As plumbing and mechanical contractors, our work is governed by building codes. These codes are supposed to be a minimum standard of installation and maintenance for the various building trades. Working in municipalities, we are always at the mercy of the various building officials who interpret the codes. Notice I say, ‘interpret’ rather than enforce. That is because the codes are written in such a way that a building official (an inspector) can decide what they mean, leaving you — the contractor — at their mercy, or perhaps a better word is discretion.
How many of you have had this experience: when you think you are ready for that inspection and a green tag, you’ve walked the job and can’t find anything wrong with the installation, according to your interpretation of the code. You call for an inspection and end up with a list of things the inspector wants you to do before he will give you that green tag. Some items may be legitimate, calling into question you and your crew’s skills and abilities, but some are merely power plays by the building official, or a way to justify his job by having to return for a second look. This makes a certain kind of sense in small municipalities and during slow times, but the costs of doing business on your end suffers just the same. I’ve seen more than one inspector get out of his vehicle with a red tag in hand, before he even looked at the workmanship. Sure, you can argue with the guy. You can call his boss and try to get the ruling changed, but you know where that’s going. After all, you’ve got to deal with the guy on other jobs. So you do what he wants, grumbling all the way, and hope he is satisfied after only one more inspection.
Interestingly, you might encounter another inspector on another job who wants you to do the same things another way, or the way that you did them on the project that you were red tagged for. It’s all about power and interpretation. The only constant is that you, the contractor, have to foot the bill. I’m not excusing poor or sloppy workmanship by saying inspectors do these things with ulterior motives. If your work is substandard, you get what you get. If on the other hand, you or your crews do good quality, solid, code compliant work in a neat and clean manner, consistently, you are much less likely to encounter code violation problems. The point is, codes and code enforcement are a fact of life, and we ignore these issues at our peril.
Having your field personnel well versed in the codes of the jurisdiction they are working under is one way to cut down on unexpected delays and re-inspections. As a part of ongoing training, some shops hold code interpretation classes for employees of all levels. Inviting a local building official to teach or moderate the class is a good way to know how that inspector thinks. Meeting the inspector outside of the ‘work’ environment is a good way to foster a better working relationship as well. Also local junior and community colleges offer code classes, again, usually taught by the very inspectors you deal with every day. Having a better than working knowledge of the code, and how it is interpreted by the local building officials, is a good way to keep those re-inspections to a minimum.
Codes and code enforcement are a fact of life, and we ignore these issues at our peril.
Since codes are pretty much regional in nature, today’s contractors deal with only one or two and can be pretty confident that they are doing the proper installation, code wise. In larger metropolitan areas there may be many codes. Even codes within codes! If a contractor works in several states or in several large cities, the number of codes he must deal with can become staggering. Ignoring code changes and modifications can be costly.
Even the code writing agencies don’t always agree. International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), International Building Code (IBC), New York Plumbing and Drain Code (NPDC), Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC), International Plumbing Code (IPC), Uniform Mechanical Code (UMC), International Mechanical Code (IMC), National Electrical Code (NEC), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)...on and on. Each agency or group promulgates their version of a code and sells it to a country, region, state or municipality and you, the contractor, must learn it and adhere to it. Even within the agencies there are disagreements. NPFA was on board with the IBC folks. Something went sideways and they withdrew and threw in with IAPMO. Go figure. The real bottom line is that, as subcontractors, plumbing and mechanical firms are simply the last on the food chain when it comes to codes and their interpretation. The very best we can do is to read the appropriate codes, do our best to understand them and apply them in our work. Knowing the codes and local preferences of inspectors and their idiosyncrasies will get you more green tags faster, but really knowing the codes, and that they are a minimum standard is a must.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].