The Case for Inspections

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The main purpose of construction codes and standards are to give property owners and building occupants a reasonable expectation of safety in the buildings where they live and work. In Alberta, construction codes and standards are enforceable through the Safety Codes Act. Among other things, this government regulation is the guiding document for the permitting system in our province that regulates when construction permits are required, who can issue a permit, and who can receive a permit. The importance of permits in this system cannot be overstated because a permit tells municipalities that work is being done that within their jurisdiction. The existence of a permit initiates a series of events where safety codes officers can monitor compliance with the construction codes of the various disciplines or trades.

Our construction codes are a collection of rules based on a collection of experiences, often not very happy experience and sometimes down-right tragic ones. Along with experience, many of the current codes are also backed by accepted truths from the field of engineering and proven through extensive testing in controlled environments. When an apprentice in a trade goes to school, as a part of their training there’s always a portion of time spent explaining some historical perspective of the trade. As a plumbing apprentice I was shown pictures and given the back-story about why domestic water heaters have to have a relief valve. The pictures of shattered homes from exploding water heaters where a gas valve had failed to turn off and superheated the water until the pressure caused the tank to fail are eye opening, to say the least. To this day, I periodically will come across a home owner who has gone to the local hardware or box store and bought a plug and screwed it into the relief valve because water was dripping from it. There’s a requirement for relief valves on water heaters in the National Plumbing Code to prevent a rocket from launching in your basement and it doesn’t work if it’s plugged.

Fresh air is crucial for gas-fired appliances to burn safely and completely. Up until recently, most homes had gas appliances that relied on the air from the room they were in for complete combustion to occur. These appliances are known as natural draft appliances because the vent or chimney depended on the buoyancy of the hot gases to travel up the vent to outside and they draw in air from the room at the connection of the vent to the appliance through a draft hood. The combustion chamber, where the burner is, also draws in air from the room to have the oxygen needed to burn completely. In most cases the air used in the vent and combustion chamber is brought in through an insulated pipe, straight from outside to the mechanical room. I’ve been in numerous homes where the owner had filled that pipe with towels or rags to keep that cold air from entering the house and in the process, preventing the appliances from getting the air they needed to burn cleanly and vent properly. If air pressure in a house is reduced below the outside air pressure, air will naturally be brought into the house through the easiest route which in some cases could be the furnace or water heater chimney which would cause the appliances to backdraft into the home filling it with the products of combustion. When a gas-fired appliance gets enough air to burn completely, the off-gases are relatively harmless, but when there is incomplete combustion harmful carbon monoxide gas and aldehydes are created which can have deadly consequences for the occupants of a home. The number of people hospitalized, and in too many cases of deaths, lead to a change in building codes where we now see that most, if not all, gas-fired appliances installed in homes are of the high efficient type where there is no direct communication between the air in the house and the combustion chamber or the vent systems of the appliances. This physical separation of the air inside the home and the vent gasses produced in the combustion process has dramatically increased the safety of gas-fired appliances in our homes.

These are some very simple examples of how our construction codes have changed and evolved over time and through advances in technology. There are many other examples that I could have used, but the point that I’ve attempted to make is that our codes are constantly changing. For the average tradesman who’s competing for customers and keeping their work on schedule, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with the changes in their given discipline. For the safety codes officers (SCO) who perform the inspections on permitted work, keeping current with the codes is their responsibility. In Alberta, the Safety Codes Council (SCC) is responsible for “review(ing), formulate, and recommend codes and standards to the Minister for the nine technical disciplines covered under the Act.” The SCC has members involved on the national code development committees so that when an updated national code for the building, electrical, plumbing, or gas, discipline has been approved for adoption in Alberta, they create code update courses for safety codes officers to learn about the changes to the previous code. Usually these code update courses are ready well in advance of the date when the new code is to come into effect and safety codes officers have to complete the training to be ready to enforce it when the code comes into effect. Every SCO must take the code update training and pass an exam to maintain their certification as a SCO.

Update training is not a requirement for a tradesman with a journeyman’s ticket. Once a tradesman completes their apprenticeship and passes the exams to receive their journeyman ticket, they have it for life. Only in an extreme case would a journeyman ticket be revoked, and I’m not aware of any case where that has happened. With this in mind, it’s important to point out that there isn’t any need for tradesmen to have any code update training because a responsible tradesman always gets a permit for the work that they do and the SCO inspecting their work will quickly inform them of where the work doesn’t meet the current code. This is often how changes to the code get put into effect. In many cases the municipalities issuing the permits are proactive in informing contractors about upcoming changes to the codes through email lists and notices on their websites or during the permit application phase. The Safety Codes Council and Alberta municipal Affairs are also very good at telling the construction industry of upcoming changes to the codes through the various industry associations and notices on their websites for the contractors and tradesmen that seek out the information.

This system of code compliance has worked very well for customers, owners, contractors and tradesmen who make sure to have their work permitted, for a very long time now. However there is one very crucial point where the entire system falls apart or can be circumvented, permits. The entire system is dependent on the issuance of a permit. Without permits there are no inspections and therefore there are no checks and balances on the work being performed. Unscrupulous, or simply ignorant, building owners and the contractors that they hire, are performing dangerous installations of electrical or gas systems and building substandard products that will fail prematurely with often harmful consequences. Unpermitted work is often found after something has happened that causes the municipality to be notified and asked to investigate. We’ve all seen stories of incedents that rise to a level where they make the local or national news such as electrical fires, carbon monoxide poisonings, and building collapses, but the incidents that don’t make the news are no less severe to those affected by the consequences of poor construction practices. Walls filled with mould caused by water leaking around a poorly sealed window installation or a leaking drain, a drain that constantly plugs and overflows because of a lack of grade or excessive changes of direction, persistently cold rooms in the winter from poor insulation and air barrier installations in an attic or floor, all of these kinds of problems cause damage and illness for the building occupants and eventually make it necessary to have expensive renovations performed. These issues can usually be avoided by hiring responsible contractors and tradesmen who aren’t afraid to get the needed permits so that a safety codes officer can do their job which can give an owner the comfort in knowing that the checks and balances inherent in the system have been performed.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the owner of a building or property that contracts or performs any work to be done, that is identified in the Safety Codes Act as requiring a permit or governed by a construction code, is responsible to ensure that the work is compliant with the codes. The best way that an owner can have any assurance that the work being done for them is compliant is to demand that permits are taken out and that they hire responsible people to do the work. The safety codes system in Alberta is designed to give Albertans safe buildings and systems to live and work in but it is not fool proof. In order for the system to be able to provide any reasonable expectations of safe buildings, everyone must do their part, beginning with getting permits for the work being done.

By Blake Allen, Senior Safety Codes Officer

Marex Canada Limited