Rough-In: Defined for Plumbing and Other Trades

A home at the "rough in" stage
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In the home building and remodeling trades, particularly plumbing and electrical, the term rough-in refers to a critical early stage after basic services have been installed but before they are complete.

What Rough-In Means

Rough-in is a generic term that can apply to any trade or endeavor but usually is applied to plumbing and electrical work for remodeling or construction.

In a general sense, rough-in refers to the stage of construction after the basic framing is complete and the initial services (such as wiring or pipes) have been installed, but their end-points (such as outlets or fixtures) have not been installed. This comes after the dried-in stage where, typically, the roofing is either fully or partially installed and siding, windows, and doors are also in, at least to the point that they protect any plumbing, electrical, and HVAC installations from the elements.

During the rough-in period, the work is first reviewed by the building inspector. The walls have not yet been closed with drywall or other wall covering. The absence of wall and floor coverings allows for viewing of the work and for easier modification if the work does not pass inspection. Inspectors will typically examine plumbing and electrical work, but they can also perform water- and gas-line air pressure tests or look at HVAC ducting.

Making Changes to the Rough-In

While rough-in is sometimes thought of as a type of "rough draft," this is technically true but it can be very expensive to make changes to this "rough draft."

If the homeowner makes a change order request at this point, the work is easier to do than after the walls have been closed up. The electricians or plumbers would have to visit the site again, changes would be made, and the cycle of permitting and inspection would start all over again.

Not only that but the client pays rough-in changes. As long as the changes are client-driven and not an error by one of the trades or the contractor, changes made to plumbing or electrical work at the rough-in stage are paid by the client.

Plumbing Rough-In

A plumbing rough-in means that all water supply and drain pipes have been run through bored holes in the studs and other framing members and that all pipe connections have been made.

No sinks, faucets, drains, or other fixtures and end elements have yet been installed at this phase. As long as there is enough storage room in the home, it's acceptable and even desirable to have these elements on hand nearby.

If the house will have a concrete slab foundation, plumbing rough-in happens before the concrete is poured.

Waste or drainage pipes take precedence because they are larger and have less flexibility for movement. Next, the water supply lines are installed.

A roughed-in bathroom or kitchen typically has capped PEX or copper water supply pipes jutting up through the floor or wall. Drain lines often are covered to prevent debris from entering.

A rough-in plumbing installation will need to be pressure-tested before it is deemed complete.

Electrical Rough-In

With electrical work, a rough-in means that all electrical cables have been pulled through studs and other framing members and are inserted into wall and ceiling boxes.

Light switches, outlets, lights, and other devices are not attached. Inspection of that aspect of the work occurs during the final inspection.

After the inspection, though it may be tempting for the homeowner or one of the contractor's crew to make required changes, especially if the changes are minor, only the electrician can do so. This is because the work is done under that electrician's license, so the electrician is responsible for all aspects of that work.

How Rough-In Fits in the Building Process

Roughing-in should be completed before the first visit from a building, electrical, or plumbing inspector. These inspections fit into the typical workflow like this:

  1. Wall, floor, and ceiling systems are built and left open. No drywall has been installed at this point.
  2. The electrician comes in and runs an electrical wire from the service panel to various endpoints, such as outlet receptacles and light switches. Within each box, the wire is left bare-ended and unattached.
  3. Around the same time, the plumber comes in and runs supply and drain pipes through studs and under floors to kitchen and bathroom sinks, showers, bathtubs, or laundry rooms.
  4. HVAC equipment and insulation are installed, to be part of the rough inspection process.
  5. Inspectors make the first visit and approve or fail the work. A fail only means that the work needs to be altered.
  6. Drywall installers come in to hang and finish the drywall. After this point, everything behind the drywall is effectively locked away and not intended to be seen again. In the event changes need to be made, the drywall can always be removed but this is not preferable.
  7. Electricians, plumbers, and other tradespeople return and install end-point devices, such as outlets, lights, and light switches for the electrician, and sinks, showers, and bathtubs for the plumber.
  8. Inspectors make a second visit.
  9. The building permit is approved (sometimes referred to as "finalled") or not. If the permit is not approved based on problems with the installation, the work must be corrected. The inspectors will return until work is completed to their satisfaction.

Rough-In Expectations 

Building trade professionals approach the rough-in with the expectation that the installation is final, not a work-in-progress. The goal is for the building inspector's visit to be anti-climactic: a perfunctory visit that verifies that work expected to be done has actually been done.

The same should be true for any homeowner performing remodeling work. The rough-in should be your best-effort work done exactly to specification. Some building inspectors might be informative and helpful to the homeowner especially since communities want to discourage secret, non-permitted work. But building inspection is not intended to be an advice session. Even well-meaning building inspectors may need to quickly move on to the next inspection.

If an inspector should order a modification, or if a homeowner client asks for a change, the fact that the work remains accessible will make it easier for those changes to be made.