Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

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Don't Argue With The City. You'll Lose.

I had a ridiculously frustrating conversation with a building official from a local city recently (I won't say which - I'm licensed in six cities).  I called Mr. Building Official to argue about a permit that he approved, but I ended up backing down after I talked to him.   Here's the story.

While performing a Truth in Sale of Housing Evaluation at a property, I marked the exhaust for the high-efficiency furnace was too close to the mechanical air intake.  The furnace had just been installed, and the owner hadn't had the City out yet to inspect the furnace.  I showed the homeowner the installation manual for the furnace, which demonstrated exactly why it was improperly installed.

The owner called the installers and told them about the improper installation, but the installers suggested he wait until the City inspector came out to look at the furnace.  The installers obviously knew something I didn't.  The City inspector came out, discussed the installation with the seller, said the installation was fine, and approved the permit.

The owner was now obviously stuck in the middle - I'm telling him one thing, and the City is telling him another thing.   We're always supposed to be on the same page!  To get us on the same page, well, really to get Mr. Building Official on my page,  I called to convince him that I was right.  Unfortunately, he completely agreed with me.  I had the whole conversation planned out... and it didn't matter!  He told me about having the exact same conversation with his superiors a long time ago, but was told to back down on the issue.  There are so many houses that have this same improper installation, he was told to just let it go.

As a Truth in Housing Evaluator, I'm acting as a sub-contractor for the city.  I'm supposed to be calling out the defects that they want called out, not calling out what is right or wrong... so I let it go.  Instead of rating this defect as a "B" - Below Minimum Requirements, I changed my rating to a "C" - Comment.   When the home is sold, maybe the buyers will hire an inspector that doesn't like the installation either and tells them to change it.  When I'm acting as a private inspector, I can recommend whatever I want.

Click here for details on the Improper Furnace Installation.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections - Email - Robbinsdale Home Inspector

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

        

Comment balloon 15 commentsReuben Saltzman • March 15 2009 07:29AM

Comments

So, I guess this must be a safety issue.  How much will the city be liable for when one of these installations catches fire?

Posted by Gabe Sanders, Stuart Florida Real Estate (Real Estate of Florida specializing in Martin County Residential Homes, Condos and Land Sales) over 9 years ago

Having had a lot of experience with construction myself, I've seen several times when, after building to meet city code standards, a home inspector sees it differently. There is truly an occasional gap in the minimum requirements by the city and the maximum prevention and safety measures that a home inspector looks for. I think all the info needs to be considered, like deciding how much insurance to buy---beyond the minimum.

Posted by Fred Peak, Realtor PCB-FL Real Estate, Panama City Beach-REOnulls & Foreclosurers (Jim Free Realty, LLC) over 9 years ago

Instead of arguing, why don't you request a meeting of the minds at the home and get the issue resolved.  Be the leader and cooridante the meeting so you can avoid arguing (waste of time) in the future.

Posted by Goodbye Active Rain, Out of Real Estate over 9 years ago

Hey Reuben, stand your ground and let the owners deal with the AHJ. You reported what you were trained to. If it's wrong according to the manufacture, then it's wrong.

Good Luck

Tad

Posted by Tad Petersen / Home Inspector, Mpls (Safeguard Home Inspections, Inc.) over 9 years ago

Reuben, I would stick to my guns with the city and not let it go----manufacturer's instructions trump anything the city has to say about it period.  For safety it is time to get the city on board in my opinion.  Just a question too---what was the air intake for?

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 9 years ago

Reuben, you have just described something that happens nationwide, it is not just a local problem.  The CBO's boss (most likely the Mayor of the town) really has the final say in the matter.  Too many complaints from builders, contractors and homeowners with a vote will win about 90% of the time.

The kicker is that it is very, very difficult to sue a city if you have a problem as a result of an improper city inspection and subsequent approval.

Posted by Scott Patterson, ACI, Home Inspector, Middle TN (Trace Inspections, LLC) over 9 years ago

Gabe - good question. The answer is probably none.  As Scott state above, the city doesn't get sued for being lenient.  The city gets sued for overstepping their bounds, or enforcing more that what is required by code.

Tad and Charles - I was hoping someone would bring that up.  Now I have an excuse to wax on my duties as a Truth in Sale of Housing evaluator, and code enforcement in general.  By marking this item as "B" - Below Minimum Requirements, I was stating that the installation did not meet the minimum requirements of the city. 

You are both implying (I think?) that the minimum requirements of the city had something to do with the Minnesota State Mechanical Code, or the manufacturers installation instructions.  It should... but the AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction) is always right.   Once they make a call, it's final.  Just like an umpire in baseball.  I can argue and kick sand at the AHJ, but I don't have any business blatently disregarding their call, just a runner in baseball doesn't have any business staying on base if the umpire says they're out.  I kicked my sand by making a phone call and leaving a comment on my report stating that the installation was incorrect.

I did my job by making the owner aware of the improper installation and noting it on the report for any potential buyer to see.  If a buyer wants to ask me why it isn't noted on the report as "Below Minimum Requirements", I'll be happy to tell them. 

