Advice from electrical inspectors on how to make their job — and ultimately yours — easier
There's a common saying electrical contractors have about electrical inspectors: Arguing with an inspector about the Code is like wrestling with a pig in mud. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it.
The perception that electrical inspectors are people with huge egos put on earth to make life more difficult is pervasive throughout the electrical construction industry, but it's one that the electrical inspectors would like to change. “Years ago, it was like the Wild West,” says Richard M. Bivone, president of Electrical Inspectors, East Meadow, N.Y. “But that's changed. I tell my employees ‘Listen, you're not the only sheriff in town. Your job is to go out there and, if there's an issue, talk to the electrical contractor. Explain to them what you're looking for, and work with them to come up with a solution that works — that meets the Code. Let the electrical contractor know you're not out there saying it's going to be my way or no way.’”
Some credit for the change in the way electrical inspections are performed can be given to the “deregulation” of the industry. Only 45% of inspectors work directly for a municipality — usually city or state — according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. The majority are independent, third-party agencies that contract with municipalities and building owners to perform inspections. On Long Island, where Bivone's 10 employees perform around 10,000 inspections a year in 90 municipalities, local municipalities authorize independent agencies to do inspections. This has created competition among inspection agencies, says Bivone, resulting in better-qualified and more informed inspectors.
That's not to say Bivone doesn't take all inspections seriously, even those performed by municipal employees. A retired New York firefighter, Bivone has experienced first-hand the consequences of sloppy wiring. “Outside of arson, the majority of fires are electrical,” he says. “When you see that, you understand the importance of life safety and making sure electrical systems operate properly.”
But it takes two to make sure electrical systems work properly. Although many electrical inspectors are changing their attitude toward installers and fostering more open relationships, they still need the cooperation of the contractors to ensure Code-compliant and safe installations. The way contractors think about inspections can play a pivotal role in the success of a project. Contractors need to remember inspections are performed not only for the protection and safety of the building's owner and occupants, but also to protect their own business reputation.
While the rules and standards regulating inspections vary widely throughout the country, there are a few measures electrical contractors can take to make any inspection go more smoothly. Respect and consideration are the keys to a good relationship between contractors and inspectors, says the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), based in Richardson, Texas. Professionalism and communication are on the organization's short list of requirements. What does this mean specifically? Following are a few words of wisdom from electrical inspection agencies for those who install electrical systems.
A good working relationship between contractor and inspector is particularly important on big projects, so it's best to start with early communication, preferably before bidding even begins. An early conversation will ensure the project is within the scope of your license and that you understand the installation requirements as they relate to the Code and any manufacturers' specifications. Checking with your inspector before you start a project will help prevent a redo later.
“It's extremely important that the electrical contractor speaks to the inspection agency early on so that they can be on the same page,” Bivone says. “What will happen — and we've seen this many times — is that an electrical contractor will bid on a project, start doing the work, and not be familiar with a specific code. Then we have to come on the job and say, ‘You can't do this.’ We tell the electrician to sit down with us in front of the plans, and we'll go over them and tell them what they should do and what we'll accept.”
In Tacoma, Wash., where through a grandfather clause in the state's laws the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) is the utility company (Tacoma Power), plan reviews by inspectors are required for any services 400A and greater and emergency services. In most larger cities in Washington, plan reviews are mandated for electrical construction in medical facilities, schools, prisons, and large commercial jobs. In these instances, electrical inspectors urge contractors to get the plans to their office well ahead of inspection, meaning before the contractor begins work. “If it's an afterthought, a lot of times that can hold up the job and the inspection process,” says Bruce Reynolds, electrical plans examiner for Tacoma Power. “When plans are submitted early, a review can save the contractor a lot of money by catching issues before installation, and there are a lot of issues that are caught in the plan review process. If contractors follow through and get this done ahead of time — before starting the work — those issues will be caught on paper instead of in the field by an inspector.”
Communication with the inspectors shouldn't stop once you've been awarded the contract. Automated permitting systems, available in many municipalities, have cut down the time it takes to schedule an inspection, but they still require a certain amount of red tape. Keep in mind that these papers are going to be read by the inspectors. Fill them out accurately and legibly. According to the IAEI, a major frustration for inspectors is missing information, such as work location and access point. It's not unusual for one street address to be one square block in size.
