The Minimum Standard
If you have been involved with the electrical construction industry for even a short period of time, you have probably heard the National Electrical Code® (NEC) referred to as the minimum standard. Electricians, engineers, inspectors, and others use this phrase to describe a standard that details guidelines and requirements for safe electrical installations. This standard organizes these requirements into a single resource, updated and published every three years.
States and local jurisdictions commonly adopt the NEC as at least one of the official documents governing electrical installations. By mandating the NEC as a law, the local governmental body, or Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), can implement an inspection process to ensure compliance with the NEC. Many jurisdictions outside the United States also adopt the NEC as a guideline for electrical installations.
Many years ago the NEC contained the statement, “The requirements of this Code constitute a minimum standard.” The statement was amended over time and by the 1968 edition it read, “This Code contains basic minimum provisions considered necessary for safety.” The sentence was eventually deleted.
90.1(B) of the 2014 NEC declares, “This Code contains provisions that are considered necessary for safety. Compliance therewith and proper maintenance results in an installation that is essentially free from hazard but not necessarily efficient, convenient, or adequate for good service or future expansion of electrical use.” The Informational Note states, “An initial adequate installation and reasonable provisions for system changes provide for future increases in the use of electricity.”
This verbiage is used in an attempt to explain what perhaps could be simplified into, “NEC requirements constitute a minimum standard.” Nevertheless, the term minimum standard has stuck with people associated with the industry and is often repeated by electrical contractors, journeymen, inspectors, and instructors when discussing the NEC. More importantly, attorneys and insurance investigators are quite aware of the significance of the term.
Far too many electricians are of the opinion that the requirements of the NEC are the boundaries we work up to. In fact, the NEC standard should be, at the very least, the starting point of any electrical installation. A good contractor realizes the importance of providing the consumer with a better than minimum installation, allowing provision for future expansion. This is why architects and engineers specify materials, equipment, and install practices to be of a higher quality than what the NEC requires. As far as “the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity,” we should all consider the NEC as defining the absolute bare minimum level of electrical installation safety.
States and local jurisdictions often adopt the NEC, yet amend it to include rules or requirements that are more stringent than those of the NEC. These amendments may address climate or soil conditions and other issues that are pertinent to the locality.
Local building and electrical codes should be properly substantiated and be subject to the same rigorous public review process that NEC requirements are. Unfortunately, they sometimes are not. Proper substantiation includes technical data, research papers, and records of life safety incidents, to name a few. When local jurisdictions start believing it is their responsibility to “fix” gray areas of the NEC, trouble is brewing.
Many localized, self-appointed code writers do not keep themselves abreast of the utmost current developments of the NEC. They may even create amendments that are in direct contradiction to the logic exercised by the NEC Code Making Panels. The NEC suggests that the AHJ has the responsibility to interpret the rules, not necessarily write them. If someone feels a section of the NEC needs to be added to, subtracted from, or corrected in any way, they should submit a proposal to the National Fire Protection Association or become an active part of the development process.
I believe that a grave mistake is made when jurisdictions amend the NEC to leave important sections out. A worse case scenario is created when a jurisdiction generates a requirement that is less restrictive than the NEC allows. The origin of less restrictive local amendments can usually be tracked to reasoning that is political or cost driven. When it comes to electrical safety, politics and job costs should never be a consideration. After all, how can a local standard be minimal to the minimum standard?
Ron Alley is the executive director of the Northern New Mexico chapter of IEC. He is a principal member of Code Panel 18, a member of the IEC National Codes & Standards Committee, and a member of the Electrical Technical Advisory Council of New Mexico. He is an ICC certified electrical and building inspector, a licensed electrical contractor with Journeyman certification in Colorado and New Mexico, and has 42 years in the electrical construction industry.