By IAEI, SEAC, IREC, CALSSA
COVID-19’s adverse impact on the construction industry and local building departments has been wide-ranging and severely disruptive to normal business operations. Many jurisdictions around the country have closed completely or reduced operations in response to the pandemic, slowing or halting the local construction industry. At the same time, the federal and state governments have deemed the construction industry “essential,” making ongoing operations necessary.
This conflict has prompted Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) around the country to investigate how they can continue the important work of permitting and inspection safely and responsibly, while continuing to adhere to health and safety regulations, ensuring a safe working environment for their staff, the construction industry, and the public.
On April 6, 2020, the Sustainable Energy Action Committee (SEAC), International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), and the California Solar & Storage Association (CALSSA) co-hosted a webinar to share how local jurisdictions are continuing to safely provide local permitting and inspection practices during this time of crisis to an audience of 400 AHJ and construction industry professionals.
The information presented was intended to help AHJs, contractors, and building owners understand options available to continue permitting and inspections.
The session was moderated by Jeff Spies, secretary of SEAC, and included panelists Donny Cook, chief electrical inspector for Shelby County, Alabama; Darold Wiley, senior electrical inspector with the City of Irvine, California; Mostafa Kashe, chief electrical inspector for Los Angeles County, California; David Gans, chief building official with the City of Oceanside, California; Steve Jones, assistant building official with the City of Oceanside, California; and Larry Sherwood, president and CEO of IREC.
THE CHALLENGE OF COVID-19
Building departments across the country are faced with the challenging question of “do we shut down, or do we stay open?” While the concerns over virus transmission are understandable, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published an “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce” advisory list (available at www.cisa.gov) that advises continued operations of critical construction activities in the energy and infrastructure sectors.
Most states have implemented “stay at home” orders, but many allow for continued operation for essential services like construction. As an example, California’s “Stay at Home Order” (Executive Order N-33-20) references the DHS guidelines mentioned above to allow for continued construction industry activity.
Fortunately, some options allow continued safe operation of building department staff while ensuring the safety of installations. No-touch permitting and remote inspections can be used for a broad range of projects.
In this time of rapidly changing practices, it is imperative you clearly display your permitting and inspection processes in an easy to find section of your building department’s website.
Accepting permit applications through electronic means, whether through email or a web portal, is already a well-established process for many AHJs nationwide. This approach eliminates the need for an in-person visit to the building department to pick up or drop off documents.
SAMPLE USE CASE: ENERGOV PERMITTING, LICENSING, AND ASSET MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE, CITY OF WACO, TX. The City of Waco uses an online portal from Tyler Technologies called EnerGov and, since November 2019, has required all inspection requests to be scheduled by the contractor online through the Energov Citizens Self Service Portal at https://www.tylertech.com/products/energov. This service is available 24/7 and allows requesting permits online, paying permit fees, requesting inspections, and receiving real-time inspection results.
Remote Permit Processing
Fortunately, many permit technicians and plan checkers can work from home during this pandemic to review permit applications, make corrections to plans, and issue permits. This can be done through existing online permitting platforms or, for jurisdictions without pre-existing software to facilitate no-touch permitting, permit applications can be processed through email.
Electronic permit processing benefits from established and secure data management systems. Even for those AHJs without an existing web portal, online file-sharing services such as Google Drive, DropBox, OneDrive, etc., can be used to share large files between the AHJ and the contractor and to help manage documentation. Corrections to plans can be made to PDFs using the “comment” function or summarized in the body of an email.
Permit fees can be paid via credit card, bank transfer, PayPal, Venmo, etc., either online or over the phone, or checks can be sent through U.S. mail. To get electronic payment methods set up through your AHJ, it can be helpful to consult with your water department or property tax collection department for assistance in setting up electronic payment methods.
Permit Application Drop Offs
Depending upon the jurisdiction requirements, permits may have to be dropped off. Using a physical drop box is preferred to in-person drop-off. Drop boxes will minimize the potential of direct transmission of COVID-19. It’s important to avoid a drop-off box that requires line ups or congregation of people, and AHJs should carefully consider appropriate paper document processing procedures, such as implementing a waiting period before handling permit applications, to minimize the risk of virus transmission.
