Homeowners often ask what's the difference between plumbers and plumbing contractors. Aren't they the same?


The terms are used interchangeably, casually, and can get confusing.

But there is a difference.

If you have a common plumbing problem — a clogged toilet or sink, a leaky faucet — a plumber is someone you call. That person may work for a plumbing contractor or he may own his own small business. He may or may not have the training or licenses needed to be a plumbing contractor.

A plumbing contractor — an individual or company — deals almost exclusively with new construction, remodels and renovation, and handles plumbing tasks that involve water supply, septic systems, and so on. A plumbing contractor holds additional training and licenses and may work for a larger plumbing company in an expanded capacity.

Many small companies in the area are likely owned by a plumber. He, or she, may or may not have the experience, depth of knowledge, or licenses required for new construction, remodeling and renovation, and advanced plumbing needs.

In this post we look at plumbers vs. plumbing contractors and specialty plumbers.

Not all plumbers are created equal.

What Can a Plumber Do?

Plumbers are usually the first service professionals homeowners turn to in an emergency. They handle everything from toilets that overflow, to clogged drains and sinks, to burst pipes. These are considered minor repairs.

A plumber may be officially trained or apprenticed under another plumber to receive informal training. Installation or repair of common plumbing fixtures include:

  • faucets
  • toilets
  • sinks
  • bathtubs
  • showers
  • shower drains
  • food disposals
  • hot water dispensers
  • water filtration

Most plumbers are experienced with these common tasks.

What Can a Plumbing Contractor Do?

Plumbing contractors:

  • Do more complex tasks than a plumber, as well as the repairs listed above
  • Work to construct or renovate a home's waste disposal system
  • May install gas connections and flues and water heaters (including gas, electric, or tankless)
  • May install gas control valves, back flow prevention, water conditioning and softening equipment, and other appliances that may be connected to the home's water system
  • May be called in as consultants during a home's planning stages; they are instrumental in making sure new construction or renovation is in compliance with local, and federal building codes (and that commercial plumbing complies with all requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Provide final inspection of plumbing work, either new construction or renovation.
  • Yard line and water leak repair
  • Slab leaks and gas leaks

Plumbing contractors are trained not only in plumbing but also in construction and service and can handle many more requests than plumbers.

Hiring a Plumber or Plumbing Contractor

Finding a plumbing contractor, either a company or individual, is a bit more difficult. For new home construction, your general contractor or builder will likely recommend a plumbing contractor that he is familiar with and has worked with in the past.

While most plumbers expect payment on the day of service, or in a timely manner once they have sent out an invoice, many plumbing contractors require that you pay a deposit upfront. A deposit of no more than half of the job estimate is normally collected in advance and deducted from the total project cost when it is completed.

When searching for plumbing services in the area, be specific with your needs and ask candidates if they are licensed plumbers and if they have the advanced experience and licenses associated with a plumbing contractor.

Remember, there is a difference, which comes into play depending on what you need done.

Different Types of Plumbers

As with any industry, there is plenty of specialization. Some plumbers/contractors specialize in installing pipes into new construction, others may specialize in fixing pipes already in place.

Some plumbers/contractors become very specialized, such as installing and working on fire suppressing sprinkler systems. Some may add other tasks to their skill set, including installing natural gas lines to appliances, fireplaces, and outside fixtures such as grills and fire pits.


There are several different levels of licensing a plumber can have.

  • Plumbers typically start out as apprentices. From there, they test and earn a journey plumbing license, and ultimately be awarded a master plumbing license.
  • An apprentice plumbing license signifies a plumber who has just begun training.
  • A journey plumbing license is awarded to those who have held an apprentice plumbing license and have trained under a master plumber for a certain number of hours. They must also pass a state sanctioned test.
  • Master plumber licenses are awarded to plumbers who have held a journey license for a certain amount of time, and have accumulated the needed hours working as a licensed journey plumber. In addition, a master plumber also has to pass a state sanctioned test.

There are also apprentice, journey, and master licenses to become certified to work with natural gas lines.

Specialty Plumbers

Fire Sprinklers

Out of all the things plumbers do, one task that often gets overlooked is the installation and service of fire sprinkler systems, which are more common in businesses than in residences.

However, fire sprinklers are also becoming more popular as an added safety feature in residential homes. States like California and Pennsylvania now require fire sprinkler systems in all new home construction.

Fire sprinklers are programmed to automatically turn on when smoke is detected or when a certain temperature is detected. If working properly, they can quickly extinguish a fire or limit damage until the fire department arrives.

A 2009 study by the U.S. Fire Administration reports that the risk of dying in a house fire dropped 82 percent when fire sprinklers were installed along with smoke detectors.

Remodeling Projects

There are certain plumbers who specialize in plumbing associated with home remodeling and new construction. When a new home is built, water pipes need to be run, and toilets, sinks and faucets need to be installed correctly and to local, state, and federal code. While your go-to plumber might be a great candidate for unclogging your toilet, a more specialized plumber should be utilized for home remodeling work.

These plumbers must be able to read, understand and communicate details laid out in blueprints. Also, they should understand how the plumbing needs/issues fit into the overall goals of the project. They also should have an in-depth understanding of local codes and ordinances regarding home construction and plumbing and the ability to work with other professionals involved on the project.

If you are remodeling, make sure you know your plumber's skill level and experience. As one plumber said, "Earning a plumbing license does not mean that the person can do every type of plumbing job. The plumber who comes to fix your toilet might not be the best candidate for a home remodeling project."

Water Lines and Pipes

One of the biggest misconceptions about the plumbing profession is that any plumber can do any type of plumbing. In essence, doing one type of plumbing successfully does not necessarily mean that another will be completed equally as well. A perfect example is the installation and repair of water pipes.

For laying pipe, a plumber must have an understanding of water pressure and water force, along with solid math skills. In addition, a working knowledge of the various complexities regarding the type of pipe, distance, city codes, temperature fluctuations, construction and other related issues must be understood.

Natural Gas Line Installation

Another type of plumber that gets overlooked is the natural gas line plumber, who installs natural gas lines for a variety of home projects. Gas plumbers can install or repair water heaters, HVAC systems, fireplaces, stoves and even outdoor grills.

When most people think about plumbers, they usually call them for water pipe issues. The natural gas plumber will have a license that states he or she is licensed to work on and install natural gas lines. Homeowners should consider whether the plumber has a master plumbing license, which signifies a high degree of experience, qualifications and knowledge.