Electrical Plan Review – Is It Worth the Time and Effort?

At one time or another most electrical plan reviewers have probably asked the question, “Is it worth the time and effort?” Electrical plan review reminds me of a television commercial years ago about cleaning and polishing the silverware—it’s tedious and time consuming! Naturally, no one enjoys doing repetitive and tiresome tasks, as they tend to wear on one’s mind and mood. Everyone, however, enjoys doing exciting and stimulating tasks, as they tend to invigorate one’s mind and mood. Although electrical plan review tasks may be tedious and time consuming, they can also be interesting and enjoyable if approached from the right angle. Sometimes finding the right angle is simply a matter of making a few minor adjustments in how we do things. Let us see if we can make some adjustments and take some ordinary plan review tasks and convert them into something interesting and enjoyable.

“It’s hard to break old habits!” We all have certain ways of doing things. Habits are formed from frequent repetitive tasks, such as an electrical plan review. Over time, repetitive tasks become set in concrete and can be difficult to break. For example, one electrical plan reviewer may prefer to begin the review process by looking at floor plans first; another reviewer may prefer to begin with the one-line diagrams; and yet another reviewer may prefer to begin with the site plans. Where each reviewer begins the process is a habit of his or her plan review routine. In fairness, we should note that habits can be a good thing too as they promote consistency in a process. The principal thing to remember is that it does not make a difference where one begins the plan review process as long as the end-results are the same. So the next time you do an electrical plan review, consider beginning at a different point. You may find that it makes for a more interesting review process and affords a change to a normal routine. As an aside, you will have the opportunity to truly see if “it’s hard to break old habits!”

“Variety is the spice of life!” Plan review tasks come in many sizes. There are small projects, such as the addition of luminaires and receptacles in a dental office; there are medium-sized projects such, as a remodel for a bank complex; and, there are large projects, such as a wastewater treatment plant. The electrical systems for these projects can vary from minor, such as a small 200-ampere service and branch-circuits, to major, such as multiple 12.47 K-volt services and feeder systems. Regardless of the size and complexity of the project, they all provide for a little variety in the electrical plan review process. It may not always be possible, but try to break up the monotony of reviewing similar-sized projects all the time. Repetitive tasks can make for a boring day. If you work on mostly larger projects, try to work on a few smaller ones and vice versa. You will likely gain a greater appreciation for the work. In addition, the change may prove to be interesting and refreshing to the mind. “Variety is the spice of life!”

“Get the big picture in mind!” What does this mean? It simply means to get a full understanding of the project. This may take some time to do, but it is well worth the effort. As electrical plan reviewers, we have a propensity to focus only on the electrical system. Try to get out of this practice and view the overall project from a different perspective. Familiarize yourself with the overall project design, understand the entire project scope, and most importantly try to walk through the project using visual images. Visualizing the project in three dimensions is easier said than done, but it is definitely much easier than reviewing the project in two dimensions only. The mind can do amazing things if utilized properly. A quick review of elevation views, architectural and structural drawing, and the plumbing and mechanical systems can provide great visual images of the project. Over time, these images will automatically come to view when one is reviewing the electrical system. It may seem like a waste of time at first, but the more one gets into this practice the more one will see the benefits. Always try to focus on the total project and “get the big picture in mind!”

“Don’t sweat the little things!” Buildings and structures are never built exactly as shown on the plans—this is a fact of life. During construction, the electrical systems are in continual flux. For example, if an outlet in a commercial building is shown along a wall line to supply office furnishings, do not get too concerned about the location of the outlet in relation to the office furnishing system. The electrical contractor can coordinate the connection location based on field conditions. For obvious reasons, field conditions can vary considerably from what is actually shown on the plans. The inspector can work with the contractor should a code concern arise. As another example, if a wall switch appears to be shown behind a door, does it justify rejecting the plans? Probably not. This is a design and coordination issue too. Although an inconvenience, generally there is nothing in the code to prohibit a wall switch behind a door. If the location is a concern, a simple notation on the plans to the inspector and contractor should suffice. Keep in mind that plans are diagrammatic and are not necessarily intended to provide specific details. Do not drive yourself crazy with minor coordination issues as the inspector and contractor can address them in the field. Above all, “don’t sweat the little things!”

“Focus on the big things!”” Once electrical plans are released for construction, there is little room for plan review errors. When it comes to the installation of the major portion of the electrical system, the room gets much smaller. The major portion being the service equipment, feeders, emergency and standby power systems, and other critical systems and loads. These are typically high dollar items that if not installed to minimum code can be costly to correct. For example, a large hospital service requires an additional step of ground-fault protection on the feeders. If the plans are released with the service section indicating only ground-fault protection on the main switch, this can easily turn into a major code concern for the inspector and a major expense for the customer. Parallel feeder conductors connected to the secondary side of a 500 kVA transformer that are improperly sized for the overcurrent device is another example of a major code concern. Naturally, resizing raceways and conductors in the field generates serious concerns. Electrical systems and the wiring methods that interconnect these systems are costly—more so if code violations exist on the plans. Doing a thorough, complete and accurate electrical plan review of these systems is critically important. Concentrate on these systems. The installer, customer and inspector will appreciate the fact that additional time has been spent on the electrical system to “”focus on the big things!”

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it right!” It is difficult to debate the validity of this statement. Just about anything we do has some value—intrinsic or otherwise. Most of us take considerable pride in what we do. Doing it right or at least to the best of our ability is of the utmost importance. This applies to sports, hobbies, entertainment, work, etc. This should be especially true for the work environment as we spend most of our productive life at work. Electrical plan review is critically important in the mission and interest of public safety. This is the first line of defense in providing the public with electrically safe buildings, structures and systems. Needless to say, anything that involves electrical code enforcement and public safety “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it right!

“Accentuate the positive!” Everyone likes a pat on the back. Unfortunately, for an electrical plan reviewer there are not a lot of positives in doing a plan review. Plan review is an inherently negative task and often lacks face-to-face contact with the design professional. The primary means of communication is through the written word. When communicating, eliminate harsh words or unnecessary comments and information. Telling someone that they do not know what they are doing is not a good practice; writing a novel to that effect only exacerbates the situation. Provide the design professional with the specific code sections in violation and a brief explanation of why. Should a challenging question arise on the intent of the code, a telephone call may be in order. A telephone call adds a personal touch, it shows respect to the design professional and provides for a greater comfort level. A valuable tool to use for whenever you have a well-prepared and code-compliant set of plans to review is to show your appreciation by letting the design professional know. A quick comment of “nice job” or “great design” is always appreciated. Always make a concerted effort to eliminate the negative and “accentuate the positive!”

“Give a heads-up to the inspector and installer!” Most of us involved in the construction industry have had the luxury of working on a construction site. O.K., luxury may not be the best word to use. Construction sites, unfortunately, do not provide the most conducive condition for reading plans and specifications. Conditions can be hot and cold, wet and damp, and dark and dreary, just to name a few. Working from a set of plans in these conditions can be a challenge, to say the least. If there are things on the plans that have taken additional time to review and understand, let the inspector and contractor in the field know. A little guidance from a note on the plans on how to get from point “A” to “B” or perhaps highlighting critical information is helpful. It is always nice to “give a heads-up to the inspector and installer!”

Obviously, there are many more things that come into play in the electrical plan review process—we have only touched the surface here. This article is simply intended to give a little personal insight into the plan review process. An additional goal is to provide some pointers on how to take tedious and time consuming tasks and make them interesting and enjoyable! Now, back to the original question: “Plan review—is it worth the time and effort?” As they say in major league baseball, “You make the call.” However, from this author’s perspective—absolutely!