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California county pilots virtual building inspections to save time and money

Submitted by doug peeples on May 29, 2015

Virtual buildings inspections are relatively new but the technology looks promising -- promising enough for San Bernadino County's Building and Safety Division of the Land Use Services Department to take it out for a spin.

"Using technology to make the county's inspection and permitting process more efficient will help residents and contractors save both time and money," said 2nd District Supervisor Janice Rutherford. "I look forward to seeing the results of this pilot project and to expanding the use of virtual technology to improve efficiencies throughout the county."

How it works
The pilot program  won't be open to all applicants, at least not in the beginning. The Land Use Department will pick participants from the applications they receive based on their suitability for the pilot, and the selected applications will be limited to hot water heater installations and roof inspections.

After they download a special application, applicants will be able to forward their projects to the department via smart phones or tablets, which also will be used to exchange information.  Rather than waiting at a project site for a building inspector to show up, applicants will submit their projects at a specific time, saving them time and reducing the amount of time inspectors spend on the road traveling from one site to another.

Projects selected during the program, which will continue for at least 90 days, will be in the county's desert and mountain communities because those areas present the most challenging environments for the wireless data connections needed for it to work. The accuracy of the project site verification process and the strength of the video signals also will be tested. The plan is to conduct two to three inspections weekly.

Florida schools are on the virtual bandwagon, too
Orange County (Florida) Public Schools began a similar pilot inspection program two years ago and in June 2014 opened it up to all contractors. The school district, which has about 200 properties, uses live-streaming video with Face Time and Skype to send their projects to inspectors.

David Young, responsible for building code compliance for the school district, said the program has reduced vehicle operating expenses and travel time. "It can increase the number of inspections we're doing a day, and we should be able to double the inspections and cut costs 25%," he told the Orlando Sentinel. He added that the failure rate for virtual inspections was identical to the rate for traditional in-person inspections.

Like San Bernadino County's program, Orange County limits the virtual inspections to specific types of projects. Young commented that inspections for emergency lighting systems, for example, still require an on-site inspector.


Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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