There are more than 55,000 plumbers in California, and the career field keeps growing. Schooling is not required to become a plumber, but those who skip a vocational training program must have completed an apprenticeship with a licensed plumber.
Plumbers have a number of options when it comes to work. Most people think of a plumber as one who comes to fix a leaky pipe, faucet, or other water related fixture, but plumbers can do far more. Plumbers can install or repair boilers on a furnace, hot water tanks, sewer lines, sprinkler systems, water purification systems, and well systems. Different specialties offer high pay scales, but they may come with more risks. Someone working on boilers has a much higher risk of getting severe burns.
The Daily Operation of Being a Plumber
On a daily basis, those employed in the plumbing field will use blue prints, pipe cutters, Teflon tape, welding torches, hammers, pipe threaders, and pipe bending tools. It is important that any plumber be properly trained to diagnose problems and use the tools to fix the problem quickly and effectively. Plumbers installing new water fixtures often work in new buildings that are not heated. A tolerance to the cold is often necessary, especially in areas of Northern California.
Training and Education
Apprenticeships can be difficult to get in California, so a number of schools now offer vocational programs to help interested men and women learn Plumbing Technology and enter the field of interest. A typical program includes instruction on reading blueprints, installing pipes, working with gas and water heating systems, and working with septic or sewer systems. Wyotech offers the best plumbing program in California, but the school has no tolerance for partying. Those expecting to attend college and party will quickly find that Wyotech’s Zero Tolerance policy ensures students are there to learn, not play.
During a plumbing degree program, it is usually required to work with a licensed plumber during schooling, usually for a total of four years before going out on his or her own. Plumbing can be very tiring and tedious work. Upper body strength is involved, especially for pipe layers who are hefting copper or PVC piping around all day. Plumbing can be extremely messy, especially for plumbers who work on residential emergencies. Outdoor leaks can mean water pipes need to be unearthed first making for muddy conditions. Sewer issues are also messy and very unpleasant.
Often plumbing apprentices split their time between a job site and school. Schooling takes up a few hours a week, and then the apprenticeship is a full thirty to forty hours a week. This leads to long and exhausting days.
A plumber who deals in residential issues often spends time in an office waiting for emergency situations to arise in between scheduled appointments. People often call plumbers to install dishwashers, new sinks, toilets, shower fixtures, and water purification systems. When pipes leak, plumbers receive calls to repair the cracked/damaged pipe or fixture that is causing the problem. Due to the emergency situations, many plumbers work much later than the average 9am to 5pm worker. Weekend work is also necessary due to emergency situations.
Browse our list of California Trade Schools which include plumbing programs.
The Importance of a Job Well Done
Reputations can make or break a plumber. If a plumber botches up a job, word of mouth can ensure that that plumber never gets another job. Quality control is extremely important for those who want to earn a living plumbing. Passing the California Plumbing (C-36) Exam is not always enough to build a decent clientele.
The Plumbing Exam consists of seven sections that must be completed successfully in order to become a licensed plumber. The test is easy if a person studies their trade well. The seven parts are: Safety, Remodeling Plumbing Systems, Repairing Plumbing Systems, Installation, Rough Plumbing, Testing, and Plumbing Project Planning. The exam covers everything from how to design the system to installing it to testing it out to ensure it is fault free.
Memorization plays an important part in any plumber’s life. The State of California requires all new constructions and plumbing projects meet the state’s strict building codes. A plumber who has to refer to the codes in a book regularly will waste valuable time on the job site. It is important to have the codes memorized in advance. As codes change, the plumber must keep up with the changes.
Plumbing is a profitable career that offers the opportunity to become self-employed. Many people dream of being their own boss, and plumbers can easily make that happen. With a proper education and apprenticeship, a student interested in plumbing can become a licensed, self-employed plumber within five years time. The challenges are there, but the knowledge is certainly worthwhile. The world will never stop needing plumbers!
A Q&A session with Marc Lilly, a 44 year-old Master Plumber, who works for his company, Marc Lilly LLC. Marc has been working in the plumbing industry for 25 years and has been a licensed plumber for 13 years. He is also a member of his state’s Plumber Trade Association.
Q: What type of education and training did you need for this job?
A: The law requires that you have to be in the business 7 years before you can apply for Masters Plumber license unrestricted. With a Masters Plumbing license, you can do work on all plumbing systems including hospitals, high rises, office buildings, residential, commercial, and industrial. I did not go to school, but learned on the job. I took some preparatory classes to prepare to write my licensing exams. Classes are available at technical schools around the country. Interested students should ensure that the program is approved by the Department of Labor.
Presently, I have an apprentice working with me. I am teaching him the basics of what he needs to know in the field. You cannot learn all you need to know in school, it is a hand on learning job. Tagalongs are not allowed in this field due to the dangers associated with the work. [Note: tagalongs are co-op high school students]
A Journeyman can work on residential systems and do service, an apprentice can work in the capacity of a helper.
Most plumbers start off as apprentices and graduate to Journeyman. An apprentice that is unlicensed and untrained can expect to earn $10-$15/hour and Journeyman that is licensed but with some restrictions can expect to make $35/hour.
Q: What do you like the most about your job?
A: I love interaction with people and love the challenge of solving problems. I love the fact that I work for myself and the money is good.
Q: What do you dislike most about your job?
A: I don’t like being dirty all the time and the hours can be tough 24/7. It is cold in the winter and hot in the summer.
Q: What happens on a typical day at work?
A: I am up at 6 am and start answering phones at 7 am. I am at my first customer’s house by 8:00 am. I do about 5-6 service calls per day and I am home by 6:00 or 7:00 pm to receive calls again for work the next day. Emergency calls are done as they come in. The other day I had emergency call – a two-inch water main burst at an assisted living home. Clogged toilets are not an emergency.
Q: What do you think your next career step will be?
A: Surviving plumbing – I plan to do this until I am unable to do so. I will continue to work as long as I can and past 65 years old if I can.
Q: What previous job history prepared you for becoming a plumber?
A: I came right out of high school and did some general labor jobs until I got a job as a helper with a plumber. I have good mechanical skills.
Q: What kind of traits does a person need to have to be successful at this job?
A: You will need good mechanical skills and be self-motivated. You will need good people skills and the ability to manage paperwork. You also need good problem solving skills and good communication and listening skills.
Q: Would you recommend the job to someone else?
A: I would absolutely recommend this job to someone who had the motivation or the skills to do it. It is a good public service and you can make a good living. People are always going to need a plumber despite the economy. A good reputation is the best advertising you can have. I haven’t advertised in 5 years – I work from mostly referrals.