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ICC Standards are doing more harm than good for residential applications (Part 2)

In July of this year I posted a blog regarding ICC requirements and residential permits, read previous blog here. In that blog I posted some difficulties with ICC regulation and residential permits. Specifically that the requirement of soil borings and its reverse effect on helping homeowners.

On smaller residential projects the requirement soil tests are expensive and burdensome especially on small projects. A two pile project might cost $3000 and the soil boring typically costs more than that. This has an effect of discouraging the homeowner for making the decision to do any work at all because it is so burdensome. I have had many home owners cancel the project because of this.

How is this better? They now are doing nothing or finding a contractor to do it without permits.

If this procedure produced any substantial benefit that would protect homeowners I might agree that it is worth the cost. However I don’t believe that is the case. Let’s look at the facts.

  1. I think we are trying to solve a problem that does not exist. How many failures have occurred as a result of a lack of soil information on lightly loaded structures? Does anybody know that information? I certainly have not heard of any cases. As far as I know there has been very little failures as a result borings not being performed. It is possible that with some pile systems that are less robustly engineered that there have been some failures. However I am not arguing to abandon the ICC testing and verification altogether. Only the requirement for soil boring.
  2. In residential applications the factors of safety are so high that the soil information almost becomes irrelevant. (usually 6:1 or more) Helical and push pile products return soil information that can verify the load carrying capacity at each installation, making soil verification much less relevant. In fact each pile installation can be viewed as a mini pile load test which in most engineer’s eyes is more reliable than calculations from soil borings.
  3. On commercial projects with heavy loads and more complicated loads soil borings provide helpful information to simulate and determine which pile is best suited for the application. On almost all residential projects that information will not change the design of the pile because the pile is so overdesigned for residential loads. So in essence we are going through an exercise that has no effect on the installation pile or procedure.
  4. Because of the above noted issues and the fact that most installers understand these issues intuitively, the overwhelming majority of pile installations on residential projects are done without borings, totally ignoring the ICC’s requirement. If this is the case, then what kind of precedent is this setting up in the industry where a requirement is universally ignored?

So why does this unneeded and unhelpful and counterproductive acquirement continue? Partially I think because it was built into the code by structural engineers who have less of the comprehensive knowledge of geotechnical factors. The IBC section 1810 calls for all deep foundation products to have soil borings. This is because originally deep foundation products were things like caissons and micro piles that do not return soil information or any verification of their carrying capacity. When helical piles were brought into the code, no one could convince the ICC that it was not needed at least in a lightly loaded structure.

Because of this when code officials read the IBC codes and ICC ESR’s for helical piles, the lack of understanding is transferred to municipalities who chose to enforce the code as written to protect themselves from potential lawsuits, even though I don’t think there have been any structural failures to speak of let alone suits as a result.

Critical thinking, cost/benefit, and big picture thinking seem to be absent from this whole process and everyone wants to simply point to the poorly thought out precedents that have no real world justification, to justify a lack of thoughtful responses.