What is a Pipefitter?
Pipefitters are sometimes more specifically known as steamfitters or gasfitters. They fabricate, install, maintain, assemble, and repairs piping systems. These systems include cooling, hydraulic, pneumatic, and high-pressure assemblies that transport water, steam, chemicals, or fuel, for commercial, industrial, or marine use. In addition to welding, pipefitters often utilize a wide range of other processes throughout the course of their work, including cutting, threading, brazing, soldering, bending, and grooving.
Why Is This An Important Role?
Piping systems are everywhere, and you don’t have to look any further than the inside of your home or office to understand how complex and expansive these systems are. Without piping systems there would simply be no way to maintain a modern infrastructure capable of delivering fuel and energy. In the same way that a plumber can install or fix pipes in your home, pipefitters are responsible for installing and maintaining piping systems in water treatment plants, nuclear facilities, shipyards, factories, and power stations.
What Career Opportunities Are Available to Pipefitters?
Pipefitters are sought in just about every industry that utilizes piping systems or assemblies. These include, but are not limited to, oil and gas, nuclear energy, power generation, construction, shipbuilding, boilermaking, and sprinkler systems.
The knowledge and skills required of Pipefitters are applicable to different specializations. Pipefitters can specialize in the installation and repair of pipe systems in the manufacturing industry or work on pipes for heating, cooling, and fire extinguishing in private or commercial settings. Other specializations include hydraulic piping and systems, medical gas systems, pipe fabrication, power piping, steam piping, vacuum piping, and valve and pump installation.
How Do I Get Started?
Most new Pipefitters complete a formal apprenticeship or attend a technical school. The United Association and MCAA are two major organizations that sponsor pipefitters through apprenticeship programs. In most cases, this can be likened to receiving a scholarship to attend college, as welders are provided with on-the-job training from trained professionals in the industry in addition to classroom instruction. Apprenticeships for pipefitters typically last about 4 to 5 years.
Prospective pipefitters can also prepare for a career in pipefitting by training at a technical college or other post-secondary educational institution. Here, they can enroll in certificate or degree programs tailored for pipefitting. Attaining a certificate of completion or a diploma can be the first step towards working as a pipefitter’s helper, where one can gain experience working with different types of materials and piping. Please see the “Education” section below for more details.
A pipefitter is responsible for a wide variety of processes related to the fabrication, installation, testing, and maintenance of piping systems. While specific roles and tasks may vary, a Pipefitters responsibilities can be generally summarized in three basic categories: preparation, pipefitting, and maintenance.
Preparation: Pipefitters review drawings, plans, isometrics, specifications, and blueprints in order to visualize and plan for the work ahead. They must also select and calibrate the tools and materials required for the job at hand. Determining the layout of the piping components, as well as the size and type of these components, will require a pipefitter to understand and utilize geometry and mathematics. A pipeline welder may need to physically haul piping sections to their intended location, thus requiring a basic understanding of rigging. Additionally, they may need to cut, bend, or otherwise alter piping components for size and fit.
Pipefitting: Pipefitters use welding equipment, hand tools, and power tools for cutting, dismantling, straightening, or reshaping pipe sections and components. Depending on the type of project, Pipefitters will dismantle, straighten, reshape, reassemble, and fuse piping sections. Additionally, they may need to install piping systems to previously existing assemblies, including ones fitted with compressors, pumps, meters, and pneumatic or hydraulic controls.
Maintenance: Pipefitters inspect piping systems to test for strength or leaks. This will usually involve testing installed systems and pipelines using pressure gauges, hydrostatic testing, or visual observation. Additional duties may involve minor repairs and cleaning.
The duties of a pipefitter may also include:
- Verifying safety requirements compliance
- Maintaining records of materials used and work performed
- Conducting inspections and preparing reports
- Highly motivated and self-directed
- Flexible and able to work in a team environment
- Logical and critical thinker
- Mechanical and mathematical aptitude
- Manual dexterity
IMPORTANT KNOWLEDGE & SKILLS
- Knowledge of standard welding safety procedures and protocol
- Ability to use basic welding equipment and engage in welding and cutting processes
- Ability to use basic cutting and shaping hand or power tools
- Ability to read blueprints, analyze design plans, and understand building codes
- Understanding of piping system operation for water, gas, and/or sewer lines
- Knowledge of welder and welding qualification procedures and standards
- Strong analytical thinking and problem solving skills
A High School diploma or GED is typically the only educational requirement to work as a pipefitter, but additional education is certainly beneficial, and may even be required by some employers. An apprenticeship is one of the most common ways of acquiring the skills necessary to become a Pipefitter. However, training at a college or vocational school is also a common method of gaining the knowledge you’ll need for this career. Many schools offer degree or certificate programs with a specialized pipefitting curriculum. A degree program allows the student to earn an Associate Degree in Applied Sciences. These programs typically feature courses in blueprint reading, college algebra or industrial math, industrial pipefitting, metallurgy, and physics. Contact your local AWS Section or use the AWS School Locator to find a school or learning opportunity near you.
The most common advanced areas of study for Pipefitters are:
- Welding Technology
- General Engineering
- Mechanical Engineering
- Materials Science
- Civil Engineering
TRAINING & DEVELOPMENT
Pipefitters generally fall into three different levels according to their skills and experience: apprentice, journeyman, and master. Regulations for the licensure of Pipefitters at each tier vary domestically and globally, but progressing from one tier to the next typically involves documenting a certain amount of classroom time and pipefitting-related experience.
Those new to pipefitting can obtain training through an apprenticeship program, technical college or other post-secondary educational institution. However, it is important even for seasoned pipefitters to continue developing their skills because techniques and technologies are constantly evolving. Many employers offer in-house training on techniques, safety, and code-specific compliance, but there are additional resources out there. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration offers a wide selection of training courses on safety for construction, maritime work, general industry, and working in confined spaces. Additionally, the National Center for Construction Education and Research offers a range of training courses and certifications for pipefitters and pipe welders.
Depending on the type of piping system, a Pipefitter needs to be well-versed with the API 1104 Welding of Pipelines and Related Facilities or ASME B31 set of standards for pressure piping. The ASME B31 series of standards for pressure piping covers several piping processes, including fuel gas piping, process piping, pipeline transportation, and refrigeration piping. ASME offers training and certification to these codes. Pipefitters interested in furthering their career by becoming a Certified Welding Inspector, can test to the ASME B31.1 & B31.3 or API 1104 standards.
- American Petroleum Institute – API Standard 1104
- American Society of Mechanical Engineers
- ASME B31.1 – Power Piping
- ASME B31.3 – Process Piping Design
- Bureau of Labor Statistics – Occupational Outlook – Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters
- Bureau of Labor Statistics – Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters
- Mechanical Contractors Association of America
- National Center for Construction Education and Research
- Pipefitter Training Program & Course Information
- The Occupational Safety & Health Administration
- United Association – Union of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders, & Service Techs (Apprenticeships)