Third-Party Inspections: Material Installation, Validation of Specifications, and Product Authentication
Documentation of Proper Installation
There are many different reasons why builders and developers retain third-party quality assurance firms to conduct inspections during the course of construction. Inspections to document that materials were installed in accordance with the plans, codes, specifications, and manufacturer’s installation guidelines is the most common definition of third-party quality assurance. However, the knowledge base used to conduct inspections varies from relying solely upon the knowledge, skills, and experience of the individual inspector to depending on a phone app that claims to be able to guide anyone through the inspection process. In addition, one must define the optimum time to perform an inspection, as this will help determine which type of inspection process works best for your company.
The two most common types of inspections are time-driven and milestone inspections. There are pros and cons to both methods. Time-driven inspections provide flexibility for the data collector and greatly expand the opportunity for the inspector to view installation in progress through the various steps of the installation process. This can provide builders a longer lead time to make corrections without delaying construction. However, this method does mean that observations may be made on incomplete installations, as opposed to recording true anomalies. Milestone inspections are scheduled when a system or component has reached a specific stage, typically just prior to being covered. This method ensures that data is not collected “in progress” and just needs to be completed but is a true anomaly. The cons are that inspection documentation does not vary much as the inspector may never get to see the system in different stages, and it can result in the delay of construction on the project so that needed corrections can be performed. Which method is chosen will depend on the builder’s overall objectives, resources, and company culture.
At Quality Built™, we promote utilizing a program that focuses qualified resources on accomplishing many tasks through one process. We believe you can maximize return on investment by creating a hybrid program that requires an inspector to perform milestone inspections at specific stages and then spend more time onsite to gather additional information. Forward-thinking companies maximize the value obtained through their services by using the same action (data collection) to simultaneously address many different risks. In the first book from Cove Programs, Ramping Up Without Messing Up, we discussed utilizing third-party quality assurance firms to provide information to rate trade contractor performance based on the quality metrics assigned to them. This chapter will discuss how those same services can provide valuable information on the products and materials utilized during construction.
Validation That the Products and Materials Installed Meet Specifications
During the design of every project, specific products and materials are selected to construct each home. How well the unit functions will depend greatly on the proper integration of these products and the verification that all performance specifications are uncompromised. This means that each project should be inspected for exact conformance with the design documents.
Validation of products and materials will also help identify conflicts between the installation requirements of manufactured products and the architectural design. It is not uncommon for architectural details to be inconsistent with products or installation methods used in construction due to changes in the materials used, changes in manufacturer’s installation guidelines, and so on. Often, this presents no problem with the proper integration of materials or creates no problematic incompatibility issues and can be easily fixed by simply updating the architectural design to align with changes to products and materials. However, a fundamental principle of any good quality assurance program is to “Trust, but verify.” Trade contractors generally will not report these types of inconsistencies and will install based on the specifications that seem most reasonable, often not considering potential design, integration, or compatibility concerns. Third-party validation can illuminate potential conflicts and direct concerns to the appropriate persons (i.e., manufacturer technical and materials experts, architect, etc.) who are qualified to determine if modifications to the design and installation are necessary or if the conflict presents no concern. Such decisions should be determined by the manufacturer and architect, not the installer in the field. Once a specific product or material has been selected, then the inspection protocol should include the product information. For example, rather than have your third-party quality assurance provider “Verify windows are installed per plans and codes,” have your third-party quality assurance provider gather the following:
- Exact window make and model installed (scan in the window manufacturer’s labels)
- Name of Trade Contractor who performed the work
Zero expense is added to the inspection process, and value is added exponentially. Reports can easily be generated and provided to the architect and engineer to verify if these products meet or exceed all performance specifications.
Components Are Compatible with the Materials with Which They Come into Contact
With over 20,000 components in an individual home, there are hundreds of possibilities for incompatible materials to come into contact, causing one or both of the materials to deteriorate. Premature failure can range from barely noticeable discoloration to structural failure. Damage may manifest immediately or may take years to detect. Some incompatibilities exist only when applied in certain conditions, such as outside one of the product’s optimal temperature zones. Others have not been widespread enough for organizations and manufacturers to recognize the failure as being caused by incompatibility with another material. Expectedly, you will have materials designed to only work with specific materials by a particular manufacturer in order to ensure that a complete system is used rather than a mixture of products from various manufacturers.
