Virtual Inspections

Robert Grupe / January 2021

Q: What is a virtual inspection?

A: Construction inspections have evolved over the last few years. Traditionally inspections were conducted by the staff of the authority having jurisdiction. In most cases and relating to building codes, this is the person or office that approves building plans and the subsequent installation. Then came the ability for inspections to be conducted by recognized third party inspection agencies. Along the way, special inspections were made mandatory. Special inspections are defined in the 2018 International Building Code as “Inspection of construction requiring the expertise of an approved special inspector to ensure compliance…” All forms of inspections were always done with a job-site visit by the AHJ or the recognized agency. Technology now allows for the inspections to be completed with no inspectors on the site.
    
This concept is also known as “remote virtual inspection.” Although RVI has been around for some time, remote inspections have become an important tool during this COVID-19 pandemic. The concept is where building inspections can be accomplished by inspectors not at the job site but through common electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets and, in some cases, unmanned aerial devices or drones. The intent is to have the contractor use electronic devices to send pictures and data to an off-site location and have the examination completed without the inspector being on the job site.
    
Not all building departments are equipped to conduct remote virtual inspections. A recent survey by the International Code Council found more than half of the building departments nationwide do not have the capability to conduct these types of inspections. But the practice of remote inspections is on the rise, and it is anticipated that their use will continue long after the pandemic is over.
    
The ICC has published guidelines to be considered and followed should a building department choose to go in that direction. The 10-page document, “Recommended Practices for Remote Virtual Inspections (RVI),” is available from ICC as a free download. By ICC definition, RVI enables inspections to be accomplished with the “owner or contractor located at the job site and the inspector or inspection team performing the inspections remotely.” Everything else related to the inspection process remains the same. Nothing changes related to the provisions of the applicable building code that is being enforced. The National Fire Protection Association reinforces the thought that everything else remains the same in their white paper , “Conducting Remote Video Inspections” (August 2018). In it NFPA states that the administrative actions should remain the same as the traditional method. This includes items such as fees and scheduling. The association is in the process of developing a new standard, NFPA Standard for Remote Inspections, which was out for public comment when this was written in December 2020.
    
There are some technical requirements that must be met for the successful remote inspection. The AHJ will most likely specify an acceptable platform that the inspection will use. Examples of this telephonic medium include GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams and FaceTime. The jobsite itself must meet minimum communication requirements such as Wi-Fi and 4G availability. Temporary lighting may be required to assure that the items to be inspected are clearly visible. Other items like fully charged and properly working electronic devices are important. As a contractor performing the inspection, additional equipment suggested to be on hand include flashlights, ladders and noise-canceling headphones. In certain jobsite areas where Wi-Fi is not available, there may be provisions for other video or photographic equipment to be utilized.
    
A typical remote inspection will start at street level with a view of the structure to verify location. The AHJ will then direct the inspection throughout the structure, and any areas that need correction should be recorded. This when the contractor should ask for clarification of intent and find out what is needed to rectify the condition.
    
At this time, remote inspections are somewhat limited to residential construction or smaller projects. It is the general feeling that the use of remote inspections will only increase and spread into the more complicated commercial construction projects. Should contractors have the opportunity or requirement to undertake an RVI, it is recommended that they familiarize themselves on what is needed, technical requirements and legal ramifications.

Robert Grupe is AWCI’s director of technical services. Send your questions to grupe@awci.org, or call him directly at (703) 538.1611.