Pipefitters and steamfitters are grouped typically as one trade, but each represents a specialized occupation. Demand for each skill is expected to grow by 16 percent in the United States through 2018, along with plumbers and pipelayers. Pipefitters and steamfitters are also among the highest paid occupations in the construction industry. The trades are also less affected by fluctuating economic conditions when compared to other construction industry jobs.
Pipefitters and steamfitters are responsible for every aspect of the installation and maintenance of piping systems. They prepare piping layouts, fabricate steel and other materials, assemble and install pipes, and then maintain and repair the systems. Steamfitters and pipefitters work on residential, commercial and industrial construction projects. Fields where their skills are used include paper mills, power plants, auto plants and the oil industry. Each trade requires an extensive knowledge of math and scientific principles to perform the jobs correctly and safely.
The primary difference between pipefitters and steamfitters is the material that is transported through the pipe systems they design, install or maintain. Pipefitters work with both low-pressure and high-pressure systems that are used in heating and cooling; manufacturing; and electricity generation. Pipefitters are also responsible for the installation and maintenance of automatic controls that regulate the pipe systems.
Residential, commercial and industrial pipe systems transport fluids, slurries and gases, but steamfitters specialize in liquids and gases that are under high-pressure. Steamfitters are also responsible for the installation and repair of gauges and automatic controls. Their work can also be more dangerous than a pipefitter at times, such as when they work with transporting a high-pressure gas.
Training to enter the pipefitter and steamfitter trades is similar, and usually requires a combination of classroom instruction and on-the-job training. Most training is conducted through an apprenticeship that can last up to 5 years. A trade union is a good source to gain an apprenticeship. Community colleges and trade schools also offer training programs. At least 144 hours of courses are required in subjects such as drafting, mathematics, chemistry, blueprint reading and physics.
The ability to speak Spanish can also be important for those who aspire to become supervisors or company owners because Spanish-speaking workers are abundant in some regions. There were no national standards for pipefitter or steamfitter certification as of November 2010. But most states have their own individual requirements, particularly for when work is conducted with gas lines. In May 2008 the average hourly salary for a pipe fitter or steamfitter in the United States was $21.94 per hour, which was similar to plumbers. Pay for an apprenticeship is usually half of the average hourly rate. (Reference 1)