Hector the Inspector

AFTER COMPLETING the permit application, I waited for the lady in charge to finish her phone call so we could complete my paperwork. In my neck of the woods, you can't do permits via the Internet, by fax or over the phone you must appear in person. We were installing an attic-located, high-efficiency horizontal gas furnace and central-air system to serve the upper floor of a very expensive condo.

AFTER COMPLETING the permit application, I waited for the lady in charge to finish her phone call so we could complete my paperwork. In my neck of the woods, you can't do permits via the Internet, by fax or over the phone — you must appear in person. We were installing an attic-located, high-efficiency horizontal gas furnace and central-air system to serve the upper floor of a very expensive condo.

The existing HVAC system never worked properly in spite of the owner having paid to have the first and second floors zoned. The zoning system didn't incorporate a bypass relief damper, which created noise and frozen coil issues when the first-floor damper was closed.

The second floor was cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer. A detailed survey of the property and subsequent Manual-J heat loss/gain calculation revealed the supply/return trunk-duct and risers to the second floor attic space were too small to carry the CFM required.

The calculations revealed the existing equipment was marginally sized and more suited to handle just the first floor and adjoining guest quarters. I was picking up a mechanical permit for the retrofit HVAC system.

"That'll be $170," she said.

Wow! That seems like quite a lot for a permit. Can you explain why it's so expensive because I'll need to give that information to our customer when he gets the bill for the $170, plus my time for obtaining the permit?

"You need two permits, two inspections and two separate inspectors must be sent: one for electrical and the other one for the building permit."

The situation would be laughable if it weren't such a travesty.

No, no — I'm looking for a mechanical permit.

Obviously displeased with being questioned, she marched off to get the township manager.

"What's your problem? " he snapped.

No problem, I just need an explanation to give my customer when he questions why this permit is so expensive.

"It's $170 — what we charge — you don't have a choice. There's also a $4 Pennsylvania Inspectors Education Fee: $2 for each of the permits."

At which point, the permit lady chimed in, "Can we send Hector for both the electrical and building inspections?"

"Sure, he'll be fine for both."

As the manager turned to leave, I had to ask, if only one inspector is now required, rather than two, will the permit be half price?

His look was priceless! Spittle balls formed on his lips and spewed forth in the tirade that followed. I wrote the check.

When Hector arrived, he made a beeline for the basement and asked to have the main breaker panel's cover removed to inspect our breaker and wiring installation.

Harrumphing to himself, he said, "Just for future reference, you'll need a piece of black or red tape on the white wire to identify it as a hot wire or I'll flunk the job, leave, and, you'll have to apply for an additional inspection and there'll be another fee."

Having had his say, he passed the job and left.

Did Hector inspect the outdoor condenser or its pad? No. The outdoor disconnect and wiring whip? No. The attic furnace and its support? No. The outside-the-envelope ductwork to ensure it was sealed properly and met the R-8 minimum for the new Pennsylvania codes? No. How we were venting carbon monoxide and combustion byproducts from within the building to ensure occupant safety? No. Compliance with manufacturer instruction for venting and sizing those vent lines? No. New gas line? No. Condensate trap and/or drain line? No. Wiring and safety disconnect in the attic? No. Our Manual-J or Manual-D calculations, which we had onsite? No.

He never went outside or up into the attic, much less the second floor where he could have made sure we installed supply-and-return registers in every room.

Just between us, the situation would be laughable if it weren't such a travesty. It would have been tempting to ask him, do you really think a colored piece of tape will protect anyone who removes a main breaker panel's cover? If he can't recognize that any wire connected to the business end of a single-throw, double-pole breaker indicates it's a live wire?

The real issue, in my mind, is that the homeowner did not get what he paid for — a valid inspection performed by a well-trained inspector.

I wish Hector the Inspector's performance was out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, it's the norm in our area.

And that's what prompted me to finally call the state of Pennsylvania and ask: "What the heck are you doing with the $2 Inspectors' Education fees we've been paying with every permit obtained? You guys offering any education at all?"

I was told that Act 13 of the Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code provided for the $2 fee per permit to help fund the Pennsylvania Construction Academy (www.paconstructioncodesacademy.org).

Attendance, however, is not mandatory.

After I detailed a number of inadequate inspections from memory, I asked if the state had ever developed a checklist for guys such as Hector to follow. Suppose Hector had a list to follow for things such as venting, ductwork and other items common to an HVAC installation?

Or, for that matter, plumbing or hydronic work. Do you have anything like that for the inspectors in my area who obviously are not availing themselves of the education available?

"No , we're not interested in doing that because it would be too regimented."

Huh? I'd be willing to help establish lists for inspectors to follow.

"Sorry, not interested."

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