Once upon a time, as fairy tales go, designing engineers produced workable electrical plans with very few errors. Of course that was when the average electrical project amounted to a mere 5 percent of a project’s overall costs. In today’s market, that 5 percent wouldn’t even cover the sales tax on materials. Once upon a time, engineers took responsibility for their designs. Those were also the days when engineers could charge a reasonable fee for their work and make a profit.

We’ve come a long way from those days but not necessarily in the right direction. Electrical projects now are far more complicated and represent a much-larger portion of the overall job. At the same time, engineering fees have declined with the resultant poorer-quality plans. More insidious though is the “ingenious” attempts to unload the engineer’s obligations on contractors back.

Some of us remember when engineers would approve submittals, or require resubmittals until they were satisfied the product met the requirements of the specifications. In the early 1980s, I attended a seminar in Houston. The topic dealt with the designer’s responsibilities in the design and the engineer’s controlling duties. In the foyer that day a vendor sold rubber stamps with the words “Reviewed” in place of “Approved.” The changeover was very subtle. Later additions to the specifications required the electrical contractor to sign the submittals and take over the prime responsibility that the submitted products would comply with the contract documents.

The ultimate “gotcha” though was the unstated requirements that the contractor was responsible for any design errors or omissions, and they must do whatever needed to make the project operate satisfactorily. A further insult was the statement that any errors or omissions must be noted and referred to the engineer a minimum of 10 days prior to the bid date. Good luck abiding with that when most plans barely hit the estimator’s desk before the bids are due.

Perhaps of greater interest is that designers seem to want to pass the buck of checking their plans on to the contractor. The rationale that the contractor must follow to the Code is a poor excuse for a deficient set of contract documents.

A recent Engineering News Record article dealt with the problem in a decision requiring the owner, the Army, to pay the cost to cover the corrections required to complete a project. Originally the owner relied on the same worn, weasel clauses that specification writers use so often. The decision, however, stated in part that “(the contractor) had no obligation to ferret out the subtle design flaw before bidding.”

An interesting coincidence is the use of the word “ferret.” In another decision an administrative judge stated in part that “(Contractors) are not expected to ferret out hidden ambiguities in the bid documents and are protected if they innocently construe in their own favor….”

Another case dating back to 1918 clearly absolves contractors from the cost of correcting defects caused by defective plans and specifications.

Estimators are cautioned not to rely on the hope a similar decision may come forth to save them should they fail to cover the problems in a plan. Depending on an estimator’s experience, it may be shown that the person should have been aware of the omission. By the same token the designer’s responsibility exceeds that of the estimator, installer and contractor.

Most of the design problems seem to be space-related, especially where service gear is concerned. The owner wanting the maximum usable space and the designer’s effort to accommodate that desire usually brings this on.

If an error is spotted, it would be in everyone’s interest to work up a cost for the item and be ready to ask for a change order. At bid time, generals are hesitant when hearing of too many variations when a bid is called in. By the same token, the general contractor should be told of deficiencies in the plans, so he or she won’t be surprised when the time comes to pay for making the changes.

Errors and omissions, as well as ambiguities, can hurt a project’s smooth flow. The fact that clauses have been included not withstanding, it may be necessary to point out who was responsible for the design and whose professional responsibility it is to assure a decent working document if they want a plan and specifications-adhering project. EC

DAVID is a professor of electrical technology at Long Beach (Calif.) City College, a consultant and an expert witness. He can be reached at 562.597.1877 or at edavid@lbcc.cc.ca.us.