Inspections of new mechanical building systems like heating, ventilation and air conditioning in Nez Perce County have slowed to a crawl after the certified building official left for another position last month.
County Commissioner Don Beck said the county hired Kile Allen to replace Richard Bigelow, who is now the building official for the city of Pocatello. Allen is currently uncertified for residential or mechanical inspections, but is able to do the residential inspections thanks to a recent change in state regulations that allow him to work under a certified inspector.
Allen is in Denver this week to take the certification test for residential inspections. But Beck said mechanical inspections have been turned over to the Idaho Division of Building Safety until the county decides whether it wants to pay for Allen to pursue certification in that area.
“Right now it’s an inconvenience because we need somebody to do those inspections,” Beck said. “Having been a contractor myself, it does cost more because you’re shut down until you can get that inspection. We’re aware of that, and we’re working on it.”
Some of the slowdown is because of installation contractors being unprepared for a shift from a county inspector to state inspectors, who work from more up-to-date manuals in the 2012 International Mechanical Code adopted by the Division of Building Safety last year.
Guardian Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning systems engineer Steve Curl said inspectors in Idaho’s largest cities have already been implementing the code, but it hasn’t filtered down to more rural areas like Lewiston and Nez Perce County.
“They should be doing it anyway, but it hasn’t been required so they don’t know how to do it,” Curl said of local contractors. “Right now they’re blindsided by it because they haven’t had to deal with the state before. It’s like high school and you go in the morning and you’ve got a pop quiz.”
He’s even advised some of the builders Guardian works with to not bid some jobs until they’re fully aware of the state mechanical requirements. They can get highly technical, but generally the state inspectors only sign off on mechanical systems that are engineered to be the correct size for the building they’re serving.
“It all comes down to the government trying to reduce energy costs of buildings and homes,” Curl said. “In the old days they just threw in whatever they had in their inventory. So (the mechanical code) is forcing everybody to do things like duct design and do your job, basically.”
Guardian service technicians have found systems that are far too large, such as a 125,000 BTU furnace in a 1,000-square-foot home that could be served by a 40,000 BTU furnace. BTU stands for British Thermal Units, the standard measure of a heating system’s output.
“It’s inefficient to throw in a bunch of ducts without design,” Curl said. “Even floor registers have an engineering design. If you follow all that, you’ll have a nice system and it will work good. But you have to go through the process.”
The state inspectors also charge a plan review fee on top of the regular permit fee, an expense that didn’t exist with a county-based inspector.
There is a severe shortage of certified inspectors around the state, so the Legislature recently made the change allowing uncertified inspectors for up to six months as long as they are supervised. For now, Nez Perce County is working with Jim Yeoman, a contract inspector for Lewis and Clearwater counties.
Bigelow, reached at his new office in Pocatello, said he had six applicants for one of his inspector positions and none carried certification. Beck said five people applied to be Bigelow’s replacement. And while two of them had endorsements, including one mechanical certification, the county decided to go with Allen because he has been a builder for many years.
“He has a very good background of what it takes to inspect homes,” Beck said. “It’s just that he needs to get the certification.”
Curl said that even though all installations will eventually have to meet the standards outlined in the International Mechanical Code, having a county-based inspector made the process more flexible. And Beck said he is leaning toward getting Allen certified, not only to bring back that flexibility, but to avoid having to enter the three-year inspection contract required by the Division of Building Safety.
“We’d much rather have our own person doing it,” Beck said.
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