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Building Inspectors and Electric Power Lines

Posted By David Young, Saturday, March 01, 2008
Updated: Friday, February 08, 2013

Was this done to encourage pole-ish jokes? Where was the building inspector? Where was the electrical inspector? I understand the contractor obtained a building permit and when the addition of the bar to the restaurant was complete, the owner received a certificate of occupancy. On the good side, the roofer did a great job of installing flashing around the pole so the roof wouldn’t leak. The cement contractor poured a beautiful floor around the pole. The bottom twenty feet of the pole would probably last a long time. For a few weeks, the pole was a substantial support for a pretty sign inside the bar advertising a particular brand of beer, and I’m sure the pole was a common source of discussion until someone in the power company stopped by for a beer.

Photo 1. Utility pole through a building

How could this happen? Prior to the construction of the addition, the restaurant and the power lines passing over it were in full compliance with the NEC and the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC). And now? Where in the NEC or NESC does it say you can’t install poles inside buildings? OK, so maybe it is a gray area relative to the codes, but the utility that owns the pole considers this to be an infringement upon their right to access the pole for maintenance. Replacing the pole might be a little difficult. Particularly with the concrete slab poured around it. I understand the utility was willing to abandon the bottom twenty feet of the pole in place and set another pole outside the addition for a hefty fee. I understand that the regional department of license and inspection had different ideas. The thought of a creosote treated pole inside a building serving food and drink might have influenced their decision. The addition was removed.

Photos 2 and 3 show a clear violation of the NESC and a dangerous condition. It amazes me how the construction workers built the addition without getting killed. I understand that the homeowner purchased two house lots. The power lines ran down the property line between the two lots. The house was constructed on the lot on the right. The homeowner then had the two-car garage added on to the left side of the house. The addition extended under the power lines into the adjacent lot. The communications lines rested on the garage roof. The triplex secondary conductor was 18″” above the roof. The two 7200-volt phase conductors were 6′ above the roof. I understand the contractor got a building permit for the addition and the homeowner received a certificate of occupancy. In this case, the homeowner paid the utilities to move their lines.


Photo 2. Two-story house


Working Space

I have seen hundreds of similar installations over the past thirty-six years, many of them while investigating the accidents caused by the clearance violation. Most of the people dying as a result of contacting electric power lines are construction workers. Architects and utility engineers often do not consider working space necessary for the safe construction of buildings when designing the buildings and reviewing building construction drawings respectively. Clearances necessary for the safe construction of a building often have to be much greater than that required by the NESC. For example, the 2007 edition of the NESC in Table 234-1 only requires buildings to be located a minimum 7.5 feet horizontally away from bare high-voltage phase conductors energized at voltages from 750 volt to 22 kV. That clearance does not allow any space for scaffolding to construct the building. The 7.5′ clearance is not enough for workers to comply with the OSHA 10′ rule. Per OSHA regulations, workers are not allowed to put themselves or any object within 10′ of a high voltage power line.


Photo 3. Close-up of lines crossing the garage roof


License and Inspection Personnel

If the architects and utility engineers do not catch the clearance problems, why don’t the license and inspection people catch them? Some license and inspection people say they do not have enough inspectors to inspect all the new construction and additions so they often "trust the contractor.” I have also heard this said by electrical inspectors. Some say they are not familiar with the NESC minimum clearances. Some utilities only review building construction drawings when asked to do so by license and inspection personnel when there is a question of clearances to electric power lines. If the license and inspection personnel do not know how much clearance is safe, how are they going to recognize when to bring in the utility engineers? To that end, some electric power consultants offer training for state, county and city license and inspection departments covering NESC clearances of power lines to buildings, swimming pools and other subjects that license and inspection personnel care about.

Please send me your comments on this article. If you have general questions about electricity, electric power distribution or the National Electrical Safety Code® (NESC®), please e-mail me or call me at 302-633-1044.

Read more by David Young

Tags:  March-April 2008  Other Code 

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