Yes, It’s Worth It

Electrical inspectors sometimes struggle with the question of whether or not it is worth the effort to stay in the profession and do their part to make electrical energy safer for use by the public. The challenges to become qualified and maintain the necessary training to stay competent are significant. It is time consuming and generally expensive. It takes years of electrical training, such as that gained through apprenticeship programs and on-the-job training, to develop a broad and thorough knowledge of electrical systems. This type of knowledge is important in the qualifications of electrical inspectors. Not only must they understand how electrical systems work, they also need the ability to interpret what they observe on the job site, and be able to apply electrical safety code rules to determine conformance to that safety standard. Inspecting new installations poses a unique set of problems electrical inspectors must face, but inspecting electrical work in existing structures sometimes results in a significant number of different problems. These problems are often the most difficult for inspectors to face and resolve because they can involve disgruntled property owners who have political influence.

It is normal over time for original electrical equipment to be replaced, new wiring and equipment added, or damaged or failed wiring and equipment removed. When the electrical inspector is called to make an inspection on an existing structure, it sometimes takes a lot of work to make a reasonable determination as to whether or not the installation is safe for use by the occupant. Considerable judgment must be exercised when looking at the existing wiring, how it is affected by what has been done to it, and what are the expectations as to its performance when used over time. Unfortunately, too many unqualified and unauthorized people make changes in the wiring in their own or rented property and frequently it goes undetected for years. This illegal and often unsafe wiring is sometimes found by the qualified electrical inspector when he or she has cause to visit the building. The inspector may be called to a building site to evaluate storm damage, to inspect an addition to a building, or because of a complaint filed with the inspection department. Whatever the reason for the inspection, when the inspector finds illegal or unsafe wiring, it can create a dilemma that often leads to conflict and problems for the inspector.

The dedicated and qualified electrical inspector is committed to ensuring to the best of his or her ability a safe electrical system for people to use. This applies to both property owners and renters. Where illegal or unsafe wiring is found, inspectors are generally bound by ordinance or statute to enforce the electrical code and have the violation or hazard corrected. Conflict frequently occurs where the property owner or other affected parties make contact with politicians or officials who have authority over the electrical inspector or influence over his or her superiors and those individuals are not committed to upholding adopted law. There is no pleasure in being called before an official to defend a judgment based on an adopted rule and a legitimate inspection. This is especially true where it readily becomes evident that the politician or official is determined to bypass adopted safety laws and overrule the inspector’s decision. It is a very uncomfortable feeling to sit across a table from an official and the complaining party and to know that they both intend to disregard the electrical code.

To many inspectors, it seems that the only time they are acknowledged is when someone has filed a complaint against them. People don’t generally call the mayor, city manager, or other official and compliment the inspector for a job well done, and inspectors don’t expect to get such recognition from the public. Rather, the call is made or letter written when an electrical installation does not pass inspection and the installer or owner tries to get out of complying with the code. The unfortunate result of this is that officials only hear about the inspector when there are problems and ultimately develop a negative impression of the inspector.

Is it worth it? The answer is yes. Not because of the ability to sit through a grueling session where a multitude of generated reasons are put forth as to why the safety rule should not be enforced, why it is unnecessary, why it is unfair, and why it will cost the responsible party money to correct it. It is worth it because of the knowledge that a job has been done well, that a reasonable law has been applied, and the people who use that electrical system will have a safer place to live or work. It is also worth it because many building officials, city managers, mayors, and other officials are very supportive of good code enforcement and will not yield to pressure to relax safety rules. The most rewarding aspect of the inspection profession is when the inspector provides this valuable service and it is genuinely appreciated. There is no way to adequately describe the feeling when an elderly lady, poorly clad, grasps and holds the inspector’s hand and thanks him or her from deep within because an unscrupulous person was prevented from taking her much needed money and leaving an electrical installation incomplete and inoperable. Yes, it’s worth it.

Philip Cox
Former IAEI Executive Director, CEO, and Editor-in-Chief for the IAEI News, Philip Cox was formerly employed with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association as a field representative covering a 17-state area. He is a member of NFPA NEC Technical Correlating Committee. He served on Code-Making Panel No. 6, representing IAEI during the Code cycles for the 1984 and 1987 editions of the NEC. He served as chairman of CMP-1, representing the National Electrical Manufacturers Association during the 1996 cycle. He served as acting chairman of CMP-1, representing IAEI for the 1999 cycle and remains as a member of that panel for the 2002 Code cycle. He is a member of NFPA Electrical Section; UL Electrical Council; ITS Technical Advisory Council; and former member of The Chauncey Group International Board of Governors for the National Certification Program for Construction Code Inspectors; and former member of the IEC United States National Committee Executive Committee. He also served as chief electrical inspector for the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, and was secretary to the Little Rock Electrical Examining Board, developing and administering examinations for master, journeyman and specialty electricians. He was appointed as electrical safety coordinator for the Arkansas Department of Labor and administered the Arkansas state electrical licensing law. Cox is past president of the Western Section, IAEI, and served on the IAEI Board of Directors as board member and fifth vice president. He has been involved in the development and presentation of IAEI training programs on both chapter and international level.