Though not all incompatibilities are known, many are. By taking precautions during the course of construction, builders can avoid costly mistakes. Inspections should occur where multiple trades and materials intersect (e.g., foundations, windows, and roofs); where materials are backed or assembled with adhesives, liquid membranes, or coatings; and where some of the newer organic materials are integrated. When an incompatibility is reported in association with a specific brand, it is important to determine if there truly is something unique to the product or if the incompatibility exists between types of materials or a specific chemical in one or both materials. The labeling of products and ingredients contained within construction products is not standardized, and technical data can be confusing or incomplete. Manufacturers may identify incompatible materials by providing technical information; however, examples will often specify some incompatible materials but not all. It is important that builders and purchasing agents have a general understanding of what common incompatibilities exist and then retain experts to review during design and control through inspections during construction. Only a few examples are included in this chapter. Other information is available through Quality Built™ as well as many other professional organizations and publications.
One of the most common and best known examples of a defect caused by incompatible materials is corrosion caused by dissimilar metals coming into contact. This is known as galvanic corrosion. It is critical that inspections are performed to verify that there is no contact between dissimilar metals in the plumbing systems. For example:
- “Domestic water supply—copper supply—dissimilar metals—copper water lines are not in contact with dissimilar metals.”
- “Refrigerant line is not in contact with dissimilar metal.”
- “Separation is provided for dissimilar metals (e.g., copper plumbing or metal ducting).”
- “Lath wire is not in contact with dissimilar metals and/or copper water lines.”
- “At copper or brass-to-galvanized plumbing, a die-electric union completely breaks contact between dissimilar metals.”
Galvanic corrosion can occur in other situations such as incompatibility between a washer and bolt, seismic straps on hot water tanks, or when lath wire comes into contact with a metal window frame. Temperature, water, and salt will impact how quickly metal corrodes, so your third-party or internal QA inspector should include inspection sampling on all fasteners that will be exposed to the elements during construction or that will have the potential for exposure post-construction. Regarding sealants and adhesives, chemical incompatibilities can be challenging to identify and monitor primarily due to manufacturers not necessarily being aware of these incompatibilities until multiple failures are identified and reported. Each manufacturer has its own formulas, which vary greatly in their properties. In residential construction, silicone sealants are highly effective for most general applications. They perform well in all weather. However, they are the least amenable to paint. When silicone sealants are used and are recommended for future maintenance, it is best to include in your homeowner’s documents that only a silicone adhesive should be placed over a silicone adhesive. Adhesives and sealants used in glazing should be carefully evaluated prior to application. Most builders will be able to establish a small group of approved sealants and adhesives, which they can utilize consistently.
One of the most important systems to monitor for incompatibilities during construction is the installation of house wrap or other water-barrier sheathing membranes. These systems can undergo a chemical attack from various external sources such as the following: excess exposure to sunlight, water, additives in stucco mix, tannins in certain cladding systems, adhesives in flashings or tapes, and peel-and-stick membranes. Even soap can cause deterioration of the materials and gaps caused by nonadherence or loss of water-repellant properties.
Not only will inspecting for these situations prevent premature failure of components, but the data will also ensure that all product warranties stay enforceable and are easy to retrieve.
Materials Are Spot-Checked for Possible Counterfeits
Unfortunately, construction products are a prime target for receiving counterfeit or subperforming generic materials. The fact that pricing drives most purchasing decisions makes us easy targets, but as the University of Florida said, “Buyer Beware.” Generic products and/or counterfeit materials are typically made from inferior grades of material and may not only cause construction defects or increased maintenance costs but possibly injure or kill someone.
