Safety Leader

Keeping Communications Open: A new field of inspectors and challenges require contractor flexibility

Getty images / sesame / EkaterinaKu
Getty Images / sesame / EkaterinaKu
Published On
Nov 15, 2022

A decade ago, contractors often knew the inspector who reported to the job site. That inspector arrived when scheduled and had years of field experience as an electrician. Today, the inspection experience is changing, which has created challenges and opportunities for contractors. 

Trends that began as early as the 2008 recession have led to a new generation of inspectors who are trained, certified and good at what they do, but with very different backgrounds than their predecessors. 

An industry-wide shift has taken place, with inspectors serving numerous trades, from electrical to mechanical and HVAC, said Kyle Krueger, director of codes and standards at the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). A decade ago or less, inspectors predominantly brought a single skill set to the work site.

“Essentially they had one area of mastery, and that was the type of work that they inspected,” he said. “Most electrical inspectors were an electrician or an electrical engineer,” and they brought that practical knowledge with them. Inspectors today may cover wider areas with less, or no, field experience. And sometimes, the work is done remotely.

Contractors are finding that communication on the job site and outside of projects is more important than ever to ensure that inspections are conducted smoothly and all parties are in agreement over codes and any perceived violations. There are few gray areas in the National Electrical Code, so good communication can resolve most disagreements before they hold up a project.

The multitrade inspector

The transition began in residential construction where a municipality often sends an individual who is certified as an electrical, plumbing and building inspector. That helps municipalities and local governments reduce overall labor costs, but it creates a challenge for contractors.

Electrical contractors that pride themselves on the education and training they provide for their employees appreciate an inspector who can identify and confirm that installations meet quality and safety expectations, said Michael Johnston, executive director of codes and standards at NECA.

For the industry, that’s a problem if a less experienced inspector isn’t fully aware of the codes or doesn’t understand what they are seeing in an installation. 

“Then that opens the door for contractors that may not train their staff as well,” Johnston said. Ultimately, this could result in a low-quality or unsafe installation. 

It is a challenge for those hiring inspectors to attract skilled electricians to take the jobs. Today, many governments don’t pay as competitively as they did in the past. As a result, electrical specialists are less likely to leave the field to make $7–$8 less per an hour as an inspector. 

“It’s been a slow, ongoing transition,” Krueger said. “In some cases, they may have someone on-site who’s not really looking at the work as rigorously because they don’t have the experience or the clarity that they would if they had all the background in the field.”

To head off problems, some electrical contractors are taking on the role of providing extra training. 

Having a relationship with inspectors

It starts with establishing the relationship. On a typical job, that means bringing the inspector in at the plan review stage, Johnston said, as work with the design team is underway. In reality, inspectors are often brought in after the final plans get approved, which puts them behind from the start. By bringing the inspector in earlier, during the plans’ examiner phase, necessary communication has already begun.

Another challenge facing many medium and large contractors is that their work takes place across jurisdictional lines, meaning different inspectors and editions of the NEC. They then face different personalities and requirements over a geographic area to get through positive inspections and a shared understanding of applying the Code

“There’s a lot of balls in the air” for these companies, Krueger said. That makes it even more important to start the lines of communication early. 

Sometimes a relationship starts outside of a project. 

“There’s a few contractors in our area that—anytime they have a specialty seminar or something—will invite the inspection agencies too, and just try to be a good industry partner,” Krueger said.

Anyone hosting training programs realizes the inspectors can benefit from those programs, Johnston said, so most invite the inspectors to come at no charge. 

In some cases they also host, maybe once a year, an inspectors’ dinner for a social opportunity. This is where inspectors get to know the project managers, Johnston said. 

“It’s all about understanding that there’s a symbiotic relationship between contractor and inspector and each of us needs each other to make the project go well,” Krueger said.

If the inspector is comfortable with those project managers or contractors, then they’re more apt to ask questions and work with them, instead of just shutting down a project or holding things up when it could easily be solved with a phone call, he said.

