City electrical inspectors implement new systems to make sure every home is up to code

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dave Scranton, senior electrical inspector for the City of Portland, inspects a newly installed electrical panel during a home visit.

It takes a while to develop building plans into reality these days in Portland, considering the building boom, recent policies that critics say inhibit development, and long wait times for permits.

Another step in the long process of bringing a building to market includes electrical inspections — a critical safety step, but another place that currently is experiencing a backlog.

Dave Scranton is the senior electrical inspector at the Bureau of Development Services, and leads a team of electricians who go out and inspect the wiring of new home construction.

"Electrically speaking if you are wiring a house, a contract electrician goes in, wires the whole house, gets it ready, and before they can sheetrock and cover everything up we go in and look at plug spacing, light placement, smoke detector placement, look at how wires are routed through framing," Scranton told the Business Tribune. "We try to make sure electricians are following the code and are in compliance with the code."

For example, homeowners of rentals aren't allowed to do the wiring themselves if they're renting out the home or accessory dwelling unit — they must contract a licensed electrician — and the inspector would have to stop the project.

"We're charged with making sure folks who can do the work are doing that work, and if it requires an electrical contractor we make sure that happens," Scranton said. "We also make sure the people are licensed who are doing the work: homeowners doing work are following the rules for the State of Oregon."

A typical combination inspector can complete between 12-14 site visits a day, which can include up to 30 inspections on average.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dave Scranton, senior electrical inspector for the City of Portland, during a house inspection.

Day in the life

On a daily basis, Scranton fields customer calls asking about the code, the inspection process, what to expect and general information.

"Generally, we start out in the morning distributing calls to all the inspectors," Scranton said. "We start the day out separating all these calls into different disciplines, putting together the calls for the inspectors that we have and get all the calls distributed to all the inspectors."

They use Google Maps to map out everything in geographical order, to avoid zigzagging around town.

"We figure out our route — what's the easiest, nice, efficient way — and push that online again with a time frame," Scranton said. "Someone online would see, 'Yup, looks like they've got me, looks like they'll be here between 8 and 10,' they know what two-hour time frame they have ... if they discover we have them later in the afternoon, they discover they can go to work in the morning or whatever."

A senior inspector typically takes on the most challenging projects that need extra care so the other inspectors can get as many jobs done as possible.

"On days that are really crazy busy, I also would go out and perform inspections on jobs that might be a little more challenging for an inspector," Scranton said. "Maybe it's a job that involves things that aren't very familiar to the inspector — maybe it's a legalization-type scenario where it takes a little more time, a little more help to the customer to try to get them through the process."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dave Scranton, senior electrical inspector for the City of Portland at his office.

Recent innovation

"One of the successes we had ... is the inspection limitation notion," Scranton said. "What we had previously, everybody could call in all inspections thinking they're getting it the next day. The issue was, we can only do so many inspections in a day, and we'd have up to 600 inspections called in."

The department can finish about 400 of those in one day.

"Now we've got 200 inspections we couldn't do, we have to call those folks and say hey we can't get to you today, we're having to roll you over to tomorrow," Scranton said. "They'd become a priority for the next day. It meant we had to have enough staff to call 200 people that morning."

They still had to process all the paperwork for those 200 requests that morning anyway, which consumes time, paper and energy.

"When we decided to try this inspection limitations thing ... people could only request inspections on any particular day we could handle that amount of inspections," Scranton said. "What was successful about that? We didn't have to process 200 inspections we couldn't get to."

Also, owners and contractors who previously didn't know if they were going to get rolled over to the next day now have a set date.

"Contractors were upset they weren't getting inspections when they thought they were, and (homeowners) might have to take a day off work to stay home," Scranton said. "We call saying sorry we can't come, they've already taken a day off, and now have to take two. It was very problematic for homeowners, hard on contractors' schedules and becoming problematic processing all those inspections we couldn't do."

The new system was implemented six months ago.

