How to Train Your Code Official

The one thing that all manufactured home installers and retailers have in common, is that they are all impacted by the state or local building code officials and their approach to manufactured housing. Whether a code official oversteps his authority by requiring unnecessary code provisions, minimizes his role by simply issuing permits and occupancy certificates without any oversight, or if they don’t issue building permits for manufactured homes at all, our work is impacted and far too often, negatively.

Code officials that do not understand the manufactured housing program, ultimately add unnecessary costs to the home and limits our ability to provide high quality, durable, safe and affordable housing.

Today, I want to talk a little about what installers and retailers can do to educate code officials and as a result, better position the manufactured housing industry for the future.

The first thing to remember is that the vast majority of code officials receive no formal training in regards to the manufactured housing program(s). Except for the few states that specifically require code officials to receive training on manufactured homes, very few code officials understand manufactured homes. The industry does a poor job explaining how the manufactured housing program works on behalf of the state/local code enforcers. As a result, we are left with a patchwork of requirements which often result in inferior installations, and also undermine the overall affordability of manufactured housing.

To compound matters, installers, retailers, and manufacturers are reluctant to have business-like discussions with code enforcers and as a result, nothing changes. The industry folks I talk with generally adopt one of two extremes when it comes to this relationship (neither of which is correct). Either they object to the code official simply entering a manufactured home, or they are of the opinion that it is easier, cheaper, or faster to just do everything the building code official asks.  No matter which approach you take, it ultimately supports the notion that either we have something to hide, or that the construction and/or installation of manufactured homes is substandard and needs the code enforcer to improve on the homes design.

Here are a few things that installers and retailers must do to start to get code enforcers to view manufactured housing for what it is: sophisticated, code compliant, safe, high quality, durable and yet affordable housing.

Stop using the term “mobile home”. If it was built before June, 1976, fine, call it a “mobile home”. But today we produce and install “manufactured homes” and the differences are significant. If you want state and local code officials and the home buying public to think that the industry of today is producing and installing the same product that we did over 40+ years ago, then keep using outdated terms. But if we ever have hopes of getting people to understand that the manufactured home of today compares favorably to every other housing product on the market, then we must use proper terminology. 

Accept that you as the installer are the primary source of information for the code official. If you start to improve the building permit application process, you can begin to drive your code official to better understand our program. For example:

  • Provide a copy of your installer license with every installation. The code official is the first line of defense in stopping unlicensed installers. Presenting your license with every permit application, supports the notion that only trained professionals should be installing manufactured homes.      
  • Provide DAPIA approved details (from the installation manuals) to the code official to used to conduct the inspections.  Single page, unapproved pier (or footer) prints do not illustrate that the real installation drawings and details have already been reviewed and approved. Far too many code officials don’t understand that the plan review has already been performed for them!
  • On the other extreme, it seems that too many people just give the code official the entire installation manual and expect them to make sense of it. We should organize the DAPIA approved designs needed for the installation so that they are easily followed. Utilizing a cover sheet is one way to do that. This not only educates the code officials, it is a great tool for installers as well. Click here for a sample that you can use: MH Building Permit Coversheet
  • Be present at the inspections. There is no better time to provide training than this. Bring the DAPIA approved designs (and maybe your copy of the Manufactured Home Construction & Safety Standards) with you and whenever a question is asked, refer to the designs or standards.

 At this point, I know many of you are thinking that you would rather not make waves, and that the code official won’t listen, and a ton of other reasons as to why you prefer the status quo. But, like it or not, the industry is changing and what worked for us in 1976 is not going to work tomorrow.

I was encouraged to learn folks from HUD and SEBA are speaking at a national meeting of code officials in September to discuss installation.  I have been conducting code official training for the past several years, and I can tell you, they are receptive to the message when we present it properly.

Bottom line is that either we start driving the state/local code officials to understand and respect our program, or manufactured housing will go the way of typewriters, telephone booths, and record albums.

 

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Electrical Crossovers

While inspecting some multi-section manufactured home installations recently, I noticed some areas needing improvement regarding electrical crossover connections.  So I thought we should talk about this issue as we head into the summer season.

Should not be exposed!

One of first things to keep in mind is that you should never have any Non-Metallic Sheathed Cable (also called NM Cable, often referred as Romex®) used for branch circuit wiring visible under a manufactured home. Crossover wiring is always to be tucked inside the floor cavity or walls, and protected with an access panel or hatch.

Molex brand connector. Look closely for release tab.

Secondly, to make this connection most manufacturers generally use either electrical connectors or junction boxes. Connectors are pretty straight forward, just snap them together. Most manufacturers in the northeast use Molex® brand connectors, and the great thing about these connectors is that they have release tabs so you can separate the connectors without any damage and reuse them as needed. This is important for relocating a home, or if the home were on display before being moved to it’s installation site.

This brand has no release mechanism.

