Specialized plumbing tools include pipe wrenches, flaring pliers, pipe vise, pipe bending machine, pipe cutter, dies, and joining tools such as soldering torches and crimp tools. New tools have been developed to help plumbers fix problems more efficiently. For example, plumbers use video cameras for inspections of hidden leaks or problems, they use hydro jets, and high pressure hydraulic pumps connected to steel cables for trench-less sewer line replacement.
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Plumbers install and repair water, drainage, gas, and other piping systems in homes, businesses, and factories. Plumbers install plumbing fixtures such as bathtubs and toilets, and appliances, such as dishwashers and water heaters. Plumbers also maintain septic systems—the large, underground holding tanks that collect waste from houses that are not connected to a sewer system.
Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters may use many different materials and construction techniques, depending on the type of project. Residential water systems, for example, use copper, steel, and plastic pipe that one or two plumbers can install. Power plant water systems, by contrast, are made of large steel pipes that usually take a crew of pipefitters to install. Some workers install stainless steel pipes on dairy farms and in factories, mainly to prevent contamination.
The straight sections of plumbing systems are called "pipes" or "tubes". A pipe is typically formed via casting or welding, whereas a tube is made through extrusion. Pipe normally has thicker walls and may be threaded or welded, while tubing is thinner-walled and requires special joining techniques such as brazing, compression fitting, crimping, or for plastics, solvent welding. These joining techniques are discussed in more detail in the piping and plumbing fittings article.
For many centuries, lead was the favoured material for water pipes, because its malleability made it practical to work into the desired shape. (Such use was so common that the word "plumbing" derives from plumbum, the Latin word for lead.) This was a source of lead-related health problems in the years before the health hazards of ingesting lead were fully understood; among these were stillbirths and high rates of infant mortality. Lead water pipes were still widely used in the early 20th century, and remain in many households. In addition, lead-tin alloy solder was commonly used to join copper pipes, but modern practice uses tin-antimony alloy solder instead, in order to eliminate lead hazards.
Most large cities today pipe solid wastes to sewage treatment plants in order to separate and partially purify the water, before emptying into streams or other bodies of water. For potable water use, galvanized iron piping was commonplace in the United States from the late 1800s until around 1960. After that period, copper piping took over, first soft copper with flared fittings, then with rigid copper tubing utilizing soldered fittings.