There are a whole slew of reasons you will need a plumber over the course of your life, from a broken dishwasher to the installation of a new kitchen faucet, questions about your sump pump and everywhere in between.
They are part of the unspoken hero’s of the trades world, a group of industries that prides themselves on making there work as neat and tidy as possible only for it to be covered up by dirt, dry wall and concrete.
So What exactly does a plumber do? A plumber is a licensed professional equipped with all of the proper tools and knowledge in dealing with a drain, waste and venting system as well as water supply in the home. They can install, repair or remove most plumbing fixtures.
Plumbing isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life. In order for a person to become a plumber, they must sacrifice a lot of comfortable moments most take for granted.
This article will go over:
- What plumbing is and why it’s essential
- The roles of a plumber
- The typical salaries
- How one goes about becoming a plumber
- What a day in the life looks life
- and much more
…So stick around for lots of valuable information!
What Is Plumbing?
Anything from bathing yourself in soap and water, to the removal of waste from your body and filling up pots of boiling water for pasta involve plumbing.
The amount of things we use that involve plumbing is seemingly endless, and it is why we so desperately need plumbing in our lives. Some examples of those things are:
- Food grinders – Allows us to dispose of waste effectively
- Water heaters – Keeps our caboose’s warm while showering
- Floor drains – In case of an emergency flooding!
- Garden hose
- Kitchen sink
It is crazy to me how often we need plumbing in our day to day lives but seemingly forget it’s even there.
The word “plumb” refers to how straight up and down something is, as opposed to the word “level” which means how straight something is on a horizontal axis, in relation to the Earth’s gravitational pull.
There are many different types of plumbing that can take care of many different needs. Some different kinds include:
- Residential plumbing
- Commercial plumbing
- Industrial plumbing
- Service plumbing
Much like doctors and lawyers (but better looking), plumbers can be specialized in certain areas so as to learn the needs of a certain industry to best deal with that area.
Hospitals may require glass drains to be installed in various portions of it’s building, due to potentially corrosive or toxic substances. Where a regular PVC drain pipe would deteriorate really quickly, a glass drain will go virtually unaffected.
A specialized plumber who deals with industrial buildings like this will know best practices when installing this type of pipe.
For example, there is a special type of glass pipe cutter that is used to cut the pipe. Glass pipe is expensive and if the pipe isn’t cut properly it can cost a pretty penny.
Another perspective to look at why specialized tradesman are important is based around knowledge of codes. Because plumbing is a ‘next to’ permanent piece of a building, it has to be done right the first time, no questions asked.
I’ve heard horror stories of plumbers installing the wrong drainage pipe for a new commercial building that was put up, and the inspector caught wind that it was not to code, so the entire concrete floor where the drain was piped had to be broken up, an excavator had to be rented and the entire job was scrapped. Ouch!
I was lucky enough that in my trades experience I was able to dip my feet into a few different facets of the plumbing world. We worked on everything from trucking buildings, to new houses that were put up, drains that needed to be snaked and everything in between.
Because plumbing has a lot of similarities, I will first discuss what I know best; residential plumbing, and then from there I will layout the differences from each of the other plumbing industries.
A residential plumber can take on a wide variety of tasks and are well equipped to do so. This will be the person that you call to install a bath tub in your home, or snake a drain that gets clogged up.
There are companies however that stick to just the construction side of things. This could mean that that company only deals with either renovations or new housing that goes up.
Even further into that, there are residential plumbers that deal with only “production” style houses where they have contracts with a big home building company the creates a more cookie cutter style neighborhood.
There are plumbers that only deal with builders who create custom style houses, usually for those who have a little bit more money to spend, and then there those who deal with every type of home regardless.
Right as the foundation is poured, a residential plumber will come in to start working on the underground plumbing, and hooking up that to the service at the street (sewer).
Plumbing is plumbing ultimately, but for the person who sticks to just residences will have a great understanding on all of the finer details about how a house comes together.
When installing showers, toilets and other fixtures into a home, they will have the experience of having dealt with a finished product as they see a project from ground zero to completed.
They understand that vastly different measurement requirements are needed for each and every home and can adjust their plumbing to make it work.
Once the concrete is poured over top of the main underground plumbing, holes will need to be drilled throughout the house.