Builders who incorporate a materials documentation and inventory control process into their inspection protocols can easily spot-check for counterfeit materials. Photographs of the installed materials should be compared against the manufacturer’s website and/or product catalogs. If any differences are found, then further research should be conducted. Verifying that a vendor is a part of the approved supply chain is not enough. Builders should also spotcheck products or containers for other information such as batch control numbers, serial numbers, and manufactured dates. When this information is collected in a database system, very quick comparisons can be made to ensure that a serial number is not used repeatedly (a very high indicator that a part is counterfeited). In addition, manufacturer logos or labels that contain misspellings or that have a smudged or questionable appearance should be further investigated. Obvious signs of poor, substandard, or out-of-control manufacturing processes such as varying component measurements, significant differences in identification markings, predrilled holes or alignment markings, ink smears, and so forth, should cause the material to be pulled until it can be authenticated. If you suspect that a part may be counterfeit, you can contact the manufacturer to obtain supply-chain information and validate serial numbers, photographs, and so on. If the manufacturer is nonresponsive or unavailable, you can utilize websites such as the Government-Industry Data Exchange Program (GIDEP; www.gidep.org).
GIDEP is a cooperative activity between the U.S. and Canadian governments and private industry to track, share, and improve technical data. The program was started to reduce expenditures related to the quality and delivery of materials as they relate to logistics. The GIDEP fact sheets state that the site includes information on equipment, parts, and assemblies that are suspected to be counterfeit. GIDEP members provide fact-based reports on items received that, after visual inspections and, in many cases, extensive testing and analysis, are suspected to be counterfeit.
The group ensures reliable and current information by requiring all participants to draft a detailed report indicating how the technical data was utilized and the effectiveness or relevancy of the data received. Each manufacturer must respond to inquiries about its products or risk having a nonresponsive status posted.
Large production builders should create a Counterfeit Parts Risk Mitigation Policy or at minimum ask to see the Counterfeit Parts Risk Mitigation Policies of any manufacturers with which they have a national contract as well as their supply chains. A good Counterfeit Parts Risk Mitigation Policy includes inspections to gather and retain documentation identifying the original manufacturer, installation instructions, technical data, and other relevant information. Inspections should also incorporate verification of approved manufacturing markings. A considerable price difference among products should raise concerns. If you are being offered a product for a substantial discount over other like products, then there is a very good chance it is either a counterfeit or a generic product, which would not have been produced to the same standards. Always verify the country of origin and request a certificate of conformance, which includes as a minimum, the original component manufacturer name and address; the part number; and traceability identification for the item(s) such as date codes, lot codes, and serial numbers.
Verification of “Complete System” Installation or Application
Many times, a design professional will specify a “system” that consists of several components. Systems in this category are generally found in belowgrade waterproofing, deck waterproofing, and window installation applications, to name a few. Often, the contractor installing a system in the field will substitute a single component of the system due to either cost or availability without submitting the substituted component to the system manufacturer for approval. One of the most common responses from the installation contractor is that the substituted component is superior to the one actually included with the system. This is clearly a statement based on a biased, personal opinion and not one that is supported by any technical data.
When a particular system is specified, it is critical that the system is installed in its entirety, using all of the components identified by the system manufacturer without substitution. Any variance from the manufacturer’s instructions or specifications will more often than not automatically void any system warranty, thus placing liability for a failure directly on the builder, unless of course the deviation was documented during the quality assurance inspection process. This would give the installation contractor official notice that the manufacturer’s installation specifications were not being adhered to and the responsibility for future failure claims would be placed squarely on their shoulders. Certainly the better scenario would be to discover the deviation early and to stop the use of the nonsystem product so that the system components could be installed as specified.
Complete systems often have specific methods of integration into other building components, which opens another avenue for failure. When it comes to specific instructions for integrating the specified system into surrounding components, the situation can be greatly different than substituting a system component due to the many different components in use today. It is possible that the installing contractor may encounter a situation in which it is not possible to complete the integration of the system into surrounding components as specified by the manufacturer. The responsibility would then be on the installing contractor to report and seek out approval of an alternate installation from the system manufacturer. Many times, the installing contractors will take it upon themselves to “field engineer” the system into integrating the surrounding components without ever contacting or seeking approval from the system manufacturer. Quality assurance inspections can and will identify these instances so the installation issue is brought to the forefront and the builder can be made aware of a potential warranty or design issue. The issue is then well documented and the installing contractor is compelled to seek out an approval from the product manufacturer.
A well-designed quality assurance program will identify and document either of these conditions, so any points in question can be addressed during construction, brought to the attention of the builder/client, and resolved while the systems and components are accessible.