Inspectors are the ones who will draw the line in the sand and base their report of the cause and conclusion through facts, while defining the reported problem. However, they are also vulnerable like any other entities within our industry. Are they totally subjective to the commissioning party? That’s the question raised by many of the involved parties when the inspector is hired.
Here is a scenario I’ve used in my previous classes: A businessman who is overworked and underpaid grabs a glass of wine and his briefcase after dinner, goes up into the bedroom, spreads his materials out on the bed and opens his laptop to start writing his report. He enjoys his wine and opens a pack of cigarettes. After his second glass of wine he nods off, only to be awakened by a fire in the bedroom. With cigarette burns on the nightstand, a couple on the carpet and an ashtray mounded with cigarette butts from previous nights working late, all the evidence appears to show the fire was caused by him falling asleep in bed with a lit cigarette that fell onto the end table. This is the conclusion both the firemen and his wife – who knows his habits – make.
However, through further investigation by the fire marshal, the cause turns out not to be the most obvious explanation, but rather an electrical short in the alarm clock next to the ashtray. The point of this example is to show how often we take what only appears to be obvious and use those faulty assumptions to make inaccurate conclusions. It is the inspector’s/investigator’s job to complete all necessary testing to determine what is the actual cause of the loss. Settlements aren’t made on conclusions with terms such as “it lends to, most likely, appears as, suggests, probable cause,” etc. These are not definitive conclusions to the reason of failure. Inspectors have to be as nonbiased and methodical as possible in their report, but they are still human. So let’s take a look at the five most common mistakes inspectors make.
Improper Use of Standards. Many times we will see inspectors make the wrong conclusion based off the wrong standard or wrong applicable standard due to revision dates. I especially see this when the inspector is under a deadline to get the report out, and can easily be trapped into taking the shortcut rather than finding the proper standard.
A good example of this is a floor installed back in August 2012 that failed. The installer does not have the printed copy of the manufacturer guidelines used during the install. The inspector calls manufacturer tech support only to get wrapped up in an automated phone messaging system. He leaves multiple messages on separate occasions and never gets a return call. The inspector then goes to the manufacturer website to download the installation guidelines in order to complete his report. However, if the guidelines the inspector downloaded do not have a revision date prior to August 2012, those standards cannot be used. Like any other updated guideline, revised content might reflect product changes, improvements, new applications or federal regulations. In this case, the inspector must continue with persistence to reach technical support until the correct standard is provided.
Another failure I see is when the inspector cites the wrong standard entirely; for example, citing a NOFMA standard for a non-NOFMA mill, or an inspector citing NWFA guidelines instead of manufacturer’s guidelines. Manufacturer’s guidelines always supersede industry guidelines, because of their product testing/performance and warranty process. Manufacturers test their products to ensure their product will perform to the conditions outlined within their guidelines. Manufacturers know that industry guidelines are based off of “minimum” standards, which their standards may exceed. For that reason the inspector must find and use only the applicable standard for their report.
Supporting Conclusions. This subject has recently been a big issue due to low-budgeted inspections. In our original example, the visual evidence of cigarette butts led to the conclusion that they created the fire; however, through testing it was determined otherwise. I see this same type of situation time after time, where an inspector will inspect an engineered wood floor and make a conclusion of “delamination” (bondline) yet the inspector has done no destructive testing to support this conclusion.
One cannot make a factual determination of delamination from a topical view; it will require removing one or more planks to make that conclusion. It also may require sending the specimens to a third-party testing laboratory for confirmation of the inspector’s findings.
The other error I see is when the inspector makes his or her conclusion based on “my years of experience” or “in my opinion.” Neither of these statements, by themselves, supports facts. The inspector is hired to report only the facts and quote the facts, not opinions or hearsay. If the inspector is retained as an expert witness/expert testimony, legal counsel may ask for their expert opinion and how that opinion was validated. Opinion-forming is a very important part of the expert testimony process, but only when those opinions are arrived at via facts based on testing.
