One Nation Under Code
The multiple benefits of a single electrical code that could be uniformly applied and enforced throughout the United States was recognized early on by the electrical industry and provided the impetus for creating the first National Electrical Code® (NEC). While different geographic areas may create unique installation considerations (e.g. proximity to salt water, identified seismic areas, corrosive soil conditions, or flooding), the overwhelming majority of requirements in the NEC® are applicable whether the installation is located in Key West, Florida, or Nome, Alaska.
A single set of requirements affecting product construction that provided for uniform enforcement and allowed for the development of national training programs are attributes of a single document that could be used to regulate electrical installations. The fact that every statewide electrician’s licensing examination is based in whole or in part on the NEC has been a significant factor in the willingness of a number of states to enter into reciprocal licensing agreements allowing the electrical workforce to move around the country to seek employment when work in their home state is lean. One electrical installation code used throughout the country enables the electrical industry to move forward in a common direction.
The August 2013 issuance of the 2014 NEC by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standards Council marks the 53rd edition of this country’s most widely recognized, adopted, and enforced construction code. Since the first edition in 1897, the NEC has been revised on a regular basis in order to stay current with the electrical construction industry that relies on it to provide the necessary rules for safe electrical installations in residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial settings.
More so than probably any other system in a building, the electrical system is impacted by advances in technology. Whether it is a new method to distribute and control electrical energy, advancements in circuit protective equipment, an alternative means to generate electrical energy, or providing for the infrastructure needed to support “green” initiatives, it is imperative that the NEC be regularly updated so that its requirements are relevant to the industry that relies on it to establish the benchmark for the necessary level of safety.
Since 1911, the NFPA has been the sponsor of the NEC. The connection between NFPA and the NEC is not understood by many of those who use the document. Simply stated, NFPA is the organization responsible for producing and publishing of the “book.” NFPA’s mission of fire, building, and electrical safety is reflected in its many activities, and the development of codes and standards is one of its important functions. The NEC, also known as NFPA 70, is one of nearly 300 codes, standards, and recommended practices for which NFPA is responsible. All of these documents have a specific scope and purpose as it relates to carrying forth the NFPA mission. For most in the electrical industry, the NEC is NFPA’s best known and most widely used code, but other documents such as NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace; NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code; and NFPA 79, Electrical Standard for Industrial Machinery are other NFPA documents that are used by the industry.
Creating the First Code
Those who gathered to create the first National Electrical Code were visionary. Recognizing the tremendous potential that electrical power offered to a country in the midst of another industrial revolution, the proponents also understood that standardization of wiring methods, equipment, and installation requirements was necessary to promote electrical industry growth. Prior to 1897, five regional electrical codes existed in the United States, and there were also electrical codes being used in Britain and Europe. Seizing the tremendous opportunity to develop a single national electrical installation standard, a group of interested parties met in New York City in March 1896. Attending this meeting were representatives of the American Society of Electrical Engineers, American Institute of Architects, National Street Railway Association, International Association of Fire Engineers, Underwriters Laboratories, Factory Mutual, American Telephone & Telegraph, and General Electric. Interestingly, several of these founding organizations continue today as participants in the National Electrical Code development process.
Using the five regional U.S. electrical codes, plus the Electrical Rules of Germany, The Rules of the British Board of Trade, and the Phoenix Insurance Rules for Electrical Installations (a London-based property insurer) as their starting point, this group developed an electrical installation code that could be used from coast to coast. A fundamental principle that this group set their compass by was a national set of rules for safe electrical installations not only had to have a solid technical basis, they also had to be practical in application.
The phrase “the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity” used in the purpose statement of today’s NEC remains a key element for developing new and revised electrical safety requirements.
The draft document created by this group was circulated to more than 1,200 experts from around the United States and in Europe for review and comment. Once finalized, the National Conference on Standard Electrical Rules issued the first National Electrical Code in 1897. Now, electrical installations from Maine to California could be performed using a single set of electrical installation rules. Manufacturers could nationalize their products, a concept impeded by the existence of five regional electrical codes in the United States prior to 1897.
Revisions to the first NEC occurred regularly as new products, new methods, and new information became available to the industry. The revision cycle was not necessarily fixed, and between the 1897 and 1959 editions the revision cycle extended one, two, three, or during World War II (1943 to 1947), four years. Since 1959, the NEC has been revised on a regular three-year basis with the only apparent anomaly being between the 1971 and 1975 editions. However this was not a four-year revision cycle, rather it was that the 1975 NEC was the first edition to be “post-dated,” which simply means that the edition date is the year following the date when the next NEC is issued by the NFPA Standards Council.
