Published In June 2000
When I have insisted on a requirement, and subsequently the inspector has said, "Oh, you didn't need to do that," I lose credibility. The customer who accepted me as, simply, their expert now comes to see my advice in a different light. I have had this type of experience any number of times, and I want to share what I have learned from it. First, examine some examples. Last month, I wrapped up the story of an odd little landscape lighting job. I told the customer that where cable emerges from the ground, low voltage or not, the National Electrical Code (NEC) requires mechanical protection. An unwritten local rule said otherwise. Discovering this destroyed any interest the customer had in following my suggestions for bringing power to her portable fountain-something that was not part of my installation. It also encouraged her to blur our boundaries. I had already installed the UF for her low-voltage yard lights. She now had no qualms about moving the cable. (She even lifted a buried splice and mounted it on her fence-a use for which the underground splice kit was not Listed). "What's the big deal?" some might ask. Well, once customers mess with my wiring, they have taken over responsibility in the event that something goes wrong. And half the yard lights failed to light, after this customer moved the cable. In another jurisdiction, a few miles away, an old customer called me in to install a couple of new outlets and wanted me to replace a ceiling light while I was there. His Romex dated back to the mid-1950s. Given the temperature ratings of his conductors, I told him he had two options from which to choose. First, he could take his pick among fixtures Listed for use with 60 degrees Celsius conductors; there are some, albeit not a very wide selection aside from pendants and chandeliers. Secondly, I could install a junction box at the location of his present fixture and run NM-B to the location where he wanted his ceiling outlet. (I also could have sleeved the conductors in high-temperature loom-type material, but this is not an option I favor, except in extreme cases.) He was not very happy with these options. Fortunately, we talked with the Chief Inspector before proceeding. "Well," he said, "if the insulation look okay, we don't worry about the wires' temperature rating." Awkward again, though not as bad as it would have been had we learned of this permission later. Ironically, some months later, the issue of 60 degrees Celsius insulation came up in the jurisdiction in which I had done the landscape wiring. A woman who was selling her house wanted me to replace all her light fixtures with new, inexpensive ones that she had just purchased-fixtures that specified 85 degrees Celsius insulation. I asked this inspector whether he, too, had an undocumented practice of disregarding temperature rating. Nope, or at least not officially, was his reply. Anybody who has been in this industry for a while knows that some Code sections are treated casually: "Well, it's required in theory, but we don't worry about this." It is useful to keep abreast of which Code sections are treated this way in various jurisdictions, so you can work competitively and avoid surprises. The two other lessons I have drawn from this sort of experience include: - When talking to the customer about Code requirements, it is not wise to focus primarily on "the inspector may fail the installation if I don't do this and that." First, I may not be up on the peculiarities of a particular inspector. He or she may or may not back me up on the importance of particular requirements. Besides, most customers hire you and me not simply because our participation makes the work legal, but rather because we know how to do it right. The latter is what I should emphasize. - Although the NEC is imperfect, it does not make sense to apologize for doing a good, Code-compliant job, or to feel bad about erring on the side of safety. Doing so would inappropriately discount the value of my expertise, and diminish the value customers derive, by chipping away at their trust. SHAPIRO, author of Old Electrical Wiring: Maintenance and Retrofit (McGraw-Hill 1998) is a contractor, consultant, and writer based in Colmar Manor, Md. He can be reached at email@example.com.