A plumber will come in after the house has been framed, this will make it easier to determine where exactly walls are going to be placed in the home, as most plumbing is kept within the 2 x 4 walls.
*Actually 2 x 4 wood comes in smaller sizes now of days, and is actually 1 1/2″ x 3 1/2″
Once sink drains, the main drain and toilet flange are set in place, work from the bottom will begin.
Running these pipes from the drainage pipe that has been fed down 3 or 4 inches towards the building drain can be tricky.
Everything becomes a factor. A plumber must determine whether he or she is running the pipes inside the joists (pieces of wood that hold your flooring up) parallel, or if they will have to cut a bunch of holes to make the drainage work.
Next comes the determining of whether an “LVL” (main supporting wood for the structure of the house) is going to be in the way and figure out if there are ways to get around it, or if going under is the only option.
An LVL (laminated veneer lumber) is not legal by code to cut through.
Another horror story I heard about at a new house I was doing work on, was there was a newbie electrician that was told to run wiring all throughout the ceilings to run from one side of the house to the other.
He eventually got to the LVL, and without asking anybody about he, he cut 1″ holes through it (which is very hard by the way as it’s pressure treated).
Later on an inspector had come through to check up on the house and saw the holes through the LVL, and needless to say wasn’t very happy about it.
The inspector told the builder he had to replace the LVL with a new one, which involved taking down a bunch of trusses, as well as much of the framing. Something that doesn’t just get put back up in a days time.
In other cases there may be a metal beam that will support the house, which is much harder to drill through anyways as it’s metal.
Water lines are run in the house at the same time as the drain pipes and this task will usually get carried out by an apprentice.
The water lines can come in a few different materials such as PEX, Copper and CPVC, with PEX being the most common now of days.
Separate holes from the drainage holes are needed to be drilled for this piping and the beautiful thing about the PEX material is that you are able to run it very much like an electrician will run his or her wiring. Very simple stuff.
Water service coming into the building is usually carried out by the city as the connection has to be made to the main water supply from the street.
This will also be done prior to concrete being poured and will be the place where a water meter gets attached too and the water supply through out your house is fed from.
The same process occurs from the second floor (if there is one) to the first. Holes get drilled, pipes and toilet are placed so as to be able to see it from the floor beneath and let the determining process begin.
The last step after all the drains are connected, is to continue vents up and through the attic. Vents are something that will be run at the same time as the other drainage.
In order for the the vents to be hooked up, an end goal must be obtained.
A lot of how plumbing is installed is with working backwards, figuring out the places you ultimately need to end up, kind of like a sticking point, and then working your way towards it.
For example: Let’s say you have a newly framed house to work with. Venting should not be done first as sinks and toilets for the most part have fixed positions based on the house plans.
Running venting first can lead pipes to being in the way of essential locations where a drain can go, causing a whole reworking of the venting system.
Drains require more space, and are more restricted with how they need to be placed. Where a vent may be able to go wherever it needs to, a drain has to follow a certain slope, and is most of the time purposely hidden along it’s slope (behind drywall).
After all drains, vents and water lines are run through out the house in a neat fashion, other phases of the house will need to be completed. This will be all of the dry wall and insulation, flooring, heating, brick laying etc.
Roughly 7″ – 8″ of pipe will extend from the wall where sinks or drain connections need to be made. This allows a dry waller to cut his or her specific piece of drywall to fit over top of the piping. This also applies to water piping.
Piping that sticks out of the wall will do 2 important things in the “finish” phase.
- There won’t be a guessing game as to where the drains/water lines were run as walls will cover them.
- The need to cut drywall out to access drains, water lines is removed.
This was always my favorite part of the trades, after we worked hard on getting the under workings of a project done, walking in to a house that is freshly finished and seeing how it has all come together (what paint, flooring, finishes etc they chose) was pretty cool.
At this stage of the game, we’re wearing clean(er) clothes and taking our boots off to walk through the house. Some cases there was carpeting throughout the house to eliminate the need for removing our boots.
Water shut off valves will get installed throughout the house, wherever there is a connection for a toilet, sink, laundry etc.
We would lug in toilets, sinks, faucets, and other fixtures to be installed. Certain things, like a toilet would actually need to be put together before setting it into place.
