* Inspections can reduce both loss of life and property damage from electrical failures. When qualified electrical inspectors are free to do their work as intended, the likelihood of electrical systems remaining incorrectly installed after occupancy decreases. Over the long term, installations that comply with the NEC save lives and decrease property losses.

* Inspections are compatible with law enforcement generally. Most jurisdictions require some degree of oversight on electrical installations, for good reason. Inspections can confirm that wiring meets recognized standards. Many errors in electrical installations are relatively easy to make, but may take years to show up. For example, a GFCI receptacle wired backward will still respond to the test button, and yet provide no actual protection for equipment plugged into it.

* Inspections detect unsafe products. Even the best electrical system, installed with high standards of workmanship, can fail if its component products don't meet national safety standards. Electrical inspectors routinely look to be sure, in most cases, that products have been listed by qualified testing laboratories to designated standards.

* Inspections check the qualifications of installers. No job will ever be 100% inspected; qualified installers are essential to a proper installation. Unqualified installers may make errors that an inspection wouldn't catch. The electrical inspector typically polices the credentials of those doing the work. Some of the most vociferous supporters of inspections are reputable contractors subject to inspection. They recognize the value of a level playing field for installers and a disinterested, fresh pair of eyes to be sure they didn't miss something.

* Inspections need not be funded from the tax base. There are many ways to fund electrical inspections, either through private inspection organizations operating with municipal or state sanction, or through municipal inspections funded by retained revenue from permits typically required of those doing the work. Either way, the job can and, in many jurisdictions, is being done without recourse to tax support.

* Inspections may have a significant impact on insurance rates. Insurance rating organizations are finding significant correlations between the quality of building inspection programs generally and reduced loss experience. Increasingly, this correlation is finding its way into the rates we pay, especially over the long term.

The organizations

At press time, the major organizational members included the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Edison Electric Institute (EEI), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and National Electrical Safety Foundation. Jack Wells of Pass & Seymour/Legrand, the outgoing NFPA Board Chairman and outspoken supporter of these principles at the IAEI Section Meetings in 1995, had a major role in organizing the initiative.

Some of the divisions in the electrical industry still survive, however. The Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC) aren't participating in this effort, although not due to any disagreement with the objectives. Ike Casey, the IEC Executive Director, noted: "We asked if we could be involved, but we were not encouraged to participate. It's unfortunate because we certainly support the effort. We think it would be even stronger if the open shops were represented, which is our function."

Brooke Stauffer, who is the NECA representative most closely involved, declined comment on the fact that IEC wasn't invited. Casey speculated that it might have to do with hard feelings engendered by previous IEC opposition to the NECA attempt to produce a National Electrical Installation Standard (see this page in the February 1995 issue for details).

What's happening, including NYC

There are many jurisdictions all over the country where public officials are asking, in effect, why not let a licensed installer self-certify his or her work? If they can continue to collect inspection fees under a self-certification program, so much the better. The fees collected become, in effect, an excise tax on the privilege of making electrical installations. The revenue then reduces the need for general taxation.

The problem tends to be worst in large cities, and New York City is probably one of the worst of the worst in the country. At present, there are some 180,000 open permit applications in that city, with no plausible mechanism in sight to inspect very many. As this is written, some highly placed officials are proposing to go ahead and pocket all of the fees, and then only inspect about 20% of them. The others would fall under "self-certification."

The problem is far from unique to New York, however. There have been reports from scattered small jurisdictions across the country, including this editor's home town (see "Thoughts From Our Shop, June 1994). Prince Georges County in Maryland seems to be going ahead in this area, and we have also heard ominous reports involving other jurisdictions, including the State of New Mexico.

The inspection initiative hopes to be of value by directing its focus not to the already converted in our industry, but rather to the members of the public who normally have little contact with our installers on a routine basis. Ultimately, this is for them to decide, not the electrical industry alone.