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Your friend, the Electrical Inspector
By Bill Addiss,
If you're like many electrical contractors, you probably think your inspector is an overly officious guy who loves to nit-pick your every completed installation. If that's what you think, you may be missing out on a valuable asset — a person who can help your business.
Establishing a good relationship with the inspection authorities — and keeping it — can mean the difference between passing and failing in more ways than one. You're lucky if you have an environment where you can freely interact with the inspectors and maintain a good rapport with them.
The best way to pass inspections is to talk to your inspector early and often. Ironing out any potential problems or opinion differences beforehand saves time and money. Unless you're absolutely sure every square inch of your project will meet Code and be acceptable to the Authority(s) Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), you're best off asking questions before you start — and certainly before you finish. Besides, it looks more professional to everyone involved if you can avoid an after-the-fact installation.
The rules and circumstances regarding electrical inspection vary widely across the country. In some areas, inspectors may be state, county or city employees. In other areas they may belong to a private agency with, or without direct ties to state or local governmental agencies. Some may be full-time electrical inspectors and others may be part-time or ‘multi-hat’ inspectors, which means that they are also responsible for other areas or have other duties besides performing electrical inspections. Whatever their background or title is, they are all recognized by the powers that be and are entrusted with the responsibility of inspecting electrical systems for safety and compliance.
HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW YOUR INSPECTOR?
Do you know what your inspector thinks, what he does all day, what makes him tick? You might be surprised to find out that despite the impression you have (or that he may want you to have) he most likely a “regular guy.”
On Long Island, electrical inspections are performed by agencies that are authorized by the local municipalities to do inspections. The largest and best known is the New York Board of Fire Underwriters. In many areas, a number of smaller agencies are approved to do inspections. My personal experience dealing with our local inspectors has been overwhelmingly positive. I firmly believe that maintaining a good relationship with electrical inspectors is crucial to success in the electrical trade.
A DAY IN THE INSPECTOR'S LIFE
This “typical day in the life of an inspector” scenario is based on my personal experience and interviews with local inspection authorities.
The inspector's day starts early. He walks into the office and hits the ground running. There are messages on the answering machine, inspection applications that must be sorted, and locations plotted on a map. Planning the day to get the most done can be a real challenge. Avoiding known detours and heavy traffic areas while trying to keep a schedule is part of the game he plays every day.
As he goes over the applications and tries to decipher chicken scratch, he wishes that contractors had learned better penmanship in school — or had learned to type.
He fantasizes briefly about applications being neatly typed and logically organized, but there's no time to daydream. The phone rings almost constantly in his office. As the inspector plans his day, a contractor may walk in and ask for advice or a special appointment to go over something on-site or accommodate another contractor's tight schedule.
His planned driving route must now change. After some more juggling of appointments, it's time to leave and he says a silent prayer that the day will go just fine.
After stopping at a usual place for coffee, he's off to stop number one for a rough-in inspection. He knocks and a smiling homeowner opens the door, anxious to show off what he is sure to be a first-class installation. As the inspector looks around he tries not to let his expression reveal what he is really thinking about what he sees. Most work like this is very familiar to him and violations stand out quite easily.
As he goes over the installation much of his thoughts are focused on how he is going to address the customer to make suggestions or ask for changes. He wants to be supportive and makes a conscious effort to not seem condescending. Although a bit sloppy, the installation seems to be safe and he only sees the need to add a few cautions and make sure that the person is aware of some details needed to finish the job correctly. As he leaves he makes notes about specific things to check when he comes back for the final inspection.
His second stop is a commercial location, which is undergoing renovations such as a new drop ceiling and lighting fixtures. He makes sure the contractors involved are allowing for the support of the new lighting fixtures as required by Code. He notices that there are no ducted returns being put in for the HVAC system being installed. He advises the electrician there that some existing Romex (NM cable) must be removed from the area above the ceiling grid.
