by Marc Ward
Clay Times May 1998
Well, they're not really the bogeyman, but sometimes they can seem that way. They can be a known menace or an unseen force that suddenly appears out of the blue. They are....The Inspector (insert sounds of screeching violins).
It's the season. Winter's a memory and lots of folks are starting kiln projects, so I'm getting lots of calls about dealing with the official hurdles of building kilns. Some folks are lucky and get a gas supply with little or no inspection requirements. These situations are usually rural and involve LP (propane). The other end of the spectrum is an urban setting and the use of natural gas (NG). I was given the opportunity to give a presentation at this years NCECA (National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts) and this subject came up a few times. The point I emphasized at the conference was simple; Be Nice. These folks have the power to bring your project to a complete halt. Getting angry won't help and usually hurts. So, what do you about the "powers that be"?
The first thing you should do is know the language of what you are doing. Would you trust your car to a mechanic that didn't know the name of the parts or processes of your car? This is the first thing that makes a gas supplier or inspector nervous. A customer that can't answer specific questions about BTU's, pressure, or volume, sends a red flag to that supplier. If you know, and I mean really know, more about what you're doing than the inspector, you'll relieve some of their concerns. No BS., no mumbling, no "everyone does it this way". You need to be able to explain in simple AND technical language what you are doing. A home owner doesn't have to know these things because all the appliances they are using are known quantities that have been UL, AGA, or CSA tested. A kiln is usually not a known quantity and, many times, something you built yourself. Remember, these folks go by the book.....and you're not in the book.
The best place to start is to talk with other kiln builders/users in your area. Find out what they did right or wrong in their approach to the inspection process. Many times you might not know of kilns in your area. If that's the case, get your ducks in a row. Make your decision on burners before you even break ground. Talk to the burner manufacturer about BTU output. If you're making burners or using some 'ole hand-me-downs, know what you've got. If you don't know what you've got, find out. If you can't find out, you need to back up and rethink your project. Too many people select the heart of their kiln without giving it any real thought. Next issue we'll deal with just who is going to put hurdles in your way and how you go about handling those obstacles.
Last issue I discussed some of the things you needed to know about gas and the language of kilns to help get you over the inspection hurdles. Now, on to the folks that are in charge of hurdle placement.
OK, so you've found out the BTU requirements for your kiln. You know what pressure the burners need. Now call the gas company. They are the first stop and, if your lucky, the last. But, many times luck will elude you. Inspectors have two functions. The official one is to safeguard you and the general public. The unofficial one, without being too cynical, is to cover their butt. They don't want an accident to end up in their lap, so they will want to see some approval listings or pass you up the ladder or on to a different department. Be patient. If there is a problem, ask what you can do to remedy the situation. If you live in an area that is tough on inspections, you'll do much better with commercially produced equipment. It has specs and approval codes that will soothe the concerns of most inspectors.
Inspectors fall into different categories, have different functions and different concerns. The first person with the power of yea or nay is the gas company. They are concerned with.....well, gas. They care about gas safety and your combustion system. The next person is the building inspector. They are concerned with zoning, set back requirements, and visual concerns. They aren't going to be making any money by selling you a product (like the gas company) so they are going to be a higher hurdle to jump. Sometimes it can help if you get, in writing, approval from your neighbors for what you're doing. Not official approval, just something to the effect that they don't mind a chimney sticking up in the neighborhood. Again, building inspectors go by the book. You're not in the book. Be creative. Help the inspector by suggesting alternatives. Many folks have gotten past some zoning roadblocks by agreeing to call their kiln a "cooker" or something else. Whatever you call it, be knowledgeable about how a kiln works and how the fuel is delivered. Be able to stress any and all safety mechanisms. The next person you may have to deal with is the Fire Marshall. The Antichrist of kilns. Know where these folks are coming from. They've seen children die in fires, so their main concern is to eliminate the chance of all fires. To them, fire is the enemy. Guess what? They view a small brick room heated to higher that 2000 degrees right next to your house, a pretty dumb idea. You may need to do some educating. Don't be insulting. Be able to give examples. Have them speak with a local college or university. Have them speak with the burner manufacturer. Just help them find some reassurance for what you're doing and the safety of your system.
The last place you may get kicked up to is the local planning commission. Try to avoid this unless you have some Polaroids of local politicians in compromising positions. Kiln users generally don't have much sway at city hall. To them, the negatives of a kiln almost always outweigh the positives.
Remember, be nice. You don't want the official that you're dealing with to pass you on to someone else. The farther up the ladder you go or the farther away from the nature of the kiln you get, the harder it gets to receive approval for what you're doing.