October, 2007
Feature
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



An Orange Cone Moment

ROGER HANKEY

A recent inspection of a three-unit apartment building orange-cone-car.gifproved to be a lesson in both inspecting and in report writing. I conducted the entire five-hour inspection without noticing a serious electrical condition beneath an orange traffic cone, located about 15 feet from my silver minivan parked in the rear yard.

I made at least two trips to the garage (left of my van) and at least one trip to the van during the inspection without stopping to look around this cone. Not until I had printed the report and was loading my equipment into the van did I bother to check why this cone was marking a metal post.

When I finally looked at the cone, this is what I saw:

cone.gif

I checked the Underground Feeder cable with a voltage detector and found the cable was live (energized), and it had exposed conductors at the cut end. Fortunately, the client and real estate agent were still at the property. I showed them this condition, and I told them they would get a revised report via e-mail.

Sadly, even in my revised report issued the next morning, I omitted a key recommendation. I failed to include a directive to have the property owner immediately TURN OFF THE POWER to this exposed wiring. The revised report recommended the wiring be completed by installing a weather-resistive receptacle, or properly terminated in a weather-resistive box. I was so concerned about getting this late discovery into the revised report that I forgot the most important part of a proper recommendation. I didn’t recognize this report-writing error until I wrote this article the day after the inspection. I immediately sent a follow-up e-mail advising that the power be shut off.

I did not notice the cone because I was focused on the building, the garage and improperly built retaining walls at two sides of the building. Whoever left this wiring incomplete certainly meant to call attention to it, but I did not take the hint until all other aspects of the inspection had been completed.

The lesson is that good inspection practice is to alternate from narrow to wide focus in order to bring all visible aspects of the property into view. There is no line item in my software for “orange cone.” Overreliance on an inspection checklist can blind us to unlisted concerns. Furthermore, we must start our recommendations with the most immediate action needed, following it with appropriate long-term recommendations. It is easy to fall into the trap of considering beneficial improvements the client could make, while overlooking simple actions that need immediate attention.

The ASHI Standards of Practice requires inspection of electrical conductors without specifying any particular area of the property to check. Failure to notice this exposed energized cable near the parking area of a three-unit rental building near the campus of a major university could have led to a claim of negligent inspecting. During the inspection, I saw two boys about 9 years old playing on bicycles in the alley near my minivan. It would be hard to defend the failure to notice an energized cable marked with an orange cone near my van. Harder still to defend why I did not recommend the power be turned off, or take direct action to turn off the power. 

My two-part oversight is a sobering lesson about focusing on the basic tasks in a visual inspection. The KISS principle:  Keep It Simple Stupid, certainly applied in this case. Look for the most obvious adverse conditions and report the simplest, most urgent, recommended actions. Most other conditions will probably be found in a thorough inspection and, if not found, could probably be defended on the grounds that they were not readily visible. Overlooking obvious adverse conditions with the potential for serious personal injury or death could be the mistake that ends your inspection career. I was fortunate that I caught my errors before they had serious consequences.

The following two inspection practices may help reduce the chances of these types of inspection errors:

1. Take many digital photographs during the inspection.
(The camera doesn’t forget, and actually sees more than you do.) Review the photos before leaving the property.

2. Include the right to revise your report in your inspection agreement/contract.

I presently reserve the right to revise within 24 hours of the inspection, or ask for more time if I feel it is needed and the client agrees. Ask your attorney for suggested language and watch out for those “orange cone moments.”