Charles - this intake was a combustion air intake that dropped down in to the furnace room.  Whether it was even needed was questionable.  If it is just a passive intake, it needs to be 4' from the furnace exhaust.  If there is a clothes dryer in the same room, it's considered a mechanical intake, and needs to be 10' horizontally or 3' above the furnace exhaust.   There was a clothes dryer in the same room, so it's considered a mechanical intake.  Would you personally consider this to be a safety issue?

What about anyone else?  Safety issue?

 

 

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 9 years ago

Reuben, I understand your job with the city may put you in conflict with the recommendations of the manufacturer and the actual code but as long as you don't actually have to say that it is OK, I don't have a problem with it.  On the air intake:  I vote that any time you are at risk of sucking combustion gases back into the home that it is a safety issue.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 9 years ago

What a pain.  There is just something about the lack of liability that government enjoys that rubs me the wrong way.

Posted by Jim Allhiser, Salem, Oregon Home Inspector (Perfection Inspection, Inc.) over 9 years ago

Hey Rueben trust me when I say not just a problem in the city you inspected. As expressed by Scott I have seen the same problem over and over again. In my personal opinion if it is recommended by the manufacturer to be installed a particular way it better be installed that way. Not only could you be sucking combustion gases back into the unit but let the homeowner know that he just voided his manufacturer's warranty too. Good post!

Posted by Randy King (Prokore Inspections) over 9 years ago

Another way to look at this thing is that I don't really care about the code or what the jurisdiction says or doesn't say. I am being hired for my opinion about the property. If I can back it all up with logic, code and manufacturer's instructions that is all good.  What anyone involved does with the information is their business.  If someone called me and told me that I was not allowed to report something the way I felt it was important to report it----I would pretty much tell them to take a hike.  I expect they would say the same to me:)  Observe and report----the arm wrestling is for the wrestlers.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 9 years ago

What you have to remember that at times 'we' as code officials have to use our judgement in existing structures. Not meeting code does not mean unsafe.

Example: Inspectors use to allow two wires under a single breaker. While this may violate 'a' code it is not necessarily unsafe. So, if approved it is no longer a code violation or a defect.

In other words it is OK.

Posted by Mike Parks, Inspector (Residential Building Inspectors) over 9 years ago

Rueben;

I can't believe some of the above responses; "not meeting code does not mean unsafe?" "It is OK." This is coming from the guy who states NEVER mention the code word in a HI report.

Anyway, stand your ground, manufacture requirements trump anything. If it's not installed as per manufactures recommendations, it's warranty is void and the installer is (probably) liable for injury.

Here's a question, if you mark it OK for this inspection and another HI comes and say's it not installed correctly, what is you liability?

Posted by Darren Miller (About The House) over 9 years ago

Darren - I agree, manufacture requirements trump everything.  When people ask me if it's really a big deal, I tell them that the manufacture probably had to do a lot of testing to come up with these numbers, and they know a lot more about what's safe than I do... so I'd be a fool to say it's ok.

I don't have any liability if another home inspector says it's installed incorrectly - if anything, I tipped them off that it's wrong by commenting in my report.  For Truth in Housing Evaluations, I have a very specific set of guidelines that I need to follow.  If the guidelines don't tell me to verify that the installation is proper, I don't.  I just check the specific items listed in the guidelines.  For example, here is what one city requires I look at for furnace venting:

23. Heating Plant Combustion Venting

A. Check to see that the vent lines are free of rust, holes and that the vent line runs uphill, the joints are tight and secured with 3 screws, and that the vent is tightly sealed to the chimney. If a loose heat shield is present it should be noted in the Comment column. The following conditions will be marked as “Repair/Replace”:

1. Holes caused by rusting or corrosion in the vent line.

2. Vent line is not tightly sealed to the chimney.

3. Vent line has gaps and/or is disconnected.

The following conditions will be marked as “Below City Requirements”:

1. Vent line does not run uphill.

2. Vent connections do not have the proper number of screws at each connection.

3. Improper materials used in vent line or stains from water entry.

B. Determine that the vent line enters an approved chimney for the type of fuel used. If not, mark this item as “Below City Requirements.”

C. If flues from separate gas appliances enter a chimney on opposite sides and are not offset in height mark as “Repair / Replace.”

D. Check that the vent line has proper clearance to combustibles. If the clearance is not adequate mark this item as “Repair/Replace.”

E. If there are any un-vented gas space heater(s), mark as “Repair/Replace.”

 

That's it, that's all.  Any other comments that I make should be rated as a 'comment.'  I shouldn't have listed the installation as a "B" to start with... but it really bothered me to see a brand new furnace installed wrong, and have the city approve it!

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 9 years ago

What does one do when the manufacturer's installation instructions say, "Install it like this, unless your local authority says otherwise"?

You'd probably have a lot of fun inspecting out in the boondocks here. There's one Bubba who regularly likes to tell me, "That's just not the way we do it out here, Sonny." I keep tell him that I'm not his son, nor, at the age of 54, am I Sonny -- LOL.

When I come across such things, I just tell my Clients that here is what I recommend, but I'm aware of the local AHJ approving the installation as it currently is. I'll explain why I recommend what I recommend and let them decide what they want to do.

Posted by Russel Ray, San Diego Business & Marketing Consultant & Photographer (Russel Ray) over 9 years ago

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