"Now, when they call for an inspection and it says hey you're getting your inspection Wednesday, you know that's the day you're getting it," Scranton said. "We eliminated a lot of wasteful time processing inspections we couldn't get to — oftentimes we had folks on the phone until 10:30 - 11, wasting resources."

An unintended consequence is the backlog that grows as people adjust to the new system.

"That's one of the downsides as well, not getting your inspection today, but you know for sure you're getting it in three," Scranton said. "That's a staffing issue, to deal with the backlog. Currently that's what we're trying to do: get more staff so we can do these backlog inspections. We're still searching for other ideas, ways to eliminate that issue."

Once the 400 daily spots are filled up, people trying to request inspections are pushed to the next day. Right now, inspections are booked about three to four days out.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dave Scranton, senior electrical inspector for the City of Portland, checks outside for electrical grounding rods during a home inspection.

Inspection backlog

"We had a bunch of people retire, we had some weather instances, sometimes we have continuing education inspectors and when we have to go to class one day we can't do inspections," Scranton said. "That tends to start backlogging inspections and we then have to play catch-up."

The training program for inspectors is complex, and works in conjunction with the state's Certified Electrical Inspector (CEI) program.

"We have a pretty big turnaround lately with a lot of older inspectors retiring," Scranton said. "We have quite a few new folks, and quite a bit of training that goes on when they're ready to go out in the field and do inspections."

Scranton developed the training system for the bureau.

"We develop training, get these folks trained up and cut loose," Scranton said. "Of course, the coaching changes every three years on the electrical side, so on October 1 there was a code change that happened: we wound up creating sheets of code changes so they (inspectors) have a quick reference guide to what the changes are or not."

The BDS also has a combination inspections program.

"What that means is like myself, as an electrical inspector I got cross-trained in mechanical, plumbing and structural as well," Scranton said. "I can not only do electrical, I can inspect every aspect of a house."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dave Scranton, senior electrical inspector for the City of Portland, tests an outlet during an inspection.

Workforce pipeline

The rules have changed slightly since Scranton came to work in the bureau.

"Currently, a person comes in and goes through the state program," Scranton said. "When I came in, we had our own programs — the state wasn't giving classes. It probably started (several years) ago, the state said OK, we're doing classes now, courses to get your certification to do those inspections."

Anyone coming to work as an inspector in the Bureau goes through the State class, along with ride-alongs with current inspectors and a required amount of training.

"Part of our program is that within five years, they'll become combination certified and have gone through the three other trades," Scranton said. "Someone who gets hired here usually is (already) a plumber, electrician, mechanical guy or builder."

Scranton was an electrician working in the field for 25 years before switching to the public sector.

"I was getting my license to open my own business, and when I passed the test to do that the chief electrical officer at the time suggested to everybody in the classroom they should go get their inspector certification," Scranton said. "I thought it was good advice so I took the test and got the inspector certification. Before I could get my contractor's license together to open my business, I got a letter from the City saying hey, we're looking for inspectors."

Thirteen years ago, he said to himself work was kind of slow, and made the jump.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dave Scranton, senior electrical inspector for the City of Portland, makes notes during a house inspection.


"Currently we're in the hiring process, we have a bunch of new folks recently and are trying to get more," Scranton said. "We're trying to staff up and accommodate all these calls that are backlogged as best we can."

Right now, the bureau has 28 inspectors on the job. Recruiting is continually open, and Scranton is looking to hire four or five people.

"The most recent challenges have been staff shortages because we've had a lot of retirees in the last couple of years — we had a turnover of like 40 percent of our staff has retired," Scranton said. "We have not been able to hire people who are able to inspect everything."

It's difficult to find qualified combination inspectors, particularly.

"The pool of inspectors out there is very limited — even the pool of inspectors that do a single trade seems to be pretty limited, currently," Scranton said. "We'd like to hire combo people because we can put them right to work after training. Instead, we get someone who can do electrical and they have to go through the process."

For a person certified in only one trade, it could take between three to five years to finish all of the combo certification classes.

By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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