Codes and inspections are something that every contractor, and professional involved in the design and construction of buildings, must deal with. Anyone who has been in the business for any length of time has inspection stories to tell, and those tales likely range from good to bad to ugly.
A contractor may have a positive relationship with the local inspector, or sometimes it can be a contentious one. While the two parties may be coming at a project from different viewpoints, it’s important to remember that everyone has the same goal: to deliver effective, safe systems in a building.
The perspectives of inspectors and contractors may seem different at times, but they often are coming from the same place. Many inspectors begin their careers on the other side.
“Prior to my employment in plan review and inspections, I was working in the construction field as a plumber,” recalled Shawn Strausbaugh, building plans reviewer for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development, Inspection Services Division, for Arlington County, Va. “I first started working for a smaller plumbing and HVAC company, mainly on residential and light commercial. Shortly after obtaining my journeyman plumbing license, I changed companies and started working for a larger mechanical contractor, mainly focused on plumbing and pipefitting work on commercial/industrial projects. In April of 1996, I was hired as a plumbing inspector for the local municipality, and thus began my inspection career.”
Even though many inspectors come from the trades and share the concerns of contractors, the nature of contractor-inspector interactions can invite a level of misunderstanding and mistrust.
“The constant dark cloud I work under is a challenge,” admitted Alexander Keys, plumbing inspector for the City of Oklahoma City, Okla. “This cloud is the belief that the inspector rejects code violations just so the city can make more money on re-inspect fees. Nothing could be farther from the truth. First of all, a municipality encourages construction and goes out of its way to cultivate growth. Second, nobody likes rejections. If the job could go from square one to completion without a rejection and everyone is smiling in the end, the municipality has won. And third, inspectors in mid and large sized cities are so busy they can barely hear themselves think. There is no heartache or paperwork involved in an approval, rejections are a headache, and only double the inspectors’ workload while slowing progress.”
For most inspectors, creating a better understanding with contractors would be a big step toward streamlining the process for everyone involved.
“The plan review and inspection process can be somewhat cumbersome. I have witnessed this firsthand when I was in the field,” Strausbaugh said. “My approach is to try and help the contractor through the permitting process. If the plumbing contractor has overall questions in the beginning, I advise them to request a general inspection so they can specifically address any issues that they are unsure of or have questions about so these can be discussed with the inspector on the site. This can also reveal if there are any necessary changes that need to be made to the approved construction documents so this process can be done in a timely fashion, as this can hold up a project. “
Many contractors may wonder what inspectors are looking for. While each individual inspector and municipality is different, the inspectors Phc News spoke to gave their perspective on what they look for.
“Every code that pertains to plumbing at the federal, state and local level,” Keys said. “But, if you’re looking for the ones an inspector is sure not to miss, those would be protection of the potable water supply, proper drainage venting, gas system sizing along with proper installation, and the water heating appliance. Commercial kitchens are a hotbed of code violations, from air gaps on food prep sink drainage to travel restraints for gas appliances on wheels. It would seem that a commercial kitchen has an endless supply of potential code violations.”
Venting is another area to keep an eye on.
“Improper venting is seen often,” Keys continued. “A lot of contractors miss the concept that the manner in which they vent fixtures, or groups of fixtures, must meet the criteria of the code. That means the venting system should have a name, whether it be a wet vent system, a circuit vent system, common vent system, etc. You cannot just install vents where you think is best. Next would be proper air gaps. If the code calls for an air gap, there must be an air gap. Indirectly wasting through an air break is not an air gap. As a plumber, you can’t say to yourself that air breaks and air gaps [are the same]. These are radically different forms of protection.
Keys added, “Another common issue is B venting for gas appliances must have a minimum 1-inch clearance to combustibles throughout its run. This is a fire hazard. And finally, gas systems are often undersized. From the trunk to the branches, you must understand how to size a gas system through the longest length method.”
According to Strausbaugh, his intent is simply to see a building that does what it is required to do.
“Inspectors and plan reviewers are there to verify compliance with minimum construction standards,” Strausbaugh said. “I would advise contractors to ask questions about inspections and the reasons that a job may not be compliant so they can correct or sometimes even point out that the current installation is compliant. Inspectors are also human and a good inspector should listen to all your questions and be able to respond accordingly.”
One of the challenges inspectors face is properly communicating the gravity and importance each code. Codes aren’t just legal mumbo jumbo; they are intended to safeguard the building and its occupants.
“Relating the dangers involved with code violations is a challenge,” Keys said. “An example of this would be a proper air gap on a temperature and pressure (T&P) relief line. While in the minds of the contractor, builder and general contractor, the chance for back siphon occurring on a particular water heater is extremely low, they fail to understand that the code requiring the air gap governs an entire city full of T&P relief lines. Every one that is not installed per code not only increases the risk of back siphon occurring, it makes a more likely scenario when you consider the number of T&P lines across a city.”
Another challenge for inspectors is staying current on all the latest codes, as well as new and evolving techniques used in construction.
“The biggest challenge is keeping up with ever-changing technology. Materials and products are constantly changing or new things are coming out,” Strausbaugh said. “The building codes in our state are updated approximately every three years, so this also becomes necessary to stay on top of.”
Staying on top of this ever changing landscape requires a high level of engagement from inspectors. Contractors should take a cue from this.
“Inspectors, plan reviewers and contractors all need to pursue continuing education,” Strausbaugh suggested. “Whether this is state or local requirement or voluntary, continuing education must be pursued to keep up with changing construction codes. Typically states or local municipalities will have continuing education training and if it isn’t a requirement to maintain any required licensing then the contractors need to make every effort to attend these type of classes so they can stay informed and educated.”
“I would love to see plumbers investing and taking pride in the knowledge of the codes that govern their profession,” Keys said. “In today’s world, the code is what separates us from being day laborers and provides a knowledge base and a reason for our licenses. Love your trade. It is ancient, noble and beautiful.”
Getting involved with the codes is another way contractors can engage in the process.
“The International Code Council (ICC), which includes the International Plumbing Code (IPC), International Mechanical Code (IMC), International Fuel Gas Code (IFGC) and International Residential Code (IRC), updates their codes every three years. This process is open to all parties who wish to participate…so if you don’t agree with something in the current code or feel that new requirements need to be added, contractors do have a voice,” Strausbaugh explained.
Ultimately, inspectors should be seen as an ally in the battle for a successful building, not an adversary. Contractors have their role and inspectors have theirs, and the two can dovetail together.
“The inspector is charged with the final say of whether or not a plumbing system is indeed safe for the people that reside in a jurisdiction,” Keys said. “This is a heavy burden and an enormous responsibility. Working together can be more easily achieved when the contractor uses the inspector as a resource for knowledge instead of an enemy that is out to get him.”