Behind the Trade looks into the basics of common trades associated with Facilities Management, including information on how to pursue trades as a career and what you can expect to earn.
Greek Mythology is an odd place to begin an article on the plumbing trade, but let’s indulge the author briefly. The three most powerful gods in that ancient pantheon are the brothers Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. There’s a sense that giving each of these nearly co-equal gods dominion over their own realms was something like a power-sharing agreement between three tribes. If the Electricians had Zeus, with his thunderbolts and lofty position in the heavens, then Poseidon is surely the god of Plumbers- a wrathful lord of all the oceans and seas. I guess the HVAC mechanics are Hades. The metaphor falls apart here.
But it is true that Electricians are often considered the top tier of tradesmen, dealing with the most dangerous and complex service running into office and living spaces. Plumbers are usually considered an equal top-trade, with water and electrical power sharing so many characteristics. The slight inferiority complex for plumbers might come from the consequences of a burst toilet pipe seeming disastrous, but not quite as deadly as a wayward electrical termination.
Make no mistake though, our civilization was hydraulic well before it was electric, and few things in this world are as fundamental to human health and well-being as the systems we employ to handle water and waste. The primary job of plumbers is to install, commission, maintain and service these systems, and in Facilities Management they are usually considered an Essential Service- although not always. Such is the expectation that plumbers are so good at their job that it is assumed that once toilets, wash basins and other basic plumbing equipment is installed, it should work in perpetuity without too much intervention. There are 7 broad Australian Standards for plumbing; there are several hundred for electrical.
A plumber in a commercial or residential setting generally has the straightforward task of maintaining water supply and wastewater disposal systems. This guide does not cover the role of industrial plumbers, who maintain systems required for production and manufacturing.
A plumbing system comprises two distinct systems. The intake (or supply) system is water supplied from a public utility, sometimes referred to as Town Water. This water comes in at high and constant pressure- high enough to overcome gravity and move upwards through pipes, though most large buildings will utilize a set of pumps to assist for higher levels.
Where Town Water comes into your system, there is a meter to measure the amount being drawn and a Mains Shutoff valve. This is where a plumber’s job begins, though it would be extremely rare to need to shut off at the mains. Throughout a building, there will be numerous shutoff valves.
The supply will run in a series of pipes to every floor of the building, terminating in taps, showers and the like. Bypass pipes will carry water into small reservoirs, where the water can be heated quickly and supplied on demand. In most buildings, some water will be put through air conditioning reservoirs, where it will be mixed with glycol to make the water suitable for cooling systems. The entire supply system can be run to the contours of the building, thanks to the pressure supplied from the mains and use of pumps.
The waste system, however, generally relies on gravity. The waste pipes will all pitch downwards, to allow the flow of waste materials to sewer systems, where it will continue to public sewage utilities and treatment. There are points where supply and waste must interact, and in these crossover points, there are valves, traps, clean-outs and vents to prevent wastewater from coming back into supply. Maintaining and unclogging these crossover points are an essential part of a plumber’s job.
For a commercial plumber, a typical callout will be reactive - in other words, something has gone wrong and needs to be fixed. Sometimes this will be an intermittent fault with a toilet or tap, but plumbers are more likely to be called in at a crisis point than most other trades. With the exception of fire systems, there isn’t much plumbing preventative maintenance. A plumber will need to have a comprehensive supply of flanges, valves, washers, taps and other consumables on hand, not to mention a variety of heavy tools. Knowing where you can park and quickly get to the site of a works order is crucial, more so than for most other trades.
Plumbers will often be called in to unclog toilets, repair leaking pipes and investigate faulty fixtures. Plumbers will sometimes be called in to provide support for other trades, especially HVAC. Plumbers and Electricians, despite their rivalries, work closely together to ensure that power and water do not have a chance to mix, and many plumbers and electricians have some cross-discipline training. Basic carpentry is part of a plumber’s toolkit.
Most floors in a commercial or residential tenancy will have a floor shutoff valve, and will often have more shutoffs in individual toilet blocks or kitchenettes. Removing an escutcheon or plate where a toilet meets the hydraulic system is easier than removing power outlets, but generally, they’ll be at least a little bit obscured to discourage unqualified staff (or vandals) from interfering with them.
A commercial plumber in most Australian states and territories will need to undertake training at a TAFE to obtain a Certificate II in plumbing services to become an apprentice. This takes at least 6 months, with further training and apprenticeship taking at least 4 years. Once a Certificate 3 has been obtained, a plumber can be licensed by the state and apply for their own work. There is a strong expectation that licensed plumbers will take on apprentices regularly.
Beyond official qualifications, there is an expectation that plumbers have strong mathematical skills and a strong constitution - plumbing requires strength and fitness, and the conditions are not always pleasant. It is, consequently, one of the most secure trades and one of the best paid. Entry-level plumbers, after their apprenticeship, can expect to earn in excess of $70,000. Specialization into gasfitting, construction, fire systems and more can increase earnings potential.