Upon receiving your permit package, take the time to read the entire permit form before you start. Make sure you know the difference between your permit number and project number and how to reference them correctly in any correspondence or phone calls. Pay close attention to the list of scheduled inspections, and respect the general order in which they should be performed. In most cases, rough electrical and plumbing are required after rough mechanical (HVAC) and framing. Also, sometimes municipalities include specific instructions with the permit materials, such as posting a placard with the permit number and your company name outside the job site or completing certain conditions before scheduling any inspections. Be sure to follow these instructions to the letter.
In addition, where the permit asks for a description, be specific about the scope of work on the job. Without specifics, the inspector won't have any idea what to look at, particularly if you're not on the job site to show him or her. If you're adding lights in a bathroom and outlets in the kitchen, be sure to write that down.
“The details of what is being installed are key,” says Reynolds. “If the description is specific, then it makes the inspection process much easier. It helps us find what we're actually supposed to look at.”
“The issue with scheduling inspections is that everyone wants to know when the inspector's going to be at their job site,” Reynolds says. “They want to demand or know specific times, but with the inspector running from job to job during the day, it's impossible.”
The best you can hope for from most inspectors with regard to scheduling is a general time frame of morning or afternoon. Even then, try to be understanding when the inspector shows up early or is delayed. Yours isn't the only inspection he or she has to perform that day.
In return, the inspectors may be more accommodating to you when you have scheduling changes — but only if you notify them in advance. If you need to reschedule a job-site visit, notify your inspection agency. Most inspectors have experience in electrical construction. They understand that schedules can be tight, especially on high-dollar projects, and that you may be at the mercy of a separate contractor, another subcontractor, or owner. The one thing an inspector doesn't want to encounter on an inspection is unfinished work. It usually only takes a day or two to schedule the actual inspection, so don't fret about missing your schedule and jump the gun, causing more delay in the long run.
In addition, if you need any special provisions from inspectors, you should always contact the inspector directly. Whatever your track record with inspectors, it's never safe to assume that any substitutions or special arrangements will be allowed by the inspector.
“Contractors shouldn't assume that things are okay by an inspector without first communicating with the inspector, like taking photographs of ditches instead of having the inspector look at them and just assuming that would be okay,” Reynolds says. “Inspectors can be more flexible in the inspection process and may allow photos or other things, if they trust the contractor. But that only happens with communication. If contractors want anything outside the normal rules for inspection, then they should contact the inspector first.”
Now that you've filled out all the paperwork and scheduled the inspection, make sure the inspector will be able to physically visit the site for all inspections, including rough, final, and any in-between. “When a certificate's issued, we don't change it if somebody calls up and wants us to add something to it,” Bivone says. “We actually have to go back out to the job site and look to make sure that's what's there.”
Inspectors must have clear directions to the project, and, once there, have to have access to it. If you're not going to be present at the inspection, make sure to indicate the location of the work. They can't inspect it unless they can see it.
“Access is always an issue,” Reynolds says. It's a matter of coordination, but a lot of inspectors are open to calling 15 or 20 minutes before so that someone can meet them there.”
Vigilant inspectors will keep a record of the inspections by securing the signatures of the principals on the property and taking photographs of the conditions. “If there's some type of an incident, they always question you,” Bivone says. “We keep very detailed records. When it's the final, we take additional photographs and have a record of it so that if anything happens, you have documentation of what you saw and what you did.”
Bivone cites cases in which after the electrical contractor finished a project, someone else made changes to the panel, which caused a problem.
“During the investigation, the contractor's going to get a notice of claim from some insurance company that's going to want to make sure that it's not going to pay out on it,” Bivone explains.
Therefore, the contractor and the inspector need to work together to make sure they don't take the blame.
In Tacoma, the inspectors only take photos if there are major corrections or issues with the installation, but the inspection records are kept in a database, which are accessible to contractors through public disclosure.