Subjective Reports. Inspectors will find themselves working for the same manufacturers, distributors, box stores, etc. on a regular basis due to the high volume of claims. So here comes the million-dollar question: Is the inspector providing an unbiased report? Without realizing it, inspectors may be looking for any jobsite deficiencies to sidestep the actual concern. For example, let’s say we have a finish concern on a prefinished plank floor and the inspector finds the installer did not follow the required fastening schedule; therefore it is an installation concern and the inspector’s conclusion will be listed as “no manufacturer defect.” Second to be listed will be “installer failed to comply with manufacturer’s guidelines.”
Regardless of who the commissioning party is, the inspector can only address the pertinent facts/findings to the original reported concern. In this case the fastener schedule has no merit on a finish concern and the fastening schedule should never have been involved in this inspection. In many cases this type of report can shift the liability to a party (or parties) that was cited unfairly. It is very difficult to unwind a poorly written report.
Failure to Test Properly. This has been a big issue due to so many variables of inspection methodology and equipment. I’ve seen inspectors use low-priced hygrometers or moisture meters with +/-5% accuracy, which are entry-level pieces of equipment. A meter providing that large a range for accuracy can result in an incorrect conclusion based on the inaccurate collection of data.
I have also seen the meters calibrated to the wrong wood specie or setting and not adjusting the settings for current floor temperature. The next question is when was the last time the meter or meters have been calibrated against equipment that is certified traceable to NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology)? If no such documentation can be found, the test results obtained by the inspector may be inaccurate and should not be used to make a conclusion within the report.
Another concern is the test results the inspectors obtained and using this information inappropriately. For example, inspectors will use the dimensional coefficient formula for solid wood products and apply them to engineered flooring, which is unacceptable. Failure to properly test concrete moisture is another concern, such as when the flooring manufacturer states in their guidelines to use ASTM F1869 or ASTM F2170 but the inspector uses a moisture meter instead. The manufacturer specifies for quantitative testing methods and the inspector elects to use qualitative testing methods due to time and costs. The results of this testing would be un-admissible in the report unless the method is accepted by the manufacturer, which in this case it is not.
Lack of Experience. Nothing like good, old-fashioned experience to help complete the report…right? The truth is having years of experience will assist one in the direction of methodology of the inspection. Field practice or past experiences can be very helpful. This applies to areas within our trades such as hardwood floor sanding and finishing. If you don’t have years of hands-on experience behind the machines, you’re not acquainted with the machine’s performance and capabilities. An inspector without hands-on experience can identify a scratch pattern, but does not have the floor sanding experience to identify what shortcut was taken to obtain the scratch or concern being inspected.
In closing I want to add that it is important for the inspector to know his scope of work (SOW) as outlined by the commissioning party and not to deviate from it. Is the inspector commissioned to complete an entire inspection or to a particular concern? Complete the inspection and testing only pertaining to the SOW and apply the applicable standard(s) to the report. Inspectors must know their limitations/qualifications to accept the SOW to ensure a complete and thorough inspection and report is provided. There is nothing worse for an installer or contractor than an inspector providing non-factual information in an inaccurate report.
Roy Reichow brings over 40 years of experience in the wood flooring industry as a wood floor contractor, consultant and educator. Roy is founder and principle of Reichow Parquet Flooring and National Wood Floor Consultants. He holds National Wood Flooring Association Certified Professional certification in Wood Floor Installation, Sanding, Finishing, Sales Counselor, Inspector and Commercial Inspector. Roy also serves on the National Wood Flooring Association’s Certified Professional Board of Directors and Marketing Committee.
Roy has authored articles published by the NWFA and the International Fraud Update, a publication of the International Association of Insurance Fraud Agencies. His wood flooring projects have been featured in American Woodworkers Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Mpls/St. Paul magazine.
Roy has led educational seminars for the NWFA, wood flooring distributors, contractors, and home builders, and has been a featured speaker at the MPLS Home & Garden Show.