Creating Allies: Contractors and Inspectors Working Together for a Common Cause

Electrical inspectors are an asset to a construction project, yet, for many contractors, their arrival on the work site can cause anxiety. Building a good relationship with your inspectors requires part skillful adherence to codes and part human-management skills. Violations on a work site aren’t good for anyone, but some contractors have made violations a rarity through early engagement with inspectors.

Talking early and often

The first step to a positive inspection experience is attitude, said Keith Lofland, International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) director of education, codes and standards and chairman of the NFPA’s Code Making Panel 7 (CMP-7). Inspectors have their own stressors, and being conscious of that will benefit your interactions.

“A lot of time, installers may base their perception of inspectors on one or two bad experiences they’ve had,” Lofland said.

However, those bad experiences aren’t representative of the whole field, any more than a bad doctor represents the entire medical industry. In fact, when things go right, the inspector should be a source for information, assurance of a satisfied customer and protection from litigation.

“For the most part, inspectors want to be an asset on the project,” Lofland said.

Their objective is to ensure the work meets safety codes and achieves the quality the customer is paying for.

Some inspectors are more challenging than others to work with, said Michael Johnston, executive director of standards and safety, National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). He has experience in electrical construction, contracting and inspection.

“Their job, day in and day out, is to identify negative things [Code violations] on a project,” he said.

As supervisor, Johnston made a point to encourage inspectors to find the good on a job site first. Then, if they found a violation, the contractor would be more approachable. However, not all inspectors make that effort. The best way to work with inspectors is to make them part of the team by bringing them into a project early and often.

“I strongly recommend a proactive approach at the front end of a project,” he said. “Using inspectors in the pre-planning processes is better than hearing from them on the receiving end of a red tag.”

During the decision-making, contractors can get feedback from their inspector. That not only creates transparency and good relations up front but also prevents potential violations when the project is nearly done.

The inspectors may have their own local codes or amendments to follow and, therefore, don’t just use the National Electrical Code (NEC) by the book, but being consistent in their enforcement processes is essential. Johnston instructed inspectors to never issue a violation that couldn’t be backed up in writing with a Code section cited.

That doesn’t mean the Code is without gray areas. The NEC is a work in progress. In fact, there were about 3,000–4,000 proposed changes from public input to the Code for each of the last two editions.

Inspectors have the option of issuing verbal warnings, and those can work to a contractor’s advantage.

“If I was on the receiving end of a warning, I would work to tighten that [violation] up,” Johnston said.

Inspectors can be allies, as well. For instance, in the case of projects with tight deadlines, getting the inspector involved before the general contractor wraps the work up can ensure the work isn’t covered over before that electrical inspector can get there to complete a rough-in inspection. If a contractor just can’t come to agreement with an inspector, however, there are avenues.

Maintaining your reputation

Every inspector has a supervisor. If a contractor feels the company is being treated unfairly, that contractor is within his rights to contact the supervisor. A meeting between the supervisor and inspector will then resolve the problem, one way or another

Conversely, contractors need to be careful about getting too close to their inspectors, too. Taking an inspector to lunch could be perceived badly and create a conflict of interest, and most inspectors are aware of that.

Cogburn Bros. Electric in Jacksonville, Fla., keeps communications open with local inspectors. Larry Cogburn, company president and chairman of the CMP-8, is a senior associate member and former Southern Section director of the IAEI. Vice president and project manager Raymond Smith sits on the Southern Section and Florida Chapter Boards of the IAEI today. The purpose is to keep conversations open by bringing up issues and questions with state and city inspectors about how the Code is being interpreted.

This provides both contractors and inspectors with feedback about the issues at hand, and it ensures they have some mutual respect.

“We have trust in each other,” Cogburn said.

The meetings can cover everything from the location of ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) receptacles to grounding requirements for swimming pools and marinas.

“Everybody has a slightly different interpretation of the Code ,” Smith said. “With these meetings, you can put questions out and discuss what is the right approach. As a contractor, we want to work with the inspector to identify his concerns early in a project and make sure we meet his expectations. Cogburn Bros.’ philosophy is to form a cooperative partnership, rather than an adversarial relationship.”

In many cases, when the company is launching a large job with 1,000 light fixtures, it knows the inspectors well enough to reach out to them in advance, Cogburn said. Then, the company gets the information it needs to ensure its proposed work is in accordance with the NEC . This gives the inspector faith in the company’s efforts to do a quality job.

That serves a purpose during the job and after it’s over, if anything were to go wrong. If an inspector has signed off on a project, the contractor doesn’t have the same liability in the case of litigation, Cogburn said.

“If you get a permit and inspection, that’s your best insurance policy,” he said.

“It’s my opinion that every contractor should have a representative join the IAEI,” Smith said. “They welcome contractor members.”

Avoiding violations

The most common problem inspectors run into is having qualified personnel on-site.

“The first question I used to ask [as an inspector] is, ‘let me see your license,’” Lofland said. “Every time I ask to see that license, I’m making their license that much more valuable. Well over 50 percent of installers I came across were not carrying their license.”

At times, he said, an electrical contractor took offense to that question. Lofland doesn’t look at it that way. In fact, unlicensed electricians on the work site, or those without the proper credentials with them, prove to be the most common violation.

Many other common violations had to do with simple miscalculations. For example, too often he has had to issue a citation for erroneous box-fill calculations. Typically, too many conductors were installed in an electrical box. The NEC has rules prohibiting too many conductors in a box according to the space, meaning not enough free air around the conductor to dissipate heat. Contractors can update their understanding by referring to NEC 314.16.

Then there are the working-space violations that occur when there isn’t enough space available for equipment maintenance and inspection, per Section 110.26. For the most part, every piece of equipment will need to be maintained, and having the space to do that is critical. These violations can be as simple as a mop in front of a panelboard and as disruptive as a panelboard too close to a wall. In some cases, they require 36 inches, for instance, and if they have only 30 inches of space, some rework is inevitable.

When it comes to conduit fill, the NEC allows only a certain number of conductors in the conduit. To figure out if conduits are overfilled, check NEC Section 344.22 for rigid metal conduit and 358.22 for flexible metal conduit—two sections that spell out the conductor fill requirements for those particular raceways and are often missed during installations.

Burial-depth specifications are often misapplied, as well. Is the conduit being run underground in someone’s backyard or a shopping mall? The Code provides details. Lofland pointed out that, if the Code dictates a minimum of 12 inches from the surface, going deeper would ensure errors aren’t made. Otherwise, aiming for the minimum can make for a stressful inspection, if an inspector puts a ruler in the trench and comes back with a different interpretation of the measurement.

For inspectors, Lofland said, there can be a discussion as to where you draw the line. If the minimum standard hasn’t been met, even if it’s an inch, a violation is going to result.

“There’s a reason for these standards,” said Lisa Bascom, IAEI marketing manager. “And that’s safety. They aren’t there to aggravate installers.”

Additionally, AFCI and GFCI requirements are often misinterpreted. Refer to NEC sections 210.12 and 210.8 to learn the details.

Grounding-electrode systems are another trouble spot for inspections. Proper use of grounding electrode conductors means determining the size and installing accordingly. NEC sections 250.52(A) and 250.50 are your reference points for those conductors.

Knowledge is power. Knowing the Code, being familiar with common violations and maintaining a good relationship with your inspector all contribute to a successful project.

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