The word “plumber” dates back to the Roman Empire. In Roman times lead was known as plumbum in Latin which is why the periodic table of the elements uses the symbol ‘Pb’ for lead. Lead was used for Roman roof conduits and drain pipes, as well as for piping and making baths. Thus a person with expertise in working with lead was first known as a Plumbarius which was later shortened to plumber.
Many American homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s also used lead pipes for indoor plumbing. However, now we know that exposure to lead in drinking water can cause adverse developmental and health effects, particularly in children and infants. Beginning in 1986, a nationwide ban restricted the use of lead pipes for drinking water supplies. Modern plumbers work mostly with copper and plastic.
Plumbing may not be the most glamorous job, but plumbers are always in demand. How many times have you wished that you had a plumber in the house? Even Albert Einstein once said, “If I had my life to live over again, I’d be a plumber.” He was a smart guy with an impressive career as a theoretical physicist, and yet he recognized the fact that it would be good to have a practical skill to fall back on.
Plumbers don’t just take care of leaking pipes, repairing faucets, or fixing toilets. There are many other jobs involved in this profession as well. Plumbers are responsible for installing, maintaining, and servicing any system that involves water, waste, and natural gas in residential, commercial, or industrial buildings. Plumbers install the water, waste disposal, drainage, and gas systems in new homes. They also install plumbing fixtures (bathtubs, showers, sinks, toilets) and appliances (dishwashers, waste disposals, water heaters).
American Standard honored the plumber with its famous early 20th century ad campaign and motto: “The Plumber protects the health of the nation.” When you think about it, the plumbing profession is directly related to every citizen’s health and safety. The proper construction and maintenance of our sanitary sewers and potable water systems is the first line of defense against many diseases. No amount of medication could do what maintaining a clean water supply has accomplished for our society. Click here for an excellent report on plumbers as health workers.
Plumbers use a variety of tools such as wrenches, saws, pipe cutters, pipe-bending machines, and soldering irons. They connect the lengths of pipe with fittings, using methods that depend on the type of pipe used. For plastic pipe, plumbers connect the sections and fittings with adhesives. For copper pipe, they slide a fitting over the end of the pipe and solder it in place. After the piping is in place, plumbers install the fixtures and appliances and connect the system to the outside water line and sewer or septic system. Finally, using pressure gauges, they check the system to ensure that the plumbing works properly.
When plumbers working in construction install piping in a building, they work from blueprints or drawings that show the planned location of pipes, plumbing fixtures, and appliances. Recently, plumbers have become more involved in the design process. Their knowledge of codes and the operation of plumbing systems can cut costs. First they lay out the job to fit the piping into the structure of the house with the least waste of material. Then they measure and mark areas in which pipes will be installed and connected. Construction plumbers also check for obstructions such as electrical wiring and, if necessary, plan the pipe installation around the problem.
The first step to becoming a plumber is to serve as an apprentice. Apprentice plumbers are required to be 17 or 18 years of age, depending on the state. Most states also require a high school diploma or equivalent. The most comprehensive apprenticeship programs combine classroom instruction and hands-on work experience with testing to obtain a license and certifications. One way to become an apprentice plumber is to join a local union and apply to their plumber apprentice program. Another option is to look for plumbing companies or contractors that offer apprenticeship programs.
You might also investigate local community colleges or vocational/trade schools to get your plumbing training. Make sure that the school is accredited and covers all aspects of plumbing including on- the-job training, and has a good success rate of graduates getting plumbing positions. Plumbing courses include classes in math, drafting, blueprint reading, and local plumbing codes. It generally takes four to five years to complete an apprentice plumber program. Upon completion of the apprenticeship program, you’ll take a trade test if you are in a union apprenticeship program and a test regulated by your state. Pass those tests and you’ll become a licensed journeyman plumber.
Once licensed and certified, journeyman plumbers can continue furthering their education and upgrading their skills. For example, with additional training, plumbers can become supervisors for mechanical and plumbing contractors. Some plumbers go into business for themselves, often starting as a self-employed plumber working from home. Others move into closely related areas such as construction management or building inspection.
Each state has different requirements and testing, but in order to become a master plumber, you will generally need four to five years of experience as a journeyman plumber followed by another test. This test might cover federal plumbing codes, local or state plumbing codes, installation and maintenance of plumbing systems, repairing plumbing systems, and managing plumbing projects.
Because plumbers must frequently lift heavy pipes, stand for long periods, and sometimes work in uncomfortable or cramped positions, they need physical strength and stamina. They may also have to work outdoors in inclement weather. Apprentice plumbers don’t get paid much if at all, but they do get plenty of experience. The average salary of a journeyman plumber starts at about $40,000/year, while master plumbers earn over $70,000/year. So an experienced plumber can make quite a lot of money in this field.
Sheet metal worker
Plumbers and Politics
“My dear fellow,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in his last days to a young relative engaged in a hot political canvass, “politics is a vile and bungling business. I used to think meanly of the plumber; but he shines in comparison with the politician.” (Source: The Pittsburgh Press, 12 Jul 1896)
During the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign, “Joe the Plumber” became a political rallying cry after Samuel Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber, questioned Barack Obama’s proposed tax plan. “Joe the Plumber” was catapulted into the media spotlight, and their famous exchange was replayed for millions of viewers the world over. Joe has since become an American folk hero and icon of the working class. He even became an elected official himself, winning a seat on the Republican Party committee for northwest Ohio’s Lucas County. Now some Ohio Republicans are hoping that Joe will consider running for Congress against Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who has represented the state’s 9th congressional district for almost three decades. This idea was first fielded by the Massachusetts Alliance of College Republicans in 2010 when Derek Khanna, the political director, and his friend Trevor Lair, the organization’s chairman, launched a website to gather signatures to petition Samuel J. Werzulbacher to challenge Rep. Kaptur. “I like the idea of it – just regular Americans running. If a regular guy runs, right away the media’s going to attack him,” Wurzelbacher said. “What kind of education does he have? What does he know about this? My answer to that is, regular Americans aren’t experts, but dammit, look where the experts have gotten us.” Good point… especially when you consider how experts built the Titanic and regular guys built the Ark. Maybe we could use a plumber to save America from going down the drain!