So, is a DIYer’s best friend the local building inspector?


Extending electrical circuits and adding new outlets was featured as a “don’t do-it-yourself” project at www.todayshomeowner.com. (submitted photos)

A new, streamlined tub sets the tone of a bathroom, but new state regulations will set the temperature.

If he’s not, a professional contractor should be, says state official

That bathroom has needed upgrades since you moved in. Your vintage home also has that vintage “one outlet per room” wiring, which apparently was sufficient to 1913 but not 2013. You heard something recently about the energy savings of insulating a basement -- but does that mean it will trap moisture?

In the rush to get started on home-improvement projects, given our “late” spring, homeowners may be tempted to forego licensed contractors’ waiting lists and tackle the work on their own.

But building an addition, wiring a newly-enclosed porch or building a stable deck aren’t the just-get-the-tools projects they were for Dad and Grandpa.

Modern regulations help prevent structure fires, ensure footings and foundations are stable and even protect air quality.

But they also make remodeling projects a little more challenging, as codes become stricter and ever-more-detailed.

Getting it right

Steve Hernick, Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry building official, recommends one of two routes for structure remodeling and any “redos” that involve plumbing or gas appliances or electrical work.

“When we’re talking about building codes, what we’re talking about is laws put in place to protect life and safety,” he explains. “If people are uncertain whether they can handle a project, we definitely advise them to rely on professionals in that field.”

If homeowners have skills in a certain area, they can always check with their city’s building inspection department about what’s demanded in current code, Hernick adds.

“Municipalities can be very helpful. After all, they don’t want to have to come out and cite a project after it’s finished.”

A few more good reasons to check first: avoiding costly or deadly fire or water damage and being able to sell a home without tearing out unapproved, unsafe “improvements” first.

At the top of the list

Hernick says some of his top concerns as a state building official are projects that involve gas and electric work.

Because nationwide hardware chains stock similar appliances from coast to coast, he warns that Minnesotans may be able to pick up non-vented gas appliances from their local store -- appliances that would be illegal to install.

On the electrical front, people who’ve just gotten used to “ground-fault circuit interrupt” outlets now need to know they should install “arc-fault” outlets.

“The difference is the ground-fault shuts off if there’s a major short,” Hernick explains. “The arc-fault senses when there’s a more minor variation, such as a short-circuit or loose wire in a fan or appliance.”

Another big change: almost every outlet installed these days has to be child-proof. According to the National Electric Manufacturers’ Association, these outlets have “shutters” in them that allow two-pronged, grounded plugs through but prevent other objects from touching an electric charge.

In the bathroom, a spate of scalding incidents, which generally affect young children and the elderly, has resulted in a rule that water coming out of a bathtub faucet or into a whirlpool must be a maximum water temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s not something the code will entrust to you and your water heater; plumbing professionals are installing special mixer valves on new tubs to conform to the law.

Roofing actually requires a number of steps: calling the city building code officer prior to beginning work, having the inspector come out to look at the roof deck or any new decking before it’s covered in underlayment, and making sure ice barriers are installed as part of that underlayment.

What you don’t need to worry about for a while

What about those bills you’ve been hearing about in the Legislature? Something about having to install a sprinkler system in new-build homes? A warning that if you hire window cleaners you have to be sure their company can afford to comply with the law? Huh?

Hernick cautions that many of those bills won’t make it out of committee -- as with the perennial indoor-sprinkler push. Though the National Fire Protection Association advocates energetically for it, arguing it will save lives, it hasn’t been passed yet and did not make it out of committee in 2013.

Others are still very preliminary, especially given that the Department of Labor and Industry itself adopts building codes.

“The last time we adopted major building provisions was in 2007, with some new energy provisions in 2009,” Hernick explains. “We essentially adopt the International Building Code, which is used across the country, and amend that model code as it’s warranted.”

The Legislature can forward code-change recommendations to DLI, but then those changes go through internal reviews, a number of advisory committees and sometimes University of Minnesota research before DLI can even give the public notice of “intent to adopt” the measures.

From there, the plans are vetted by the Governor’s office and state finance experts. From there, trade groups and citizens can demand a public hearing process before new language is adopted.

For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy’s recommendation to insulate home foundations -- which sparked complaints from building contractors when it was first broached at the beginning of 2012 -- is still being studied. The University of Minnesota is researching whether the nationwide directive is appropriate for Minnesota, given concerns about how and where moisture from warm indoor air would condense in an insulated foundation wall.

“We’re just now at the point in the process where we hope soon to issue a notice of intent to adopt that energy code component,” Hernick says. “It’s a very deliberate process; a lot of thought and study goes into it.”

The DLI is in the process of posting its code adoption planning schedule, which professionals will be watching closely. Find it at www.dli.mn.gov/RulemakingCCL.asp.

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