a part of the pipe trades and would also plead with you to join a union if you do so, mainly so you don't have to worry your safety and can have a retirement plus benefits.

By anon357265 — On Dec 02, 2013

In Cleveland, the scale is different between a pipefitter and plumber with the pipefitter making a couple bucks more an hour. However, the biggest difference between a pipefitter and a plumber is that a pipefitter can bite their nails.

By anon336182 — On May 26, 2013

Union plumbers and fitters get paid the same scale, very similar work and many are cross trained. There are straight line plumbers and fitters, though. I've had 32 years in both plumbing and fitting. My advice? Go to college.

By anon326380 — On Mar 21, 2013

Pipefitters call a plumber to get rid of stuff and plumbers call pipefitters to get them out of stuff!

By starrynight — On Feb 14, 2012

It seems like pipefitters deal with more dangerous materials than plumbers do. I wonder if pipefitters unions negotiate different safety procedures for jobs than plumbers unions do? After all, pipefitters deal with solvents and oils, both of which are potentially quite dangerous!

I'm guessing pipefitters might get paid more also. Their job seems a bit more dangerous than that of a plumber. Also, pipefitters seem like they need more advanced skills in their field than plumbers do. Plus, the field of petroleum is usually pretty lucrative, so I imagine any pipefitters who work in that field get paid well.

By SZapper — On Feb 14, 2012

@strawCake - Yeah, they are pretty similar. It seems like the main difference is that plumbers do more work in residences, while pipefitters usually work in a more industrial union. Both of these jobs do seem like good trades though. I don't think we'll ever stop needing plumbers or pipefitters!

Although I suppose pipefitters could find themselves having to move for work. I imagine if you live in an area with very little industry, there's not much work for pipefitters.

By strawCake — On Feb 13, 2012

That's interesting that plumber work and pipefitter work are so similar. Would you believe that my grandfather was a plumber, but I had no idea what a pipefitter was? As far as I know my grandfather just did plumbing work in residences.

I think it's cool that people in the industry have the opportunity to branch out and get dual certification. It seems like that would open up a lot more employment opportunities for a person with these skills. Also it makes sense, since there's so much overlap in skills and certifications anyway, why not make it official and just get both credentials?

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