No-Touch Permitting Example #1: Los Angeles County, California
Before COVID-19, Los Angeles County allowed permit application either through hard copy over-the-counter submittal or electronically. Electronic submissions were accepted using their permitting portal from EnerGov (known as Epic LA) for plan check only (county projects).
After COVID-19, hard copy submittals are no longer accepted, and Energov (Epic LA) must be used for plan checks for both county and contracted cities, although some exceptions may be allowed. While permits were never issued electronically before COVID-19, now all permits are issued through the online portal.
Before the pandemic, the County had a modest number of virtual inspections for fourteen different types of construction projects, but since the COVID-19 pandemic started, LA County has expanded the use of virtual inspection, allowing a greater number of projects to use this service.
No-Touch Permitting Example #2: City Of Oceanside, California
The City of Oceanside recently implemented no-touch permitting and remote inspections on an expedited emergency basis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Electronic plan review and electronic application submittal are now required for all building permits.
The process includes the following steps:
- Submit a completed Building Permit Application Online.
- City staff will verify if the submittal meets guidelines.
- Applicants will be notified with an invoice link to process payment, and an invitation to a Dropbox file sharing account to upload required documents.
- Contractor/homeowner submits PDF plans electronically and must follow the Construction Coalition PDF Guidelines.
- The Permit Technician will verify the submittal of documents and fees paid.
- Plan reviewers can make comments, mark-ups, or stamp the plans approved using BlueBeam Revu software, a PDF markup and editing software designed specifically for the construction industry that allows for efficient collaboration between AHJs and contractors.
Remote inspections (also known as virtual inspections) can be useful for a broad range of projects.
As was pointed out by the City of Oceanside during the webinar that while the integrity of the remote inspection process must be maintained, there are myriad examples of successful remote work even in high-stakes fields. Doctors are performing surgeries remotely, planes can be flown remotely, and properly prepared inspectors can do a good job with the remote inspection. City of Oceanside Building Official Dave Gans emphasized, “Inspectors should only approve projects they have confidence are safe. Use good judgment and stay positive, and provide the appropriate level of safety for customers, community, and staff.”
Some AHJs have been performing remote inspections for years—like Shelby County, Alabama, which has been performing remote inspections using photographs for ten years. Los Angeles County implemented their remote video inspection program called “Virtual Inspection” in early 2019 and allows its use for fourteen types of construction including: photovoltaic systems, electrical panel change-outs, smoke and carbon monoxide; temporary power poles, window replacements, sewer connections, HVAC changeouts, re-inspections, water heaters, pad footings, demolitions, patio/decks, gas lines, and re-roofs.
While some AHJs have already been allowing remote inspections for years, other AHJs quickly implemented remote inspections in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including Oceanside, CA; Irvine, CA; and North Las Vegas, NV.
Each AHJ must determine which construction projects are suitable for remote inspection in their jurisdiction while adhering to local, state, and federal guidelines, but key criteria all AHJs should consider in establishing remote inspection eligibility include:
- Applicant has an active and valid permit.
- Staff has comfort in using remote inspection and have been properly trained on the process, tools, and procedures to ensure safe inspections.
- Type of inspection is verified by the inspector as acceptable for remote inspection.
- Person onsite shows evidence that they are at the job site address or location of system inspection.
- Inspection checklists can be very helpful.
Performing remote video inspections requires the following:
- Inspector and onsite person must have a smartphone, iPad/tablet, or laptop computer with a webcam.
- Onsite person should have a flashlight, level, tape measure, and other specialized equipment needed for proper inspection of the project in question (e.g., screwdrivers, wrenches, multimeters, ladder, etc.).
- Both the inspector and the onsite person must have sufficient bandwidth to ensure quality audio and video connection.
- Be aware that virtual private networks (VPNs) can dramatically reduce bandwidth; disabling VPN during an inspection can dramatically improve the quality of the video.
- If cell reception is insufficient, the onsite inspector may be able to use the home or business’s wifi.
- The video camera/webcam of the onsite person should be verified to have sufficient video quality. Older smartphones, tablets, or laptops may not have the needed resolution to provide sufficient video quality.
- Inspections can be held via live video calling using Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype, Google Hangouts, Google Duo, and Microsoft Teams, among others. Each service has its pros and cons, so the inspectors and AHJs will need to research the options to settle on the service that best meets their needs.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR PERFORMING ONSITE INSPECTIONS
All onsite inspections should be performed following CDC guidelines for minimizing virus transmission.
