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Facility Maintenance Decisions

Plumbing Tools:
Questions and Answers

Answering these five questions will help managers give plumbers the right arsenal of tools

By Thomas A. Westerkamp   Equipment Rental & Tools

Engineering and maintenance managers know that plumbing operations rely on an arsenal of tools and equipment — from wrenches and pipe cutters to valve repair kits and spare parts — to respond efficiently to both large and small tasks.

So it is vital that plumbers have the right combination of tools and equipment and the latest technology and materials. Answering these five questions will help managers plan for tool upgrade needs:

  1. What kind of work are plumbers responsible for?
  2. What mechanical systems and equipment do they repair?
  3. Which tools and equipment do they require?
  4. What tools are not available?
  5. What training do plumbers need?

Plumbing Duties

Managers can review job descriptions to determine primary responsibilities and duties performed. If these descriptions are obsolete, ask the incumbents for their actual duties. Some plumbers do only minor repairs to plumbing fixtures and hot- and cold-water and drain systems. Major mechanical repairs, such as boiler tube and pop-valve repair, or rebuilding a compressor, are done by pipe fitters or outsourced.

If a particular task doesn’t occur very often, it won’t pay to keep skills on hand and tools and parts in stock. Even so, list all this work. Later, sort out which work will be outsourced, such as pop-valve refurbishing and testing, and put it on a contractor list.

Mechanical systems that usually are the responsibility of plumbers and pipe fitters are: hot- and cold-water lines and restroom fixtures; steam lines; HVAC systems; compressors and pressurized air-distribution systems; gas valves and lines; sprinkler pumps, valves and piping systems; vents, drain lines and sewer systems; condensate return lines; and boiler systems.

In-place Systems

Managers will need to visually check all mechanical systems to determine the required tools and equipment. Some piping disappears inside walls, above ceilings, under floors or underground. If they are not visible, managers can identify hidden items from the building mechanical system drawings prepared by the engineers before construction. The drawings show the location of the runs and equipment, bills of material containing type of material, size of items, and specific mechanical equipment details to help define tool needs.

Managers should double-check work sites where possible. Such checks can reveal changes made since the original installation. Mark the changes on the original drawings. Additional sources of information are operations and maintenance catalogs for mechanical system equipment, such as boilers, pumps, compressors, chillers, fans and blowers. They contain more detail about construction and spare parts.

By tracing each system in the scope of work, managers identify the type of installed equipment. For each major system, managers will need to consider the material, the size of piping and the types of fittings and joints in order to determine the tools technicians will need for disassembly, repair and assembly.

Managers also will need to note the type of material — copper, stainless steel, malleable iron, cast iron, plastic, cement, and tile. The size of piping determines the size of tools to be used, such as cut-off saws, threaders, dies, taps, and pipe wrenches. Also, managers will need to check fitting and valve specifications of gate, globe and ball valves; slip-on flanges; and threaded, welded, glued or soil pipes.

Tools and Equipment

The hardest part of plumbing work is removing old pipes and fittings. Threaded joints on schedule 40 black iron steam pipe often are seized and require several shots of liquid wrench, some tapping with a ball peen hammer, two very large pipe wrenches or an impact hammer, and two pipe fitters to loosen the rusted or encrusted material.

Pairs of various-sized pipe wrenches aid disassembly, and a putty knife and stiff wire brush cleans threads and flanges. Fitters need some joint compound or Teflon tape, compound brush, replacement fittings and pipe, and pipe wrenches for assembly.

Anti-seize compound is a must for steam fittings to avoid disassembly problems in the future. Copper hot- and cold-water lines with sweat joints require a pipe cutter or saw, a torch, flux and solder. Emery cloth removes oxidation and polishes the copper surface before soldering.

A tube cutter cuts out small-diameter sections of pipe, and a torch and a wire brush loosens old solder. Where compression fittings and copper pipe are used, workers will need liquid wrench and a ball-peen hammer to close difficult to-turn fixture valves to isolate the work site, and also a wrench- handle extension to reach into difficult-to-access locations.