For sinks, we would need to install the sink first, and make connections from it to the drain pipe sticking out of the wall, this involves the use of a p-trap. If you would like to know more about p-traps, I wrote a gargantuan article on plumbing traps, and you can find it by clicking here.
Then, the faucet gets installed, and metal braided water supply hoses are hooked up to the water line shut off valves. Similar metal braided hoses are used for hooking up the toilets and laundry machines.
Once the drains have been worked in and water connections have been made we would test them for any leaks.
First we would fill up the sinks with water and plug it, to test the strainer’s seal. Next, the p-traps and new drains would get filled with water and checked for any wet spots, or puddles.
Finally and most importantly, we would look at anywhere a connection has been made to a water supply and check for drips. Usually a 20-30 minute wait was required at this point to ensure nothing happened before we left.
Any new build type job, whether it be commercial, residential or industrial will require you to get very dirty. As the person who’s either digging trenches or laying the pipe in those trenches, you’re going to be head to toe covered in dirt.
When holes need to be drilled in wood, the shavings from the wood tend to like to stick to you like crazy, as well as any of the sawdust. Grease and grime from power tools that heat up and drip onto you will leave your hands black.
If you are ok with getting down and dirty, this is an area that can be good for you.
A commercial plumbing sticks to repairing, installing and building plumbing systems within a building for businesses.
Some key differences though with commercial plumbing is the pipe that may be used. Here, both the size and type are big factors.
He or she will need to work with larger pipes than found in a home which can bring about a lot of different obstacles and challenges.
Special tools may be required when cutting into larger pipes, or specific types of piping found only in these types of buildings.
There’s also the factor of supporting the pipe. Something I didn’t mention with residential plumbers, is that all the pipe must be supported along its run. So you can imagine with larger pipes, requires the use of stronger grade support systems.
Commercial buildings may require piping that you just won’t find in a home. Fire ratings, volume demands and type of waste all contribute to the style of pipe.
Copper water lines are a lot more common due to their corrosion resistance as well as greater resistance to flames, but depending on the building and it’s potential use, plastic pipes such as PEX may also be used.
A commercial plumber must also have a keen understanding on local code for a business and be able to work within that space
The demand a commercial system has may be greater than that of an average house as well. Some examples of a commercial building include:
- Shopping malls
- Grocery stores
- Clothing stores
- Recreation centers
- Movie theaters
If you could imagine the average “big” household has 6 people in it, the plumbing system from that would vastly different for that of a building that may hold 600 people in it.
More people will need to use the facilities and more water pressure will need to be there to effectively disperse through the entire building.
This will mean greater time on any given project in this space. So for a residential plumber, he or she may be on the “underground rough in” phase for 1 day, 2 tops depending on the size, a commercial plumber can spend up to a week, and even longer doing underground work for a project.
A commercial building may also require the use of larger appliances such as boilers, large pumps, stronger grade check valves, and larger fittings.
Example of a commercial project I worked on
I was working on a new car repair and car wash building that was being built where the building was about the size of a grocery store. You can imagine with a car wash that one of the primary focuses for the project was water supply.
The pressure needed to be able to operate multiple car wash stations at once effectively, has to be great. Thus, the size of pipe required for the project was much larger than you will ever find in a home.
We used a 100 ft, 3″ coil of PEX piping (the size of a toilet drain in a home!) to run the under ground service, which we had to specially order and then drive to Toronto to get (an hour from the shop).
If I remember correctly, we had to drill a 5″ hole into the concrete and on an angle (as the pipe was very rigid). We had to use a sawzall to cut the pipe when we needed to and it took 4 guys total to be able to work it at such an angle that we were able to get it into the 5″ hole.
For fire rating requirements, the pipe had to then be switched over to copper pipe. I was able to cut through the copper pipe with my regular hand cutters, but had we gone up in size to 4″ and greater, different tools would be required.
Soldering the pipe (the act of melting “solder” or metal with a low melting point to cover points of connection) to the fittings took a while in and of itself.
First, we had to clean the outside of the pipe, where the fitting was to go over top of. This involves using sand pipe to get it spotless, and then applying flux (a paste that helps clean and attract heat). Then we would heat up the pipe and apply the solder to the fitting.
