Using Residential Electrical Service Inspections as Valuable Teaching Moments
As a licensed electrician working on residential and commercial jobs for 16 years, the transition to electrical inspector has been challenging. One of the biggest reasons was that as an inspector I had to remember that just because I wouldn’t have done the installation a particular way didn’t make it non-compliant; the installer may have just used a different method. I continued as an electrical inspector for 18 years with six of those being Chief of the Electrical Division at the State of Michigan. In those years as an inspector one of the most memorable things I was taught was: “The Code isn’t what you think it says, it is what it says - so read it again.” That taught me to not trust my memory, but to verify what the applicable code stated. This helped me properly apply the code so that a correct determination of approval or denial could be made for the installation. NFPA has a white paper for conducting residential electrical inspections that can help electrical inspectors’ conducting residential inspections by providing organization methods for the inspection process. Having this type of resource when I started would have been an invaluable addition to the hands-on training I received. And while inspectors around the world might not use all the information within the white paper, they may be able to use some of the concepts in it to create their own processes tailored to their area of inspection.
Another struggle was understanding why some installers were nervous or anxious when inspections were conducted. Until I realized an inspection is equivalent to a teacher grading a paper (any student dislikes getting answers wrong) and it stresses them out when they do. Inspectors, like a teacher, grade (inspect) electrical installations and sometimes find things that are not compliant with the applicable version of the NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code® (NEC®), or local residential code, as some states may enforce a separate residential code for one- and two-family dwellings.
Residential dwellings are some of the most common buildings inspected. They may be one- and two-family or multi-family dwellings. How these buildings are constructed or inspected depends on where you are in the world, but most likely will have the same types of inspections, service, rough and final. To prepare, an inspector should first verify which cycle of the NEC is being enforced for the project and if there are any local amendments to the NEC. This starts you off in the right direction. Usually, the first inspection on a new permanent residential structure is the electrical service. The inspector should gather information from the installer about plan review, if required, and the amps interrupting current (AIC) that is provided by utility since most residential main breakers only have a 10K rating. Having that information will make the inspection more efficient when looking at the following parts of the service:
- Service Point location
- Overhead or Underground service
- Raceway or Service Entrance (SE) cable
- Emergency disconnect requirements (new to the 2020 NEC)
- Electrical Panel Location
- Panel clearances
This list is not all inclusive, but a high-level overview of information that may make for an accurate inspection. Inspectors will also be looking at conductor material, conductor size, intersystem bonding terminal location, and complete grounding electrode system. Sometimes there are violations and those may include service too small, undersized service conductors (ampacity) serving the main breaker, improper cable entries, lack of securing and supporting on raceways and cables, just to name a few.
So how does the inspector inform the installer something requires correction or that the installation is approved? Frequently by providing feedback to installers in one of two ways:
- through written violations that clearly state the code section, area of the violation, and any other clear and concise notes that pertain to the inspection, or
- through approval stickers indicating the installation is compliant
Often violation notices are interpreted to mean the installation was a complete failure, when in fact it might just be a simple fix like a conduit or cable support. Over time I learned I was most effective when installers gave me feedback and we discussed the code sections in question. It helped alleviate stress on the installer and it helped me grow as an inspector. A good rule of thumb for me was my belief that a violation notice was a teaching opportunity for everyone and that it could help eliminate future violations by the installer. The ability to effectively communicate inspection results is an important skill to have as an inspector. How we communicate notices influences how they are received. So be a teacher!
Finally, another valuable resource for inspectors is NFPA’s LiNK® which gives you access to all NFPA codes and standards in one place – at your fingertips. As an inspector you can share code sections with non-members (limited time access) and can be useful when discussing code violations from inspections. Within LiNK you also will be able to look up DiRECT® situations that are built around regular installations, like wiring in residential attics, basements, and kitchens. LiNK is now accessible offline and has enhanced content available for the 2017 and 2020 versions of the NEC. Learn more about NFPA LiNK by visiting the website.