What Does a Pipefitter or Steamfitter Do?
Pipefitters and steamfitters are responsible for installing pipes and maintaining piping systems used for chemicals, acids or gases. These skilled craftsmen are sometimes collectively called fitters. They work primarily on large commercial and industrial construction projects.
These careers are for those who love to create something out of nothing. They start with a blueprint or drawing and make it reality.
Wondering about the difference between pipefitter and steamfitter jobs? The primary difference between them is the material transported through the pipe systems they design, install or maintain. Pipefitters work with low-pressure and high-pressure systems that are used in heating and cooling, manufacturing and electricity generation. Steamfitters specialize in systems designed for the flow of liquids or gases at high pressure. There are other piping specialists called gasfitters and sprinklerfitters.
These careers offer steady work and the opportunity to ply your trade in different settings, such as large office buildings or power plants. Plus, the value of getting paid to train through an apprenticeship means even entry-level fitters can start earning a salary earlier than most four-year college graduates.
- Cut, thread or hammer pipes to specifications, using tools such as saws, cutting torches, pipe threaders or pipe benders
- Read blueprints and make pipe systems based on those specifications
- Assemble or secure pipes, tubes and fittings by welding, brazing, cementing, soldering or threading joints
- Inspect, examine and test installed systems
- Modify, clean, maintain and repair pipe systems
- Prepare cost estimates for clients (if you are working independently)
How To Become a Pipefitter or Steamfitter: FAQs
Pipefitter requirements: What steps do I need to take?
You’ll need a high school diploma or equivalent. Training to enter the pipefitter or steamfitter trade is similar and requires a combination of classroom instruction and on-the-job training. Community colleges and trade schools offer training programs. At least 144 hours of courses are required in subjects such as drafting, mathematics, pipe system design, chemistry and physics. Some programs also offer welding, which may be a requirement for the next step.
The most common path to this career is through apprenticeship offered by employers or local unions. Apprenticeship typically lasts four to five years, during which time the apprentice learns on the job, earns a paycheck, and also takes classes. (The required training typically is about 2,000 hours.) Classes include those mentioned above plus blueprint reading, safety and ASME codes, a set of standards established by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers that cover all aspects of mechanical engineering. This includes most of the equipment pipefitters and steamfitters use, such as boilers, heaters and pressure valves.
What about next steps? Apprentice vs. journeyman vs. master
Apprentices and other aspiring pipefitters do this lengthy training to reach journeyman status. Most states require pipefitters and steamfitters to earn a license to become a journeyman. (A journeyman can do many tasks independently.) The number of hours required to reach that status varies by state, but it typically requires taking a written exam.
This may sound like a lot of work, but it pays off in compensation. A newly minted journeyman’s salary is typically at least double that of an apprentice because he or she can take on so many new responsibilities. Salary will depend on the employer, the area of the country and other variables.
Master status is typically used in reference to plumbers, but pipefitters and steamfitters can also achieve this status. This involves more time and another exam, but it opens the door to get a contractor’s license and open your own business. Master status also gives you the opportunity to train apprentices and helpers.
What kind of hours do pipefitters and steamfitters work?
Most work a 40-hour week, but there are often opportunities to earn overtime. Night, weekend and on-call work are sometimes required.
Is there a demand for these jobs?
Job growth for these roles is steady, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting about 5% growth from now until 2030.
What skills and qualities would make someone a good fit for this job?
Someone who goes on to become a successful pipefitter or steamfitter will likely:
• Have a talent for problem-solving
• Have excellent analytical skills
• Have strong math skills
• Be collaborative
• Have strong communication skills
• Be physically fit and limber (for working in compact spaces)