By Paul Roebuck, CMI®
As home inspectors, we are often asked if we can perform inspections on commercial properties. While this can open a new avenue of revenue opportunities, some home inspectors simply choose to stay away from performing commercial inspections.
There are many differences and similarities between residential and commercial inspections. Inspecting smaller commercial properties, such as small office buildings, can be similar to performing a home inspection. These smaller and less complicated types of properties can typically be performed by an experienced home inspector. However, when it comes to the larger, more complex commercial property, there will be vast differences between the smaller commercial or residential property. It’s important to learn about the different types of commercial buildings.
As a home inspector, are you qualified to perform commercial property inspections?
Being a home inspector does not automatically qualify you to perform commercial inspections. Depending on your background and knowledge of the construction industry, you should seriously consider whether stepping into the arena of commercial inspections is right for you. If you want to perform commercial inspections, I encourage you to find an experienced commercial inspector to work with and take CCPIA’s hands-on training and online classes to better educate and to train you in commercial property inspections.
Watch CCPIA’s video Who Can Perform Commercial Inspections?
What are some of the differences and similarities between residential and commercial inspections?
One big difference between residential and commercial inspections are the insurance requirements. Most commercial property buyers and even your own insurance company will likely require you to carry higher amounts of insurance coverage for performing commercial property inspections because of the properties’ greater value. Before accepting any commercial inspections, you should discuss with your insurance agent the coverage requirements and limitations.
What are some of the safety and health practices to consider with commercial inspections?
All inspections have safety and health concerns that need to be considered, such as ladders and roof safety, electrical safety, personal safety, and even whether there is a dog on the premises. Commercial property inspections have much greater safety and health concerns to be considered compared to residential inspections.
The International Standards of Practice for Inspecting Commercial Properties – the ComSOP – provides guidelines on what is included in a commercial inspection and what is not required. These are great guidelines to follow. However, when it comes to safety and health issues, you are the person responsible – this cannot be overstated.
Let’s discuss some of the safety issues that you may encounter while performing a commercial inspection. This article will primarily cover commercial electrical systems.
Commercial Electrical System
Electrical systems at commercial properties are generally much larger than those at residential properties. This is one area where inspectors should use extreme caution. As with residential electrical systems, one small mistake can kill you.
Electrical inspections are one of the most hazardous aspects of an inspection. Still, most home inspectors I know do remove the panel’s cabinet cover (often referred to as the dead front) from the electrical panel board during a home inspection. This is the best way to view wire sizes versus breaker sizes, to identify hot spots, to detect incorrect wiring, and many other items.
However, when it comes to commercial properties, this same process can cause many problems. For example, if a property is occupied, tripping a breaker can create major issues for a business, which, of course, comes back on the inspector. If you turn their computers off and they do not have it backed up, this can create a big issue for you. This is not a situation that I would want to encounter.
Generally speaking, if a commercial property is occupied, I do not remove the electrical panel board’s dead front. If the property is vacant and I can safely remove the cover, then I generally will remove it. However, on larger commercial properties, I will hire a master electrician onto my team of specialty consultants to evaluate the electrical system. Master electricians are familiar with the higher voltage systems and have the proper safety wear equipment to inspect these systems.
If a property is vacant and the electricity is turned off, or the main breakers are in the off position, I personally will not flip the breakers to put the power on. My reasoning is that I do not know the condition of the electrical system or the property and do not want the liability of a fire occurring.
A big difference between residential and commercial electrical systems is the size of the electrical service. On larger, complex properties, it may be necessary to hire a master electrician to inspect these systems for you. When you inspect a property that has large motor or other heavy loads, it will most likely have a three-phase system. A three-phase circuit is usually more economical that an equivalent two-wire single-phase service.
How do you determine if the electrical service is a single-phase or three-phase service?
I typically look to see if I can count the number of overhead wires going into the weatherhead, if it’s an overhead service. If you observe three wires, it should be a single-phase service; if you observe four wires, it generally means that the service is a three-phase system. Another method you can use is to check the meter for labels listing the service type. The meter listing may tell you if the service is three-wire 240-volt, or four-wire 208v, or 120-480v for a three-phase service. You can also check the breakers in the main service panel; a three-phase panel will have three pole breakers that occupy three slots with a trip tie that connects the three switches. One of the easiest methods to use to verify this information is to get a copy of the sales listing information flyer. This information can provide you with much detail about the property.
Since commercial properties have larger electrical services than residential services, it is not recommended that inspectors remove the access panel covers. These high-voltage systems can arc and cause serious or deadly injuries to occur. Only highly qualified and trained electrical professionals should attempt this type of inspection. At larger commercial properties, it is recommended that you hire a third-party master electrician to perform the electrical inspection. They should wear special clothing, gloves and face shields while checking the systems. They can test the loads and look for other issues for you. They usually get paid by the hour, so try to set a maximum amount when you hire them for your inspection. Learn more about hiring specialty consultants.
Thermal imaging is an excellent method for checking for excessive or overheated electrical components. One important point to remember when using thermography on electrical inspections is that there needs to be a load imposed to properly look for overheating. If there is no load, you won’t get good information to provide to your client.
Watch CCPIA’s Historic Wyoming Bank Electrical Video Series
Takeaways for Commercial Inspectors
Before taking on a commercial inspection project, assess your level of comfort with the specific type of commercial building and the systems and components present. Then, plan accordingly:
- Based on your level of experience, comfort level, and time constraints, should you single-handedly take on the project?
- If yes, does your insurance cover it?
- If no, should you bring specialty consultants on, or pass on the job?
If you decide to take on the project using a team of specialty consultants, remember that you are acting like the coach of a football team. Does your team qualify for the project, and do they have clear instructions and expectations? The same considerations for health and safety also applies to them.
Author Paul Roebuck is a member of the Certified Commercial Property Inspectors Association and a Certified Master Inspector®. As a TREC-Licensed Professional Inspector in Texas, he also holds multiple professional designations and a combination of residential code certifications. Paul is also a certified VA/FHA inspector, and a TPREIA-InterNACHI® instructor.