Introduction: Getting DIY Projects Government-Legal

About: bicycles, gardening, and other important stuff

This is a guide to taking something you've built and getting an inspector's stamp of approval on it.

Disclaimer: this is not meant to bash government workers or anybody else. There are plenty of good people working in every line of work. Unfortunately, there are also lots of people who like to throw whatever little authority they have around. Think of this as a bit of intellectual ammo in case you meet members of the latter group:)

This Instructable draws on my recent (yesterday, as of this writing) experience stuffing my DIY pedicab down the City of Austin's collective throat, but I tried to use this only as an illustrative example. I'm certainly no expert on navigating bureaucracies, but I've found very little written by others on this subject. Please comment with your tips, tricks, criticisms, and pointers to any better resources!

Step 1: Know What You're Getting Yourself Into

If you're lucky, the process of getting your project approved will be an exercise in collaboration that restores your faith in government. If this is the case, you don't need this guide and I'd like to move to your municipality.

In far more cases, projects that don't come from a factory make it difficult for the dude with the stamp to decide which box to check. This can be a total deal killer, and you need to accept that possibility before embarking on a journey into bureaucracy. Trust me: once you've sunk hundreds of hours into a project, the temptation to pursue the stamp you need at any cost of time and energy can be irrestible.

When we're building physical stuff, you can usually trace back failure to specific systems, components, connections, etc.: the process of making things is logical; while I may dislike a material's physical characteristics, I can at least try and understand them. Chasing a government's stamp of approval is binary but unknowable: you may or may not ever get the approval, and you probably won't know the real reason why either way.

Step 2: Make Something Worthwhile

So, if you're comfortable devoting significant time and energy to chasing this elusive seal of approval, make sure you've got a project that you care enough about to fail at.

If you can say something like any of the following, your inspectors are at a substantial disadvantage:
"I had such a great time building _____ that, even though I really want it to be street-legal, it was worth doing regardless of if I get that stamp"
"My open-source _____ has real potential to help the world by _____. If I can't get it approved, it'll still help make the world a better place."
"The idea of trying to get the Department of _____ to approve my _____ is so crazy that it just might work. And, if it doesn't, it sure will make for one hell of a story!"

For me, my pedicab met this test. No, it won't cure all the world's energy woes tomorrow. But, it did provide me with a challenging project that expanded my understanding of bicycles. I wouldn't have been happy if it never passed inspection, but it would still have been worth the time, energy, and money I invested.

Step 3: Expect and Endure Special Treatment

If you remember one thing from this Instructable, make it this: your inspector has no incentive to accept anything out of the ordinary. Government jobs typically reward governing, maintaining the status quo. Your average code enforcement officer isn't going to care that you think your idea could change the world, and he may also not care about how you can quantify the benefits of your homebrew project.

Again, this isn't about fact: it's about getting a stamp.

On my piddly pedicab project, I dealt with all of the following:
-Fired from previous pedicab-driving job because of pressure from city bureaucrat on owner of pedicab company I worked for
-Threatened: "if you keep pushing this, I'll tell all the pedicabbers it's your fault when I change regulations"
-My plans disclosed to potential competing manufacturers (they're now open source, but they weren't then!)
-And, a government office shut down when I tried to record my 4th attempt at inspection

And this was to get something you tow with a bicycle approved; many cities don't even bother to regulate pedicabs at all. My thoughts are with any of you trying to get projects involving wastewater or other sensitive areas passed!

Step 4: Know Your Options for Escalation

If you don't pass with flying colors on your first (or first 5) inspection attempts, don't think your only option is to keep knocking your head against the wall. That's certainly one way to go, but here are some others:
-Do extra homework. Expect to get asked about your design to levels of detail that no "official company" producing the product has, and be ready to provide this detail.
-Add some sunlight to disinfect. Most states allow one party to a conversation to record the conversation; if you're in the U.S., you can look up your specific state's rules here. If you're being treated differently because you built your project, consider recording this behavior to bring the light of day to your favorite bureaucracy!
-Find other bureaucrats. If your project's green / artsy / otherwise something you can position as making your community a better place, use a tip I learned from my newspaper editor dad: a pissed-off councilperson can be a huge pain. Maybe your story is an opportunity for them to win some votes by publicly smacking down a bureaucrat of lesser ranking?
-Consider the crowds. Would your product help somebody? Is it interesting? If no to both of those, is it really worth working on?

On my specific example:
-Here's the rudimentary, incomplete, and possibly inaccurate analysis I provided after several failed inspection attempts (big PDF).

-Here's the videotape from my 4th inspection attempt (if the city hasn't sent another takedown notice):

-Here's the text of an email I sent to other bureaucrats, after a personal phone call:
Subject: Austin City DIY Discrimination
Hello (name),
It was good speaking with you. As per our conversation, you can find documentation of the incident here: .
Thanks for your help in this matter.

-Here's the text of an email I sent to local media (tv, radio, print):
Subject: Austin City DIY Discrimination
Hi (station name),
Thought you might be interested in the treatment I received Friday from the city of Austin: .
I've got more details and records of all the interactions with the city if you'd like to hear more.
Have a good one,

For me, a higher-ranking city official ended up applying the pressure I needed to get a fair inspection. I was able to attract some interest in initerviews from local media, too!

Step 5: Persist, or Don't

For me and for many other makers, knowing when to quit can be a very tricky matter. If you care enough about something to create it in your garage, it can be next to impossible to know when to fight and when to switch gears.

I'm afraid I don't have any great advice on this one: it's a balance I wrestle with myself. Just remember that, regardless of what bureaucracies approve of your project, there are plenty of challenges to work on. And, for most projects of reasonable size/odor/explosiveness/volume combinations, you can likely get away with having your illegal prototype without too many officials spilling their stamp ink!

On my pedicab example, I think I was about to have to give up and contemplate getting a normal job *shudder*:-)

Step 6: Succeed or Fail, Say Thanks!

I flat-out couldn't have completed my project without the support of my girlfriend, family, and friends: it's draining to have somebody whose approval you legally need fail your project 5 times!

If you're anything like me, you lean on these people extra-gratingly during times like these. Say thank you to them, whether you succeed or fail. There will be other projects either way, and you're more likely to have them to lean on if you apologize for your behavior during the latest battle:)

Step 7: And, Share!

On Instructables, it should go without saying to tell others about what you've done and how you've done it.

For the weirdness that is passing government inspections, please tell us how you've failed, too!

And remember, whether you get somebody's stamp or not, it's the making of things that counts. That stamp can have strong financial, morale, and esteem impacts for you, but it's ultimately just that. The offical using the stamp probably didn't even make it himself:)

Happy making, and good luck at those inspections!