Plumbers also need a pair of the properly-sized open-end wrenches and thread compound for compression fitting nuts. Also, if fittings are hard to reach — for example, water faucet nuts that hold the faucet in place under a sink — they will need a special faucet nut wrench. These special wrenches are sometimes the only way to get leverage to turn the nuts in places where access was limited.

If systems use flared fittings, plumbers will need a tool to flare the end of the copper pipe after the nut is slid on, as well as a tubing cutter to cut pipe to length. Or they can use braided flexible stainless-steel hose with compression nuts already attached, which is more expensive material but results in lower labor cost.

For clogged drains, plumbers need a range of tools, from the standard plunger and manual router, or snake, to an electric-powered router or pressurized water pig for large pipelines. Long lines might require inspection by video camera to guard against intrusion by tree roots or broken pipe walls, due to age or heavy equipment pressure.

For pump repair, depending on the type and size, plumbers will need:

  • open-end wrenches
  • packing tools to replace the packing
  • ratchet wrenches
  • sockets
  • allen wrenches to remove the coupling, casing, bearings or rotating element
  • a gasket cutter for split-case pumps
  • a lathe to turn packing sleeves
  • brazing equipment for impeller buildup and leak repair
  • a lathe to finish turn the impeller and packing sleeves
  • balancing wheels for final balancing of the impeller and rotating element
  • calipers, dial indicator, feeler gauges or laser alignment tools for aligning the rotating assembly and coupling during re-assembly.

A vibration analyzer is an excellent predictive tool for rotating equipment, particularly pumps. An analyzer predicts failure and zeroes in on causes before failure occurs. An analyzer expands the shop’s predictive maintenance capability and improves system reliability.

Fitters use liquid wrench to loosen black-iron pipe and fittings, plus a ball- peen hammer and a pair of pipe wrenches. Copper-control lines require open-end wrenches to disassemble and assemble fittings, oilers, and lubricators, as well as very small open-end wrenches for disassembling control relays in instruments to clean the parts and prevent sticking during operation.

A non-contact infrared thermometer is excellent for on-line inspection of steam traps and other heat-emitting equipment, such as heat exchangers. The technician stands several feet away from the heat source and measures its temperature, comparing it with the normal temperature.

For example, a cold bucket in a steam trap means condensate is backing up in the pipeline. Scheduled trap and strainer cleaning or replacing a corroded mechanical bucket and flapper solves the problem, reducing energy cost. If several plumbers need the instrument, managers can add another one to the list. Infrared thermometers also can be used to check electrical equipment and controls, so they would get plenty of use.

Additional Tools

Managers should carefully review the list of tools and requisition needed tools to fill in any discovered gaps. Managers can tailor their purchases based on plumbers’ actual job duties. For example, if plumbers are not expected to work on pipe more than 6 inches inside diameter, don’t order any material or tools for that type of work.

Likewise, if workers will not do welding more than once or twice a year, don’t bother to purchase welding rods of various sizes, as well as metals, grinders, weld clamps, welding hood, goggles, gloves, jackets, cables or oxygen and acetylene. Instead, managers can decide to outsource welding tasks as needed.

It pays to buy top-quality tools when specifying tools. Most quality hand tools have lifetime guarantees, so they are replaced free if they are broken during normal use. Normal use, of course, doesn’t include putting a 4-foot extension pipe on a 36 pipe wrench to get more leverage when a 60 pipe wrench is really needed.


Include all the manuals and vendor training in the requisition. The vendor knows safety requirements and all sorts of shortcuts, special tips and tricks that help will plumbers perform the tasks more safely, better and more quickly.

Make sure plumbers understand recent plumbing code changes. Some non-code situations might have been in place for a long time.

Those non-code systems resulted from many causes, whether poor design, or poor or incomplete installation during construction, such as a single trap for a bank of three heating coils instead of one trap for each coil. Or modifications were made in the code after the building or the addition was built.

Training on plumbing codes and changes can help plumbers correct these situations to improve system efficiency and bring systems up to code.

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  posted on 3/1/2002   Article Use Policy

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