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Steamfitter vs. Pipefitter: What Are the Differences?

Learn about the two careers and review some of the similarities and differences between them.

Steamfitters and pipefitters are both skilled tradespeople who work with pipes. They install, maintain and repair piping systems that carry water, steam, air or other liquids and gases. If you’re interested in a career in the skilled trades, learning more about steamfitters and pipefitters can help you decide which one is right for you. In this article, we compare and contrast steamfitters and pipefitters, and we provide information on training, job outlook and earnings.

What is a Steamfitter?

Steamfitters lay out, assemble, fabricate, maintain and repair piping systems that carry water, steam, chemicals or fuel used in heating, cooling, lubricating and other industrial processes. Steamfitters install equipment such as boilers, pumps, valves, heat exchangers, pressure vessels and tanks. They also install pipe insulation, cladding and supports. Most Steamfitters work in the construction industry, although some may find employment in the manufacturing, power generation or oil and gas industries. Many Steamfitters are members of unions and are required to complete an apprenticeship before becoming journeymen.

What is a Pipefitter?

Pipefitters install, repair and maintain piping systems that carry water, steam, chemicals or fuel. They use a variety of tools, including wrenches, saws, welding torches and pipe cutters. Pipefitters often work in cramped, dirty and dangerous conditions. They may work in power plants, factories, ships, refineries and other industrial settings. Pipefitters must be able to read and interpret blueprints and other technical drawings. They must also be able to work with a variety of materials, including metals, plastics and composites.

Steamfitter vs. Pipefitter

Here are the main differences between a steamfitter and a pipefitter.

Job Duties

The primary difference between steamfitters and pipefitters is their focus. While both steamfitters and pipefitters perform installation, maintenance and repair activities, pipefitters typically specialize in plumbing systems while steamfitters focus on steaming systems.

A steamfitter may be responsible for installing and maintaining boilers, which are used to generate steam for various industrial purposes. They also may install and maintain pipes that transport high-pressure steam. A pipefitter may be responsible for the installation and maintenance of water distribution systems, such as underground or aboveground water transmission pipes. They also may perform maintenance and repair activities on valves, pumps and other related components.

Job Requirements

Most steamfitters and pipefitters learn their trade through an apprenticeship program that can last up to four years. During their apprenticeship, they receive both classroom instruction and on-the-job training under the supervision of a licensed professional. Some states also require steamfitters and pipefitters to be licensed. After completing their apprenticeship, they might choose to pursue voluntary certification through organizations like the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) or the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET).

Work Environment

Steamfitters and pipefitters work in different environments. Steamfitters typically work in industrial settings, such as factories or power plants, where they install and repair steam systems. They may also work on ships to maintain the boilers that provide heat for the vessels. Pipefitters often work in commercial buildings, like hospitals and office complexes, installing and repairing piping systems.

Skills

Both steamfitters and pipefitters require several similar skills to perform their jobs, such as troubleshooting, dexterity and physical strength. Both also tend to understand basic math and physics concepts and have the ability to read blueprints. However, their differing responsibilities result in the requirement for different skills.

Steamfitters often work with more complex systems, they may use more specialized skills. For example, they apply pipe fabrication skills, such as bending, grinding and threading to create custom pipe systems or replace sections of existing systems. As the pipes they work with often are made with metals, they also benefit from having welding skills.

Pipefitters benefit from having customer service skills when working in residential environments. Skills like communication, empathy and patience enable them to understand customers’ needs and build long-term relationships.

Salary

Steamfitters and pipefitters are both types of pipefitters. Steamfitters work with high-pressure steam systems, while pipefitters work with low-pressure steam systems. Steamfitters earn an average salary of $63,816 per year, while pipefitters earn an average salary of $50,434 per year.

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