A tale of two plumbing inspections
Over the years I spent as a plumber I was probably involved in at least two hundred plumbing inspections. I actually used to enjoy the ritual of getting my work prepared for inspection, filling the stacks, pressurizing the water lines, and such. I learned the trade from my father, and apparently so had several of the plumbing inspectors, because rather than looking at the work I had meticulously prepared, on numerous occasions they spent the time reminiscing with my dad and then would walk away passing the job with nary a look. This is not to say they were shirking their responsibilities, back in my early years when I worked with my father, all of the inspectors were plumbers, typically very experienced plumbers. In those cases, they knew my dad and the kind of work he did and more importantly they knew plumbing. It wouldn’t take them more than a glance to know that things were done correctly and to code.
Later in my career things began to change as municipalities moved away from hiring fully qualified plumbers as plumbing inspectors. Rather than have an ex plumber inspect plumbing, and an ex carpenter inspect framing, someone in their infinite wisdom decided it might be cheaper and more expedient to have one person inspect both. Let me tell the stories of two inspections to illustrate how I feel this has worked out. While the anecdotes are true, some of the names have been changed to protect the truly incompetent from embarrassment.
The first story took place in a lovely setting near Lake Ontario. A beautiful old country estate and acreage was donated to the city with the proviso that it be used as a creative arts centre. The stately old mansion was renovated and many of the rooms were used as teaching studios where classes in painting and drawing and knitting and photography were offered to city residents. The new creative centre was very popular. New grant monies became available and it was decided to convert the old stables into a pottery studio. Plans were drawn up, contracts tendered and ultimately the plumbing contract was awarded to a small shop, let’s call them Jim and Steve’s Plumbing. It was a rather simple endeavour from a plumbing perspective, the plan called for the eight horse stalls to be converted to individual pottery studios, each with a large two compartment sink and a hose connection. To facilitate easy clean up, the walls and floor were finished with ceramic tile and each room had a three-inch floor drain in the centre.
The eight stalls were arranged in two rows of four with a large corridor down the middle separating them, four down one side and another four down the other. Jim and Steve decided to run the main four-inch building drain under the main corridor and pick up each floor drain with a three-inch branch, each one running about six to eight feet if memory serves. The plumbing code book explicitly states that each trap must have a vent, and it also states that there are exceptions; Section 188.8.131.52 sentence (2) A trap that serves a floor drain, directly connected to a building drain is not required to be vented where;
The size of the trap is at least 3″
The length of the fixture drain is at least 900 mm (2 ft. 11 in.)
The total fall on the fixture drain does not exceed its inside diameter, and
The minimum slope on a 3″ fixture drain is 1 in 50 and on sizes larger than 3″ is 1 in 100.
These were exactly the criteria Jim and Steve were fulfilling meaning no vents were required which resulted in significant savings in piping and labour.
Once the rough in was completed Steve readied the system, filling the drains and pressure testing the water lines, and called for inspection. It was really a simple and relatively small project and an experienced plumbing inspector, one who had been an actual plumber, would have taken mere minutes to assess and pass the installation.
Not so this young fellow. When he arrived he spent the better part of an hour walking back and forth, alternately taking long looks at the drainage piping and the code book he had in hand. Finally he looked up and said: “No good! You have no vents, every trap must be vented.” Steve took the code book and directed him to the section referenced above and attempted to explain why this installation was exactly the type of situation exempted, but alas the inspector with a few days of training on the plumbing code would have none of it.
It was just about at this point when Jim came over to find out what was taking so long. Much loud shouting ensued, heavily Scottish-accented shouting, which probably completely dumbfounded the poor inspector. The inspector retreated to his car and it was decided it would probably be best to have his supervisor come have a look.
The following day Jim and Steve returned to meet the inspector and supervisor, Steve was full of confidence that cooler heads would prevail. Surely the supervisor would understand the finer points of the plumbing code and would pass the obviously compliant installation? Alas and alack it was not to be, the supervisor did have a better grasp of the English language however her dismissive wave of the hand and declaration that every trap needed to have a vent provoked an even louder and more vehement string of Scottish profanity.
The supervisor threatened that the building would not be able to obtain an occupancy permit with a failed plumbing inspection. James said that was fine with him, her employer, the city, owned the building so when asked he would simply blame its hiring of incompetent inspectors. Despite the inspectors Jim and Steve never changed the plumbing as it met code requirements and they never heard anything about it again.
The second story is a tale of incompetence on both sides. I used to do some referral work for a radiator manufacturer. Through one such referral I found myself on a residential renovation project where I was simply doing the heating work, not the plumbing. The general contractor used his own guys, non-plumbers, to do the plumbing. One afternoon I was there finishing up some things when the site super asked me to look at a bathroom they had roughed in. They had an inspection scheduled and the inspector was due to arrive any minute.
I had a quick look and informed them they had at least three major infractions, the toilet was wet vented through a basin but with undersized piping, the shower was not vented at all, and the dry portion of the basin/shower vent went up into a joist space, across the room, then back down to go under a beam and then up again, creating a trap which would eventually fill with condensate, effectively choking off the vent. I told them there was no way this would pass.
They decided they should try to cancel the inspection, but it was too late. Just at this moment the inspector arrives. I slip out as he comes in. He exchanged some idle chitchat, had a quick look around and said, yup, this looks good, you can go ahead and drywall. I was gobsmacked.
Based on these stories you can guess I have something short of high regard for the plumbing inspection process. I am sure there are good inspectors out there trying their best to do a great job, and the sad truth is that too often their best is just not good enough. Qualifications are based more on understanding liability rather than understanding plumbing or mechanical or structural fundamentals. Negligent building inspections have become a major source of municipal liability, ironic since the municipalities’ preoccupation with avoiding liability over ensuring technical aptitude seems to have contributed to the current state of affairs.
I believe it is time to return to the practice of hiring experienced tradespeople to handle the important job of inspections. Early in my career inspections were opportunities to continue to learn – a good, experienced inspector was a part of that process. Infractions would most often be pointed out and avoided in the future. Not so today when most plumbers can tell their own stories of how they have had to educate inspectors on the fine points of wet vents and such. This is not serving any of the parties well, not the plumbers, not the inspectors, not the builder, and certainly not the public.
Steve Goldie learned his trade from his father while working as plumber in the family business. After 21 years in the field, he joined the wholesale side of the business in 2002. He is frequently called on to troubleshoot systems and advise contractors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SEE STEVE AT MODERN HYDRONICS-SUMMIT 2017 WHERE HE WILL BE PRESENTING A SESSION WITH MIKE MILLER.
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May 11, 2022