What Do Plumbers Do?

Service plumbers work with their brains as well as the tools.


Almost every home owner has a few essentials tools on hand to cope with plumbing emergencies. Most bathrooms will have a plunger nearby to take care of a clogged toilet or slow drain, and many home owners have a pipe wrench on hand to tackle basic repairs.

The work of a professional plumber is far more complicated, of course. For a new construction project, work generally is separated into “rough-in” plumbing, i.e., the pipes and fittings that go behind the walls and ceilings, and the finish work whereby the rough-in plumbing gets connected to fixtures inside the building.

Rough-in gets done first on a construction project, after which the drywall or other covering gets put in place. The rough-in pipes will extend a little beyond the walls, and the plumber will then get to work connecting the pipes to fixtures and equipment such as toilets, tub/showers, sinks, lavatories and water heaters. On a big construction project some crews may be installing rough-in on one floor or building section while others finish installing fixtures elsewhere.

The work of a plumber in new construction is rather straightforward mechanically. He must install the piping and connections so they are watertight or gas-tight (in case of gas fittings). This may involve brazing or soldering the pipe connections or using various mechanical joining techniques. Installing the fixtures involves using a variety of tools and techniques to insure against leakage and make sure the installation complies with relevant building codes.

Service plumbers work with the same basic plumbing tools and techniques but their work comes with an added degree of complexity. Besides being mechanically adept, they must diagnose problems and use their expertise and experience to determine the best, most-cost effective solution. Service plumbers work with their brains as much as their hands.

Here are some of the most common problems a service plumber will encounter on the job:

Blockages and leaks. Sometimes a toilet or sewer line blockage is too stubborn to fix with a plunger and elbow grease. A plumber may need to use specialized rodding equipment to deal with the issue. Hidden leaks in a faucet or toilet may be hard for the amateur to detect, but over time they can lead to structural damage when water seeps into sheetrock, plaster or flooring. Many plumbers use electronic leak detection equipment to pinpoint leaks behind walls or under floors.

Running toilets. If you have to jiggle the handle to get a toilet to stop running, it’s probably time to replace inner components such as the flapper valve and float that leads to the fill tube. Many home owners do this themselves using cheap kits purchased at home centers. These band-aid repairs may solve the problem for a while, but professional plumbers typically achieve more long-lasting results by rebuilding the inside of a toilet using sturdier products.

Frozen pipes. This is mainly an issue in northern climates, although from time to time southern home owners get caught by surprise when Mother Nature hammers them with unusual freezing temperatures because their homes typically lack the protective insulation that exposed pipes typically get wrapped in up north. Plumbers may be called upon to thaw pipes, or replace those that may shatter during extreme cold if left unattended for a long period of time – with devastating results for the unlucky home owner.

Faucet repair/replacement. A special form of torture awaits people who try to sleep amid a dripping faucet in an adjacent room. Not only is it annoying, a dripping faucet can waste hundreds of gallons of water a year and inflate the home owner’s water bill accordingly. Leaking faucets can be repaired by replacing worn washers or other interior components. However, more and more it is becoming more economical to replace faucets than repair them due to the labor cost of tracking down and obtaining repair parts for models that may be decades old.

Repair/replace water heaters. Running out of hot water is a big inconvenience to home owners. Most plumbers work with both electric and gas water heaters, which require different troubleshooting techniques. With gas heaters, often the problem stems from a faulty gas control valve that causes the pilot light to go out or some other gas supply interruption. With an electric heater, it may require replacing the heating element. Some of the most important work done by plumbers is to install/repair temperature & pressure relief valves on water heaters. Without these safety devices a water heater may turn into a powerful missile capable of launching through the roof of a house.

Heating installation/repair. In some northern parts of the country plumbers also work as heating mechanics by installing, maintaining and repairing boilers, which run on water or steam as opposed to warm air. Some plumbers also work on underfloor radiant heating systems that are growing in popularity around the country.

This is just a short summary of the wide variety of work plumbers may do. In many parts of the country plumbers will need to be licensed by the state or a local jurisdiction. This typically requires passing a written examination testing knowledge of local codes, with a few jurisdictions also devising hands-on tests of mechanical competence.

In my next blog we’ll take a look at some of the tools of the trade plumbers use to carry out these installations and repairs.