And so the inspector's day goes. During a typical day, he may inspect a variety of installations in different types of occupancies. Much of his day is routine and without many surprises. Most of the contractors he deals with are experienced in the work they do and aware of established codes. When codes change, he may have to keep after some of them for a while before they are doing things the right way consistently, because sometimes old habits are hard to break. An example might be the installation of outside receptacles that were once allowed to be on a kitchen small appliance circuit, but are not anymore.
GETTING ALONG WITH THE INSPECTOR
Most people the electrical inspector deals with are really trying to do a good and safe job and he enjoys helping them. He is always happy to share what he knows with those that are interested — and looks forward to a challenge. One of his favorite things to do is to find a Code-compliant solution for difficult and “impossible” situations. Sometimes an electrician will ask him to help design an installation in a hazardous location that should really have been done by an engineering team or special consultants and not simply left to the electrician. But that's why he's there to help.
Your inspector may have some pet peeves, like “picking on” labeling of panelboards and other NEC Code requirements that he is required to enforce and yet many choose to ignore. Another cause of concern and a bit of a mystery to him is why homeowners and even some electricians will attempt unfamiliar types of electrical work with whatever materials and advice are provided by a local home center or supply house employee. Good examples of bad work include the swimming pool and hot tub installations that he inspects. He expects electrical-wiring ignorance in homeowners, but is often surprised about the about potential dangers that contractors cause. The inspector tries to make himself available for questions about such things and even has many drawings and detailed handouts that he has made on his own time and offers to all that are interested.
As you might expect, he can tell some good “nightmare” stories about difficult people (and dogs) that he's dealt with. He prides himself in being intuitive about people and situations that may be deceiving, and he's prepared for the unexpected — he tell you (with a smile) as he pulls a dog biscuit from his top pocket. New installations or modifications done on older premises can sometimes cause complications. He makes judgment calls on what portion(s) of existing installations must be modified to meet present requirements even though the original installation may have been done per code at the time. A simple example of this might be where the installation of a ground rod and a new waterpipe clamp (if needed) may be requested when a residential service panelboard is changed. A ground rod was not required when the original service was installed but it would be according to present codes and the clamp might be in poor condition after many years.
THE BANE OF THE CODE ENFORCER
One thing I am reminded of, that many may not realize, is that in our area and perhaps many others, the electrical inspector is really enforcing the state or local building code as it pertains to electrical installations rather than the NEC itself. There may be additional requirements in these building codes that do not appear in, or differ from the NEC. Some better-known examples of things required in building codes and not the NEC might include the requirements for the installation and placement of smoke detectors and exhaust fans in certain locations.
We also have restrictions prohibiting the use of aluminum service entrance cable in many areas. As an example of something that may not be well known, I am told that our New York State Building Code has provisions in it that can require the replacement or removal of existing wiring systems that are exposed during renovations if they are deemed to be in unsafe condition or are non-compliant by today's standards and are being modified or additional loads are being added.
A situation where this rule was enforced (and a good example of why it is necessary) involved a local house with aluminum wiring in which handicapped people were living. The building was undergoing major renovation, all the walls were opened up and the wiring was exposed. The contractor had intended to close the walls up again without replacing any wiring until the inspector stopped him and told him that he must remove it and replace it with copper wiring to make the renovation comply with the requirements of the State Building Code.
He enjoys a good debate, and there seems to be a glint in his eye as he picks up his dog-eared copy of the NEC, and pauses for effect before reading from it. His facial expression as he reads with special emphasis on words like ‘shall’ and ‘shall not’, reflect his interest in the NEC and eagerness to share his knowledge. Debates are mostly academic in nature, often hinging on the interpretation of a single word. They may go on for quite some time and the contractor may score some solid points, but we both know that whatever the outcome is we will abide by his rule if the situation ever arises. Interpretation and enforcement are part of his job and something he has to justify. Smart contractors ask questions way in advance and, therefore, have no qualms about his judgment. We each have a job to do, and the better we can get along the easier it is for both of us.
Reprinted with Permission from CEE News July 2002 issue >> CEE News
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