Some older manufactured homes used a connector made by Amp® that was a single use connector. If you looked closely, you would see: “One Time Use Only, Do Not Re-terminate. The issue was there was no release tab on these connectors, so if you pulled them apart the plastic housing would bend and distort the device. When reconnected, the housing wouldn’t be able to connect securely and safety became a concern. The good news is that I haven’t seen these used for at least eight to ten years. But be alert if you are installing older homes as you may see a connector that is not intended to be reused. If so, cut it off and either install a new connector or use a junction box inside an access panel in the floor cavity or marriage wall.

Look closely to see grounding screw.

Greeny grounding type wire nut.

Speaking of junction boxes, here are a few basic things to remember. Where the NM Cable enters the junction box, there should be a cable clamp or connector. Don’t overtighten the clamp onto the cable, just snug it down. The cable should be secured within 12” of the clamp or connector (check the actual installation manual as some require cable securement within 8” of the cable clamp). If the junction box is metal, it should be grounded. You can use a ground clip, ground screw or a “greeny” wire nut for this.  Twist the conductors together before installing the wire nut, and make sure to use a wire nut that is the proper size. Usually the capacity and number of connectors are identified on the top of the wire nut itself. After grounding the junction box and making good connections, place the cover on the junction box!

I am seeing a few of the push-in type connectors in place of the twist style wire nuts, and these seem to work fine. Just make sure you strip the conductor with the proper tool to the proper length per the installation instructions. I saw a few brands of these push-in connectors that limited their use to solid wire only (no stranded wire). On solid wire conductors, these push-in types are generally reusable. But it can be difficult to get the conductors to disengage. You may be better served replacing them.

If you notice that the outer sheathing (or jacket) of the NM Cable is nicked or damaged, make sure you address it properly. If there is a superficial nick in the outer sheathing, wrap electrical tape around the cable at the nicked area, to a thickness that equals the depth of the nick. If the damage exposes any of the conductors or the paper inside the cable, the affected area must be removed! There is no repair for damage that significant.

End wall crossover. Cables need better protection!

If the manufacturer notched out a wall stud or other structural member to run the NM cable, make sure to protect the cables with wire protective plates or “mash or smash” plates as they call them in the south. And make certain the cable is 100% protected!

Always replace the access panels or close the access area to protect the connection from moisture and possible damage. If any floor insulation is missing, replace it as well!

Revisit the manufacturers installation instructions for a little more detail. On a new home, use the connector type the manufacturer provided.  If there are problems making this connection on a new manufactured home, take a picture and report it back to the manufacturer. They can only make improvements if they get feedback from you!

Keep in mind that you should always refer to the Manufacturers Installation Instructions, but if you want to learn more, the Manufactured Home Construction & Safety Standards (MHCSS) at 3280.801 is where you will find the actual code requirements.  Click Here for the MHCSS  Also, it is worth knowing the MHCSS adopts Article 550 of the 2005 National Electric Code. So, check them all out to make sure you are doing things right!

A Week Worth of Inspections!

Through my career, I have inspected hundreds of manufactured home installations, but not too many as of late. That is why I jumped at the chance to travel west and look over 10 recently installed manufactured homes. I wanted to share what I learned with all of you.

Over the course of the week, I had the opportunity to meet with several installers, retailers and other industry representatives. Their knowledge and professionalism was impressive! They were proud of their installations, quick to answer questions, and eager to see if there was any information that I could share with them. These folks represent the industry well as evidenced by their work.  

Next were the homeowners. While only about half were home during my visits, when given the chance to talk about their homes, they had nothing but good things to say. They love their homes and they were sure willing to talk about it!

Also impressive were many of the installation techniques I observed.

 Most homes used some type of anchor and strap tie down system. I was pleasantly surprised to see that almost every home had strap protection where the straps wrapped around the main beams.  

The concrete work was very well done. The concrete footings were smooth and level, providing a great surface for piers.

Multi-section homes were well finished, joints were tight, trim and drywall were first rate, in fact it was difficult to find the mate line once you were inside the homes.

Ok, but what about areas needing a little improvement?

Site grading. It was easy to see where the term “flatlander” comes from. Most sites were completely flat. And since the sites are so flat, little or no excavation is needed. I suggest that a couple loads of fill dirt be included with every job to achieve that “turtle back” effect that is needed to get the water to flow away from all four sides of the home.

Pier construction. Overall the piers were great, with a few small concerns.  Several homes used ¾” thick 8” x 16” wood or 1″ concrete cap blocks or spacers on-top of the cap blocks. Most Manufacturers Installation Manuals require nominal 2” x 8” x 16” lumber or 2” or 4” concrete for cap blocks and 2” lumber or concrete spacers. Check your installation manual to make sure you are using the proper cap and spacer material.  

On that same note, I noticed some undersized hardwood shims. Again, don’t trust me, check your manual, but 4” wide x 6” long is what most require.

Dryer venting. I saw a few crushed ducts, and one duct that was blocked by the first course of siding.  I also ran across a few folks using the foil duct material. See my post  Clothes Dryers- What Every Installer Must Know! for more information on this topic.

It was a very wet and busy week, topped off by a cancelled flight and an all-night drive to get home.  But I am extremely fortunate to have had the chance to meet and work with such professional manufactured home installers, retailers and representatives. I hope to get the chance to work with all of them again soon.