The International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) and the International Code Council building inspectors group are working behind the scenes to help jointly address these issues.

Education programs and social gatherings

Tony Scaffidi, consultant and retired technical support engineer for Pieper Electric Inc., New Berlin, Wis., has been an electrical inspector and contractor and is now an instructor. He teaches Code classes to apprentices, many of whom come in without much Code background. Codes are not the most exciting part of the job for young electricians. 

“I know when I was an apprentice, I believed that it was a boring subject,” he said. But it’s also critical, and when Pieper Electric offers the Code programs, they invite the inspectors.

Beyond learning the NEC basics, “I have the inspectors come to our shop and meet with our project managers at seminars that we put on for them, and we get the inspectors [together with the contractor] face to face,” Scaffidi said. 

Without such efforts, contractors would rarely see inspectors until they are on the work site, waiting for the inspector’s approval. Some contractors also give tours of their panel or fabrication shops.

Prior to all these efforts, Scaffidi said, there were often arguments over inspector Code complaints that he would ultimately have to address. 

“Today, I get a lot less calls from angry inspectors [or project managers],” Scaffidi said.

Show me the Code

When he was an inspector himself, Scaffidi said he never liked to see sloppy workmanship, and that’s probably a universal concern. Not knowing the details of the codes creates a disadvantage and impacts the contractor. 

Providing an inspector with a detailed description of the work helps “beyond the basic permit they were viewing on-site. It’s all about communication and trust,” he said.

Adjusting scheduling expectations

David Washebek has been the president and CEO of Lemberg Electric Co. Inc., Brookfield, Wis., for over 20 years, and he served on the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin Chapter of the IAEI. 

The shortage of inspectors is a continuing challenge in some regions when it comes to scheduling, Washebek said. Because of limited manpower, “we have to wait sometimes far too long. That’s not the inspector’s fault.” 

Several decades ago the inspection community was fully staffed and there was never a problem finding replacements when needed. 

“It’s all about understanding that there’s a symbiotic relationship between contractor and inspector and each of us needs each other
to make the project go well.”

—Kyle Krueger, NECA

As years have gone by, Washebek has found there are fewer younger people filling the inspector jobs. Of the existing individuals who do take on the work, he said, “many of them are very good inspectors,” but there are some without the background in the industry. So they read the Code and form their own opinion, with less focus on the contractors or working with them to ensure a Code-compliant installation.

In Wisconsin, “there are still many people who are just absolutely engaged with being the best inspector they can be,” he said. 

Part of the job is common sense. But there are some private inspection services for municipalities that don’t have their own personnel, and that can mean a variety of interactions.

Remote inspections

Another trend impacting contractors is the practice of remote inspections. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the National Fire Protection Association offered resources for conducting remote video inspections (RVIs) when access to buildings was limited. As with an on-site inspection, RVIs are conducted within a jurisdiction’s permitting process and necessary schedule. It could be less complete than an on-site inspection, and it requires an agreed-upon methodology and use of technology such as tablets or phones with a cellular or Wi-Fi connections.

The organization offers a fact sheet that itemizes how to conduct the RVI. Following the pandemic, RVIs are likely to be a continuing practice at some sites. 

NECA issued its Policy 9 standard for electrical inspections to decrease the risk of incorrectly installed electrical products and systems. NECA believes that inspectors should be trained electricians with at least five years of practical field experience in electrical installation. The NFPA 78 Guide on Electrical Inspections is another good resource. 

Contractors are going to benefit from an understanding that it’s a different environment today. 

“You may not get an inspection tomorrow at 10 a.m.; it may be three days from now,” Washebek said, so planning with the general contractor or other interested parties around that scheduling will relieve stress.

Inspection interactions take patience and an understanding of the changing environment for the inspectors and their limited availability. If you know what to expect in advance, Washebek said “all that’s going to benefit you.”  

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