The reason I bring this part up, is because on a smaller sized pipe (one you might find in a home) this process can literally take 20 seconds to do. On this larger sized pipe, the whole process can take up to 2 minutes and sometimes even longer. This can help illustrate the scope of work on larger projects.
Machines are a different factor in commercial as well. Most of a house can be built without the use of machines like sky jacks and fork lifts (unless you’re dealing with placing trusses for framing or support beams) where as commercial plumbing tends to deal with greater heights, that a ladder may not be able to accommodate.
This is where a plumber is going to have to deal with a multitude of different industries that may require specified piping. I don’t have any personal experience with this type of plumbing, but have heard that this can be one of the more specialized parts of plumbing to get into.
Much of this is identical to commercial plumbing in that an industrial building can be the same size as a commercial, and the usage can be virtually identical.
The only real difference I can see is that a plumber is completely up to date and knowledgeable around the specific building that they are doing the work in along with their unique codes. Some examples of industrial plumbing include:
- Factories (eg. Toyota, Cadbury, Kellogs)
- Distribution centers
- Cold storage buildings
Some different drainage piping you may find in an industrial building include:
- Cast Iron
This can be someones day to day job if they so choose. There are companies that only do service plumbing. The company I worked on thankfully dipped into service, commercial new builds and residential new builds/renovations, so I got a good taste of everything.
A service plumbers job will mainly be to head over to someones house or business when something needs to be either fixed, installed or removed.
I can attest to this being a bit of a “cozier” job in the winter time, as you are primarily working indoors, but you may also be required to work outside for some tasks.
This will be the plumber that will install your bath tubs, faucets, water heaters etc. Which was always my favorite part of the job.
You’re also the person responsible for diagnosing clogs and leaks and then working to fix them. This may require the use of what’s known as a snake and these can come as hand operated or power operated.
A service plumber may have to fix piping that has broke underground, which requires dirt to be excavated.
This job is generally a lot more clean, but can dip into the more disgusting side of plumbing. Where as in a new building house, you only deal with brand new pipes that haven’t been used before.
With service plumbing you are working to repair and clean pipes that are currently in use.
Some personal experience
I did a job at a dental building that required a floor in a tiny bathroom to be dug up. First concrete was chipped up, and then a hole had to be dug. The purpose of the job was to fix a piece of the pipe that had been cracked below.
I had exposed the pipe on the first day, but since it took all day to break concrete and dig, by the time I had cut into the pipe it was time to call it a day.
I put a cloth in the pipe to prevent sewer gases from entering the building temporarily, but totally didn’t take into account that there was a restaurant next door that was the top of the drains slope.
So, essentially when I got back the next day and took the cloth out with my BARE HANDS, I got back more than I went in for…My hand was covered in poo! This is a case of poor judgement on my part.
I would have stayed that night to at least put a fitting in, however the supervisor was locking up at 5 o’clock sharp and left me with no choice but to end my day there! As Homer Simpson would say, “D’OH”.
Different Aspects Of A Plumbers Job
There was a point in time in human history (before Thomas Crapper) where when we defecated, the waste wouldn’t be flushed down any drains or washed away never to be seen from again.
No. Believe it or not, before the invention of the toilet, we would do our “thing” in a bucket and then just dump it onto the street.
This is why modern day plumbing is so useful to us. We don’t even have to think about the systems that run throughout our house, we just have to know if they work.
This allows us to focus on other areas of our life in which we’ve never been able to focus on in the past. When you spend literally hours hand washing your clothes, finding ways to dispose of your waste among other things like gathering water, it really takes a lot out of you physically and mentally.
Most of us now of days have no idea what that was like. This allows us to spend more of our waking time and energy doing other things like:
- Spending time with friends and family
- Leisure activities – Playing video games, sports, mowing the lawn
Every plumbing fixture in your home will drain your waste away to some treatment plant, where it gets treated through a bunch of different processes allowing water to eventually flow out into lakes and rivers, and the waste particles can be used as fertilizer or sent away to landfills.
Bu did you know that drainage pipes need to be vented? A pipe of the same material as your drainage is brought up through your walls, into your attic and eventually leaves your house.