“It's not very often that we have to defend the contractor, but the records are there,” Reynolds says.
Like electrical inspectors, you must be licensed in the municipalities in which you work, but inspectors aren't the “license police,” as you might believe. It's the municipalities' responsibility to check licensing and your responsibility to make sure your licenses are up-to-date by fulfilling the requirements for renewing them. Inspectors do check to make sure the electrical equipment is installed by a licensed electrical contractor within the scope of their license — and that the electricians and trainees onsite are properly certified and/or supervised. If the licensed electrical contractor is not working directly for the property owner, some jurisdictions might require the electrical contractor to work for an appropriately registered construction contractor.
In addition, an inspector's diligence may keep license fraud in check. On Long Island, a visual inspection must be performed before a property can be sold. This inspection must be requested by a licensed electrical contractor, although owners may try to fabricate license numbers to avoid paying for a professional.
“We want to make sure that the person that's requesting the inspection is the real licensed electrician,” says Bivone. “You'd be amazed at the number of scams that people try to perpetrate on the industry. We catch it all the time, and electricians thank us for that.”
Furthermore, unlicensed work should never be passed off as licensed. This wastes both the inspector's time and the owner's money, and eventually the work has to be redone to Code.
“You can tell in a heartbeat when there's somebody who's not licensed doing work,” Bivone says. “It's amazing what people try to get away with just to save a few dollars, but in the end it doesn't work, and eventually, the waiter is going to come with the check.”
Even when following the above guidelines, not every inspection will be without conflict.
“You have a document, and it's interpreted in different ways, and sometimes there are disputes about it,” says Paul Forte, president of Forte Electric, Long Island, N.Y. “The tricky part about the Code and dealing with inspectors is that the Code is subject to interpretation. But probably the most important line in the Code is the one that says ‘the authority having jurisdiction,’ which basically means the inspector, who may see an issue differently than you do. If there are issues, they're usually in the interpretation.”
The most common way Forte and others deal with these differences in interpretation is to defer to the inspectors. “The No. 1 rule is don't step on their toes,” Forte says.
However, if you're still not satisfied with the interpretation provided by your inspector, there are formal policies you can follow.
“There's no use in a contractor arguing specifically with the inspector,” says Reynolds. “There's always the chain of command to go through if a contractor feels like it is a wrong interpretation. Here, there's a method of appeal to the chief electrical inspector. There's no reason to have a fight with an inspector.”
Know the Code
“There are always changes every three years, and there's an education process with each Code change,” Reynolds says.
To discuss these changes, some inspection agencies make themselves available at electrical industry events. Others even offer Code seminars for contractors.
According to Reynolds, the State of Washington and the City of Tacoma both have had stakeholder meetings where the contractors can get information. To make sure inspectors and contractors are on the same page regarding Code interpretations and licensing, Tacoma Power publishes updates on its Web site. Washington and Tacoma also sponsor listservs to send out electronic newsletters or bulletins about upcoming issues. For instance, there has been quite a bit of buzz on these sites regarding the possible arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCI) requirements. Washington's monthly newsletter also covers licensing and Code issues.
During inspections, just as important as knowing how to comply with the Code is to keep in mind that when it comes to safety and protecting owners and occupants, you and the electrical inspector are on the same team. “The minimal standards that municipalities and states set up are there for a reason — for life safety,” Bivone says. “An inspector is someone that can communicate with the electricians and be able to provide them with a professional service. In the end, everybody's happy. They get their certificate, and then we move on to the next one.”
Sidebar: Qualifications for Electrical Inspectors
You now know what electrical inspectors want from you, but do you know what you should expect from them? The International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) lists some essential qualities that make a good electrical inspector:
Significant electrical field experience at a journeyman or master level.
Served an apprenticeship or has some type of accredited or equivalent training.
Certification by a recognized testing organization.
Good public relations skills. Listens to others' concerns and can make decisions and communicate well (written and orally).
Does not abuse his or her authority, has the confidence to evaluate electrical installations for code-compliance, and is willing to consider alternate methods that meet equal and effective safety objectives of the Code.
Uniform and consistent application of the Code rules.