The Revision Process
Making sure the NEC stays current with the industry it is used to regulate is extremely important and the reason why timely updates are necessary. Without regular updates the NEC could lag behind current trends in the industry and possibly hamstring implementation of new technology. The NFPA codes and standards development process, accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), is open to anyone, and therein lays the strength of the NEC. Revisions to the document are initiated by those who are impacted by its requirements. Submitting ideas to change the Code and commenting on those ideas only requires the time involved to put the concept into words using NFPA’s online public input and public comment portals.
The genesis of any change to the NEC is the submission of a public input (formerly known as proposal) to the technical body (known as Code Making Panels in the NEC process) that is comprised of subject matter experts representing major groups of stakeholders impacted by the requirements of the NEC. IEC has a principal and an alternate member on the Correlating Committee and on the 19 Code Making Panels. As part of being accredited by ANSI, NFPA’s Codes and Standards development process has to be open, transparent, absent of dominance by any single group, and afford due process to those who participate.
Consensus, achieved by a 2/3 affirmative vote of the Code Making Panel, is necessary in order to move the process forward and eventually revise the Code. The three-year revision process affords ample time for the initial public input, the actions taken by the Code Making Panels, comment on the initial actions, correlation of the entire document by another group of subject matter experts known as the Correlating Committee, an opportunity for NFPA membership to vote on amending motions, and adjudication of any appeals by the Standards Council. Once all the steps in the process have been completed, the document is issued by the Standards Council and approximately 20 days thereafter, officially becomes the next edition of the NEC.
It is truly an amazing process that has served the industry it is used to regulate very well, and it fulfills the stated purpose of practically safeguarding persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity, which is so important to a society that relies heavily on safe and reliable electrical power for countless numbers of daily activities at home, at work, where they go to school, where they go to receive medical treatment, and where they go for recreation.
The process of keeping the NEC up to date never stops. Work on the 2017 edition of the NEC has already begun. Correlating Committee Chair Michael Johnston has appointed task groups to work on a number of different issues and initiatives, including emerging technologies. Soon, the public will have the opportunity to use the new online public input platform to submit their ideas for revisions to the 2017 NEC. Information on the next edition of the NEC is available at www.nfpa.org/codes-and-standards/document-information-pa ges?mode=code&code=70&tab=nextedition. Don’t be an observer, participate in the process. It is the users of the NEC who know best how its requirements impact what they do, and it is those users who have the ideas that allow the Code to keep pace with the electrical industry.
The continued evolution of the NEC to keep up with advances in the electrical industry was recognized many years ago by those involved with the first edition. It was realized at that time that the NEC would have to be revised regularly so as not to fall behind. NFPA, as a private, independent, not-for-profit standards development organization, affords an open and fair process for the development of a document with such wide-reaching impact.
Once the Code Making Panels have completed their work and the Standards Council has issued the next edition, there is still important work to do. In one of this nation’s best examples of an effective private/public relationship, NFPA offers its codes and standards to regulatory bodies at any level of government to be incorporated into administrative rules or statutory requirements. Throughout the country, agencies charged with public safety by regulating construction or construction trades adopt construction safety codes. The NEC is used by federal, state, and municipal bodies of government to provide the necessary regulations to ensure safe electrical installations. The code adoption step is absolutely critical to making sure that the regulatory community has the most up-to-date tools to perform their important public safety function. Unfortunately, adoption processes have become more politically charged in recent years, and this has not benefited the regulators, the construction industries they regulate, or the public who benefit from the known benefits of construction safety codes. Healthy debate is part of the political process, but undue influence on the part of special interests compromises the integrity of the process, and when it comes to construction codes, it compromises the ability of an industry to move forward because the latest construction codes are not being adopted on a timely basis.
Members of the electrical industry and members of the general public are best served when the latest edition of the NEC is part of their lives. Get involved in your town or state to make sure that the NEC’s 116-year success story is a continuing one.
Jeff Sargent is a Regional Electrical Code Specialist with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). In this role, he supports state and local jurisdictions with the adoption and use of the NEC. Prior to joining NFPA’s Regional Operations Division in 2011, he was a member of NFPA’s Electrical Engineering Department for 15 years and served as managing editor of the 2011 National Electrical Code Handbook and as co-editor of the 2012 NFPA70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace Handbook. He is a regular columnist for NFPA Journal, writing about the NEC® and other electrical safety topics and is co-author of the Electrical Inspection Manual with Checklists.