These vent pipes actually allow your waste and water to flow properly, and since most of the time, your waste is gravity drained towards the treatment plant (which is usually located at a lower point of land), it needs to be able to flow.
If not for this venting, solids would be more likely to clog as they wouldn’t be able to use drains as a slip and slide because of air locks and lack of atmospheric pressure being reached.
In fact plumbing has been refined so well now that we know exactly what types of pipes to use in what buildings, we have seen how others have stood the test of time and since been outlawed, and even conjured up specific ways to place this piping properly.
As a matter of fact there is a whole code book dedicated to a set of “may’s” and “must’s” governing how plumbing needs to be done. This book ensures that plumbers and apprentices are held to a governing body, and that the systems installed in a home are sound and will last a long time.
Although the code book is not an instruction manual, there is a lot that can be learned from it.
For example: A lot of code books will state that in order for a drain to flow properly, a vent pipe will need to be installed based on a the pipes inside diameter versus it’s slope.
So if you have a 2″ pipe, and that pipe is installed at a slope of 1/4″ per foot, then a vent will need to be installed after every 8 feet of pipe.
The code book also varies from state to state and country to country. What one code book requires you to do in running your water supply (for example), another may not require that specific thing.
Along with code books, there are inspectors. An inspectors sole job is to make sure everything is being done to code and they can be really thorough if they truly want to be. Usually a cup of coffee, a donut and a compliment can help loosen the reigns.
An inspector can be the thing that makes or breaks a project. They are the last line of a plumbing project before “occupancy” is met.
Does this mean that they are always used? No. In fact most renovations done in a home are not inspected. This can get dangerous as improper plumbing techniques may cause leaks, damage or things to not work properly.
There may be future repercussions if this route is taken, as improperly installed systems can be told to be removed, and depending on your state, fines could be given out.
Where an inspector is absolutely essential is in a new building. As plumbers are one of the first trades to start work on a building (in some cases the first), work can be covered up really quickly, even before an owner is to see it.
Having that governing body in place just simply keeps everyone safe and avoids the potential for costly changes to be made. It is also one of the first steps in allowing a house to be permissible.
What Exactly A Plumber Does Day To Day
The day begins early for a plumber. For me, I had to be at the shop by 7:30 every morning. Now some of you are probably thinking “That’s not early at all! Half my day’s done by 7:30 am”.
Well for me at least it is early. The reason behind this time is so that we are able to figure out what tasks are ahead of us, where we have to go and have time to gather up all of our tools and materials for the day ahead.
When dealing with home owners and business’, you really have to take time into account. You may want to start as early as possible to get everything done for the day, but you have to remember that a lot of people are still asleep before 8 am, and many business’ don’t open until this time, and sometimes even later.
So once you have figured out what the plan is, and your truck is loaded, it’s off to Tim Horton’s. No joke, Tim Horton’s was like a staple for every licensed plumber I worked with. It is where I started to enjoy coffee, when previously I had not, and no day was able to begin without it.
A typical day ends at around 4:30 – 5 o’clock pm. This is pretty standard with a lot of companies and for the same reason you’re not on road until about 8 am; taking customers into account.
A lot of business’ close by this time, and a lot of people are coming home and preparing dinner with their family. In my mind at least, it only makes sense.
So your average day on the job site as a plumber or plumber’s apprentice is 7:30-8 am until about 4:30 – 5 pm for an 8 hour day.
However, if you are working on a commercial or industrial project, the hours might flex over into the weekend. In this case, you better believe you’ll be working those weekends.
Anytime in the trades that you can work without interrupting a business, or work at slow periods, you will be asked to.
I once worked over night at a restaurant with my former boss, we were installing a back flow preventer for the business, as required by the city of Barrie, and had no choice but to work until 5 in the morning.
The main reason for this, was because this involved us having to shut the water off to the entire building, and doing this during normal business hours would cripple them completely.
If your ears are perking up at extra hours and overtime, commercial/industrial plumbing may be for you.
When I first started out as an apprentice, I was hired on at 12$ per hour. I live in Ontario, Canada, so if you are reading this from anywhere outside, you’ll have to take into account that pay may differ based on location.