Interior Inspections: Critically necessary onsite interior inspections may still be required, such as inspections of healthcare facilities. Non-critical onsite interior inspections increase the risk of infection, so we encourage consideration of remote inspections for all interior inspections. Inspecting enclosed conditioned space might not be sensible at this time. However, open garages or other interior spaces that can have large openings may be considered.
Exterior Inspections: Each AHJ must assess onsite exterior inspections in their jurisdictions for compatibility with CDC guidelines to minimize virus transmission. Since most exterior inspections do not require close human interaction, exterior inspections can likely be conducted while maintaining these guidelines. The contractor or building owner can leave any necessary paper plans and documents in an accessible location for inspector access. As always, document handlers should follow CDC guidelines for minimizing virus transmission (ex. proper hand sanitizing).
STANDARD FOR REMOTE INSPECTIONS
In April 2020, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) published “Guidance for Remote Video Inspection (RVI). (Available here: https://www.nfpa.org/-/media/Files/Code-or-topic-fact-sheets/RVIFactSheet.ashx).
This article helps AHJs understand the key elements to consider when using remote inspection methods and tools.
Additionally, NFPA 915: the “Standard for Remote Inspections,” is in the early stages of development. The NFPA Standards Council’s approval is necessary before entering a revision cycle, which will provide for a full public review and revisions based on public comments. See www.nfpa.org/915 for further information on draft development.
Inspection Example #1: Sonoma County, California
A shelter-in-place order was originally issued in Sonoma County, California, in March. The City of Sonoma closed all city facilities starting on March 18th with essential staff continuing to provide service via email and phone calls during normal business hours. Starting April 3, building department services were encouraged to be performed via phone or email whenever possible. During this period, inspections were only provided to essential projects when they:
- are essential to protecting health and safety; and
- are necessary to ensure that residences and buildings containing essential businesses are safe, sanitary, or habitable to the extent that construction or repair cannot be reasonably delayed; or
- are needed to support the construction, maintenance, operation, or repair of affordable housing meeting affordability criteria, shelters and temporary housing, essential infrastructure, creating or expanding healthcare operations, and similar activities.
Inspections within occupied homes or non-essential projects are not provided except for extenuating circumstances. For example, it would allow for the replacement of electrical service panels or other limited work immediately necessary to maintain a residence or essential business.
In cases where onsite inspections are needed, “social distancing and hygiene requirements” are required to be observed. When an inspection is scheduled, the applicant’s representative, such as a contractor, must provide ready access to the site, have all work completed, and be ready for inspection. Failure to maintain the social distancing and hygiene requirements would result in the inspector leaving the job site without performing the required inspections.
Inspection Example #2: Village of Jackson, Wisconsin
The Village of Jackson, Wisconsin, mandated that their Building Inspection Department would only perform inspections for projects deemed to be essential. Video and photo-based documentation are being accepted on a case-by-case basis. Inspections for all other non-essential projects were postponed/delayed until further notice.
Inspection Example #3: Shelby County, Alabama
Shelby County’s Development Services Office is open and adhering to social distancing recommendations. Electronic submission and payment are available and encouraged. Drop off and pick up boxes are used for permit applicants with limited or no electronic access. Onsite inspections continue with procedures in place to protect staff. The use of safe work practices while providing effective and efficient inspections is not new, but some additional steps were implemented to accomplish this goal based on the COVID-19 pandemic. The Development Services website contains downloadable PDFs for the different types of permits and inspections, including building permit applications.
Inspection Example #4: City of North Las Vegas, Nevada
The City of North Las Vegas Residential Video Inspection Program was created to provide an alternative for eligible residential inspection, including limited re-inspections. Eligible projects include rooftop solar, water heaters, A/C change out, electrical service changes, and spa circuits. The inspection process includes:
- Remote video inspections are scheduled via the City’s Appointment Plus portal.
- The city inspector calls the customer via Skype.
- The inspector will direct the customer to show the work to be inspected via video
- Inspection results will be entered into the permitting system.
- The customer is required to ensure that their smartphone or tablet has minimum 4G connectivity and an active Skype account.
Here are the steps that a customer must follow for a virtual inspection with the City of North Las Vegas:
- The inspection begins at street view looking at the structure, and the address must be shown in the initial view.
