Building Codes and Protectionism

I have written a lot about state licensing typically being more about protecting incumbents from competition than consumer protection.  This is a story in a similar vein, where plumbers worked to stop the approval of waterless urinals because they required, well, fewer plumbers to install.  In the end, there was a compromise -- the plumbers would support waterless urinals in the code, BUT the code would also say that water still had to be piped to the urinals that don't need water.  I kid you not.

This reminds me of when railroads were switching from steam locomotives to diesel.  The switch basically obsoleted the job of the fireman, who shoveled coal and kept the fire optimized in the boiler.  Faced with extinction, the fireman's union followed a gutsy strategy -- they demanded that diesel locomotives have two firemen instead of one!  You see where this is going.  Eventually, they compromised at one, so for years, decades even, useless firemen were paid to ride around on locomotives.


  1. Michael:

    I have a few friends that do licensed residential electrical work. The inspectors are hitting these guys hard. Wrong color screw in box. Pigtail is not green. Total crap that has nothing to do with safety but everything to do with collecting a re-inspection fee.

    The city (Cincinnati) is even shaking down landlords. Calling them and say they need inspections on new work the owners never have had done and even offering to have have the inspectors do the work for a discount.

    One of the biggest problems with codes is that they aren't written down. A tradesman can't pull out a book, show the inspector the code, and show the work complies. The code is really whatever the inspector feels it should be.

  2. john:

    Cincinnati is a great town in many ways, and I'm sure it's not unique in these code issues, but I've also seen some real craziness there. I once thought I was going to witness two city code inspectors in a fist fight when one came to inspect the HVAC unit install and the other to forbid a railing around it. One swore it was against code, the other that it was required.

    "Gentlemen, we're trying to get some work done here, I suggest you take it out in the alley and whoever wins can come back up and talk to the contractor...."

    In nearby Mt. Healthy, Ohio, I was required to paint my garage, but forbidden to re-roof it...

    My observation was that building codes are a weird mix of income protection for various trades, the paralyzing fear that someone somewhere might do something not required and overseen by a petty bureaucrat (I once had a city councilman ask me "You don't want people just going around doing whatever they want do you?"), perhaps a little revenue seeking, and a lot of sheer insanity.

    The only thing worse is "property maintenance codes" the building code might require an electrician to change a lightbulb or a certified painter to paint the trim, but a property maintenance code will specify the wattage of the bulb and the color of the paint.

  3. Michael:

    Ohio is a pretty messed up state. Any incorporated area can write code. Hamilton county, where Cincinnati is, is 407 sq miles and has 51 code writing bodies. Where I live, I can go out on the front porch and see 4 different incorporated code writing jurisdictions. The people I work for know I'm trained in and will follow the National Electrical Code and the Uniform Plumbing Code, but if they want permits and inspections, I pass on the work. I don't have Warren's patience to deal with bureaucrats.

  4. Craig:

    Hmmm. I just read about the Overton Window last night. The bit about the railroad firemen sounds like the same thing. Of course, it's really nothing new as a tactic -- way back when, I think, it was called the dialectic.

  5. MarkC:

    Back in 2006, Philadelphia plumbers local 690, had a problem with Comcast installing waterless urinals in their new "green" HQ bldg going up in Center City. The union strong-arm tactics won - they ran copper water supply pipes to to every floor of the building stubbing them off just behind the walls where the urinals are located.

  6. Michael:

    There is a certain irony that the plumbers turned out to be right. Many places are removing the urinals because of the high cost to maintain them and the unexpected problem of them clogging drain lines because they don't flush out build up.

    The environmental movement has been trying to convince people that once water is flushed, it's lost forever. Developing waterless ways to move human waste will likely lead to a new set of problems. One only needs to look (smell) at a pig farm for the results of concentrating animal waste.

  7. vegasmark:

    This reminds me of Winston Churchill, when he was in charge of the British Admiralty, while the British nation was having a great debate over how many battleships had to be built (to stay ahead of the German navy, which had an ambitious building program).

    When all was said and done, Churchill said ( not an exact quote, but very close)

    "The admirals wanted 6, the economists, 4, so we compromised on 8".

    Pretty witty, I thought.

  8. frankania:

    Having been a builder of houses all my life, I've had to deal with this BS in many places. I finally stopped building new houses and just bought old neglected places where I could do everything inside (without any permits or inspections)discretely, and then lastly paint and improve the outside.
    Now I live and work in Mexico where everything is easy and disorganized.

  9. Nick S.:

    I'm way late on this, but Michael, there's a very good reason for the electrical code to specify that stuff. It's so anybody else doing work on the circuits later can safely see the connections and do their work safely as well. You don't want a hack to mistakenly hook, the ground for an outside outlet up to the hot wire and electrocute an innocent person while they're plugging something in.

    I'm all for arguing against being required to pay inspectors to come look at your work, but people doing unsafe work and not following reasonable standards is what got us inspectors.