After the first 3 months of probation (a stretch in time where you are tested out) I got a 1$ raise. From there it took a year before I got another 1$, and then half a year to my next 1$ raise.
In my opinion this is pretty good if you are completely green (meaning inexperienced) as you aren’t tasked with too much difficult or risky tasks, only labor intensive ones.
The great thing about this job is that once you gain enough experience, and have passed a written exam to become a licensed plumber, you are looking to make around 25-30$ an hour, which can be a big jump really quickly.
The opportunity to do side jobs once you become licensed increases 10 fold. There can be under the table work done before your license, but having that credential will help people’s confidence in your ability.
This can be a great opportunity to meet people and make a lot of extra cashola.
In Ontario, you are required to have 9,000 hours with 8,280 hours on the job and 720 of school work. This roughly equates to about 5 years. So basically 5 years in the trades and you could be making 30$ an hour, pretty cool right?
I took an 8 month program called “plumbing techniques” which had a course on codes, safety, math, a workshop where we had to build our own drain and waste system as well as a few other classes.
The great thing about this trade is that you don’t actually have to do any schooling. I felt I could get a leg up on plumbing by taking this course as I knew absolutely zip prior to my work, but it isn’t required.
A test, however will be required in order for your to become a journeyman (licensed) plumber. This, from what I have heard can be a very difficult exam to take that can last 4 hours.
Most of the guys I worked with failed this exam at least once. The reason they make this exam so difficult is because, just like a doctor, if you haven’t proven yourself to be competent in the job, you can mess things up in a big way, which can potentially cost a lot of money.
- Failed inspections
- Improper ventilation
Are all things somebody who is not proficient in the job can mess up, and believe me, that list can go on and on.
We always just had extra long cargo vans at our disposal, but many plumbing companies will opt for the pricier Mercedes Sprinter to do their work out of.
I would have preferred the head room in my time in the trades, but I was ok with contorting my body every day to grab fittings and tools.
A lot of crouching will be done in a day if this is the type of van you’re working out of.
What’s more, is that the van’s at any given time were loaded with multiple different sized pipes that extended over the length of the vehicle, which provided less head room.
So, bright and early in the morning (7:30 am) we would scour the shop and grab all the appropriate pipe and fittings needed for the day. Shelving is a must for these vans, as fittings galore needed a place to call home.
When you’re on a job site, any and every fitting at your disposal is a valuable thing. Think of the work van as your moving office.
Having these fittings readily on hand will save you time in a day, time that can add up very quickly. Anytime you need to run to the store for anything, that can quickly add 30-60 minutes to your already long day.
Customers are never happy about this as it takes longer for their project to get completed and bosses are especially not happy about this, as they want to move onto the next one.
Tools are something a plumber has to gather him/herself up over time and is not the responsibility of the employer.
How it worked in the company I worked for was to start I had to bring all of my own hand tools, while the larger power tools were provided by the company.
Over time however, the expectation for me to gather up my own power tools gradually increased and eventually purchased my own set involving a hammer drill, flash light, circular saw, sawzall and impact driver, which ran me close to 700$ in total.
The larger, pricier items, such as power snakes, mini jack hammers, large hammer drills was always provided by my boss.
Up until the time I had my own power tool set, I was able to rely on the plumbers I worked with to borrow theirs throughout the day. I do however recommend you to grab your own as soon as possible.
The reason for this is it gains you as much independence early on. If you’re constantly relying on others for tools, it means you may have to wait to use them, or in some cases not even be allowed to use them.
Having your own will let you dive head first into project which can gain you the experience you need, quicker.
My personal opinion on the job
The job was at times very tough, and physically grinding. You are working all day some days putting in the laborious tasks (such as digging, drilling holes, breaking concrete etc) to get a project started.
These were never my favorite days, but they just meant that we were at the beginning phase of construction. As the projects went on, it became more about measuring, cutting, gluing and screwing things in place.
This part however was more rewarding. Watching a project go up before you that you worked hard at making just right, and to look good always felt good.
You left at the end of each day satisfied with yourself at what you had accomplished and because each and every job was different, you felt you learned something new, or a new way to go about something. It’s just a very fulfilling job to get into.
If you can stick around in the job, there is definitely a great payout at the end of the road for you, and not just salary wise either!