- The individual must then follow the directions of the inspector.
- They must walk the inspection in a clockwise direction horizontally and then if there is more than one floor, bottom to top.
- They are required to make notes of any corrections.
- The AHJ informs the customer if the inspection receives a pass, partial, or fail and then updates the permitting system with the results at the completion of the Skype call.
REMOTE INSPECTION: LESSON LEARNED
LA County, CA
Mostafa Kashe, Chief Electrical Inspector for Los Angeles County, California, explained that LA County has allowed for remote virtual video inspections since early 2019 for fourteen different types of construction projects. Over the past year, LA County has learned the pros and cons of this new process. Here are the pros and cons they have identified since implementing their program.
- Improved customer service and customer experience
- No COVID-19 safety concerns – no exposure to people, job sites, or animals
- Easy to schedule
- No need to spend time and money on travel
- Provides accurate times for inspections to occur
- Corrections can be addressed and re-inspected the same day
- Inspectors can schedule inspections during any crisis (COVID-19, hot or rainy weather, etc.)
- Inspectors have an easier ability to access and locate code language while performing inspection from their computer workstation
- Technical problems can result from insufficient hardware (poor quality video camera) or bandwidth limitations
- BOTH onsite person and the inspector must have a sufficient comfort level with the technology
- Inspections may miss other important issues onsite, such as dangerous electrical service that was not part of the intended inspection
- Inspectors may not be easily able to see finer points, such as making sure that circuit breakers are listed for the particular panel
- Trust issues between contractors and owners can inhibit an effective inspection
- It can be difficult to explain corrections and solutions without being there in person
- Verifying both permitted and un-permitted structures can be more challenging.
- The onsite person may not be qualified to perform their duties
- Virtual Inspection may take longer than onsite inspections
City of Irvine, CA
Darold Wiley, the senior electrical inspector with the City of Irvine, California, has also learned the pros and cons of remote video inspection since implementing their RVI program quickly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are his findings.
- Remote Inspection keeps projects moving forward
- Jobsite remains open, allowing construction crews to remain on the job, getting paid, and providing for their families
- Eliminates face-to-face contact, reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission
- Inspector sees what he or she needs to see to complete the inspection
Learning curve for both the contractor and the inspector
- Syncing different types of technology, i.e., Apple Phones to Android, can be a challenge
- Background noise during the inspection can hinder the proper inspection
- Inspections may take longer
- Harder to provide early input on specific correction items on projects without being in-person
No-touch permitting and remote inspection procedures have been successfully implemented by AHJs around the country quickly and with relative ease. This rapid implementation process is allowing building departments to continue operations of the construction industry without sacrificing the quality of AHJ safety review when approached in a sensible manner for suitable projects. While not every project is suited to these methods, no-touch permitting and remote inspection can allow many projects to continue operations allowing for the local construction industry to continue the important work of building our communities with safety in mind for the good of all.
No-Touch Permitting And Remote Inspection Informational Resources
- ICC is tracking AHJ permitting and inspection processes during COVID-19 at its Coronavirus Response Center at https://www.iccsafe.org/advocacy/coronavirus-response-center/virtual/
- NFPA document, “Guidance for Remote Video Inspection (RVI)”, can be found at https://www.nfpa.org/-/media/Files/Code-or-topic-fact-sheets/RVIFactSheet.ashx
- NFPA document, Implementing remote video inspections 12 key lessons can be found at https://community.nfpa.org/community/nfpa-today/blog/2020/04/09/implementing-remote-video-inspections-12-key-lessons
- NFPA 915, Standard for Remote Inspections, is currently under development. Information can be found at: https://www.nfpa.org/codes-and-standards/all-codes-and-standards/list-of-codes-and-standards/detail?code=915CA
- Solar Permitting Guidebook is a streamlined permitting process requirements for California AHJs for residential PV systems including submittal requirements, eligibility checklist, standard plans, and inspection guide. Available at: http://opr.ca.gov/docs/20190226-Solar_Permitting_Guidebook_4th_Edition.pdf
- SolarAPP is a DOE/NREL-funded program to develop a solar application permitting portal and automate the permitting process. They will soon begin searching for AHJ partners to test the beta version. https://www.thesolarfoundation.org/solarapp/