How to Become a Plumber: Part 2, What It’s Like

There are areas of plumbing about which I know nearly nothing, such as industrial systems, steam fitting, skyscrapers, and many others. Down at my level there are two kinds of plumbers: construction and service. I’m a service tech, which means I work on stuff some other plumber installed years ago. Construction plumbers enjoy building things for the first time. As a rule, they hate service work. I, on the other hand, would hate going to the same construction site every day for weeks or months.

Most of the time here, I’ll be referring to service work.

A plumber goes from house to house, family to family, store to store, day in and day out. He’s out meeting new people or checking back in with customers he’s served before, seeing how much their kids have grown, asking a shopkeeper how business has been, choosing where he’ll eat lunch that day. This is one of the most important features of being a plumber: you’re not cooped up.

When the weather is nice, you’re out there in it. But when the weather is miserable, well, you’re out there in it.

A good plumber is highly appreciated. The first thing I noticed when I began training in 1990 was that customers were glad to see us. Every day at least one would greet us at the door with “Boy, am I glad to see you!” There are some people who work for years and never get that from their jobs.

A lot of the job is physical; it requires strength, and men enjoy using their strength. Carrying a drain machine up a ladder to the roof, digging down to sewers with a shovel, crawling under houses with heavy tools, smacking a pipe wrench with a four-pound drilling hammer in order to break a pipe loose, or replacing a water heater in an attic by yourself (and I’ve done hundreds like that) — such challenges are a part of most days. A woman or a weak man cannot do such work. The work often occurs in cramped locations where leverage or machinery can’t do the heavy lifting; YOU do it or it doesn’t get done, and sometimes you have to summon strength you didn’t know you had in order to finish some step in the job.

This means that you can get hurt or killed. A co-worker of mine was down in a hole when a wall caved in and it hit him pretty hard, but he wasn’t injured — but guys do die that way (but not if they follow certain safety rules, but where’s the fun in that?) I knew a guy who picked up a toilet, just as he had done a hundred times before, and hurt his back and was sidelined. A friend stepped on a bad stair tread and turned his ankle and couldn’t work for weeks. The greatest danger that you face in an office is getting a paper cut on a finger. Are you willing to get out there and fight? Something to think about.

Do plumbers make a lot of money? I’ll say more about it later, but for this chapter I’ll just say that a good plumber is very much needed by the community and hard to replace — and such workers always have a steady income at a good rate of pay. When the “downturn” hit America in 2008, construction came to a halt and unemplyment was rampant. I, however, never missed an hour of work during those tough years. As a service plumber (in my own business by then), my income was bulletproof. Likewise with the Covid-19 shutdowns, I never stopped making money, even during the “two weeks to flatten the curve” when the streets were empty. Construction plumbers were not so lucky.

The job is dirty and can be filthy. I was training a former shoe salesman once and, seeing me tearing hair and filth off a cable after cleaning a lavatory sink drain, he remarked “I don’t see how you can do that without gloves on.” I replied that gloves would make this step harder, so it needed to be done bare-handed. “Besides,” I continued, “you’ll get used to it.” He insisted “I’m not gonna do it; I’m wearing gloves.” “Oh, you’ll get used to it.” “I’m not doing it, I’m telling you!” He wouldn’t budge. He lasted about six weeks. Soap and water does wonders when it comes to reversing any filthiness you may encounter, but this work isn’t for the squeamish.

In addition to the physical, plumbing has a mental side to it. A service tech is solving problems; a smart one solves them more quickly and makes more money. A construction guy will rise in the ranks if he’s better at blueprints, Plumbing Code, and communicating with higher-ups. In other words, there’s plenty of room for smart guys. As a college prof I saw a lot of students who had no business being in college; they were smart enough to do the work, but they didn’t like school, so the motivation just wasn’t there. A smart guy could drop out of high school and still become a great plumber.

Like every job, plumbing can be frustrating. I’ve had times when I’ve worked hard all day and didn’t make a dime — in fact, I lost money that day. My first year, I resigned (to myself) so many times, I lost count. One miserable night I was working out in the rain at 11:00 and one thing after another was going wrong. I screamed to myself “You’ve gotta be stark raving mad crazy in the head to do this for a living! I’m resigning tomorrow! I’m going in and unloading my truck! I’ve had it!” But I cooled down during the few hours I slept before going into the shop the following morning, and I resumed running calls. I needed the income. All jobs can be like that sometimes.

In sum: no job is paradise; every job has its bad side, but I consider what I do to be very rewarding.