Updating the Playbook
Every three years, electricity becomes a little safer with the adoption of new National Electrical Code (NEC) requirements, and 2014 saw the latest updates. Staying abreast of code expansions is essential, and it’s also an opportunity for electricians to learn more about innovative safety products. Many of the latest devices are more versatile, solve problems, and save time.
Perhaps the biggest change impacting electricians on residential jobs is arc fault protection—the use of smart breakers (and outlets) that detect electrical arcs, or unintentional discharges of electricity across a circuit, which may cause fires. Arcs can occur at loose connections or where wires or cords have been damaged. This year the code expanded to include kitchens, making the protected circuits mandatory in virtually every room where people spend time. When you pull a permit, you must upgrade the breakers in the home.
Arc fault circuit breakers and arc fault outlets are essential components used to meet this code. For example, The Home Depot carries arc fault breakers from all major brands and arc fault outlets from Leviton. These devices protect against fire by continually monitoring the electrical current in a circuit and shutting it off when unintended arcing occurs.
There are multiple ways to meet the code requirement, says Ted Curtis, The Home Depot merchant for circuit protection and conduit/boxes/fittings. In the case of kitchens, where GFCIs have long been required to guard against shock, “we now stock a dual-function arc fault/ground fault breaker from Square D. So you can do it at the breaker level with dual function, or you can have an arc fault breaker in your panel and the traditional ground fault outlet in your kitchen to meet code.”
A second NEC change affecting electricians is the extra-duty rating requirement for in-use covers on exterior electrical outlets. Curtis notes that homeowners use these outlets frequently—think spotlights, power equipment, and holiday lights—and over time the covers break off. Without the heavy-duty covers, rain or other weather can cause a short circuit.
GFCIs got tweaked this year, too. Code now requires the installation of devices that test themselves every few minutes and shut off if they’re not in order. “Traditionally, if you have a bad GFCI, you still have current and the outlet still works,” Curtis says. “The new GFCIs have a visual indicator that shows when the shock protection is not working.”
If installing these devices isn’t second nature yet, it will be soon, says Paul Lingo, training director at IEC Rocky Mountain. “With everything required to be on AFCI or GFCI circuits, we will see a huge demand for these types of protections,” he says.
The expanded codes may also mean higher profit margins for electricians. “If someone is requiring a service change, electricians can charge $2,000 to $4,000 now because of the different breaker boxes and the way it has to be done,” Lingo says.
Mike Miller, owner of Miller Electrical Advisor, Aurora, Colorado, sees a similar scenario. “We’re doubling and tripling the time it takes to do a service change for an existing house,” he says. “We have to go through the house and identify every circuit, possibly terminate it, and buy double the amount of breakers.” However, meeting the updated code requirements in new construction is fairly simple, he adds.
Have Your Say
Beyond concerns about time on the jobsite and profit margin, few people will complain about the code’s intention of keeping people safe. In fact, you can have a say in developing safety measures for the next code cycle. In a time-honored tradition dating to 1897, code change requests are submitted in a public process and then voted on and written by volunteer panels vetted by the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), according to Bill Burke, division manager of electrical engineering at the NFPA. The NEC has 19 technical code-making panels, he says. Anyone can propose a change, and suggestions are sent to the appropriate panel, comprised of about 15 principal members and their alternates.
No one interest group is allowed to dominate in the deliberation process. “Our committee members are balanced among installers, enforcers, manufacturers, engineers, organizations such as IEC, and the like,” Burke says. No industry group can represent more than 30 percent of the committees. The folks proposing changes are typically inspectors who see things they don’t like, installers trying to make the job more efficient, or concerned engineers.
If you’ve been mulling over issues that should be addressed in the NEC, now is the time to voice those concerns. “We are working diligently on the 2017 changes,” Burke says. “If you want to make a change and don’t put your oar in the water by November, you will have missed the 2017 cycle.”
Cheryl Weber is a freelance writer specializing in the built and natural environments. She has written for Residential Architect, Architect, Custom Home Outdoors, The Washington Post, Remodeling, Builder, Washington Home & Design, and other publications.