As the electrical industry is poised for some big changes—with the continued development of smart grids, alternative energy and the rapid expansion of data centers—codes- and standards-making bodies are crafting new standards and clarifying old ones. For electrical contractors, the challenge is to follow the latest electrical codes and standards when designing, specifying and installing any electrical system and to be prepared to educate customers who are not knowledgeable about the new rules.
The next edition of the National Electrical Code (NEC) is due in 2014, but work is already underway on its development, said Jeff Silveira, standards director at BICSI, an information technology systems group.
“There’s a lot of buzz in the air,” he said, referring to technology that has not yet reached the mainstream, such as smart grids. These technologies will certainly appear in the codes and other telecommunication standards. At this time, he said, everything is about looking forward to smart grids, green construction or energy-related management, such as with solar panel or lighting controls installation. Despite the many changes expected, Silveira said cable will still need to be run.
“We’re talking about installing a slightly different box on the wall and, for that, slightly different regulations,” he said.
The 2014 NEC development process currently has more than 3,600 proposals submitted that must be considered, said Michael Johnston, executive director of standards and safety for the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). Technical subcommittees are at work on these submissions and are acting on proposed changes, many of which are proactive and progressive.
“It’s imperative that any applicable codes and standards for the built environment not be viewed as obstructions or roadblocks to progress ut, rather, as an essential component of our electrical safety system,” he said.
Evolving alternative-energy technologies are also being discussed for standards developments for the 2014 NEC edition, Johnston said. And since reduction of energy use in buildings is paramount for end-users, the latest energy codes are being developed with a focus on incorporating performance requirements that address those needs.
“It’s important that these energy codes continue to provide the performance requirements that drive the installation requirements,” he said, adding that NEC technical committees have responded proactively to be sure the codes remain as an integral part of the smart grid for example.
One of the primary market-driven changes in the works is the increasing integration of networking telecommunication wiring into a building’s entire electrical system. Such structured cabling systems also are increasingly providing a comprehensive telecommunications infrastructure. This infrastructure is intended to support a range of telecommunications services including telephone and computer networks and building automation systems. Within those systems, other supporting technology, such as the machine-to-machine (M2M) hardware, is yielding new codes and regulations.
In 2011, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) introduced the Smart Device Communications Reference Architecture Standard 4940, the first to address M2M technologies and markets. It should provide a standard for the equipment automation architecture for sending signals from one machine to another. The standard will work across both wired and wireless transport layers and also account for security, end-to-end performance, scalability of equipment and networks, and device management. It came about as a response to the growing use of cloud computing for the mobile enterprise; a TIA committee sought to establish standards for this market, while an engineering committee was also set up to define how users in the industry engage with the cloud. Their recommendations were also incorporated into the TIA 4940 documents.
However, change is not swift. Currently, few contractors are working with technologies such as M2M. While contractors can already install a box on commercial or residential walls to send data to utility companies, the utilities are not moving as quickly. Power companies have to spend money to make that happen, which could lead them to request a raise in utility rates from local government, Silveira said.
To understand just what regulations may change the industry most rapidly, many look to California, which has some of the more forward-thinking laws in place now or scheduled for the next decade that would, for example, require reduction in the carbon footprints of manufacturers or other businesses.
When it comes to data centers, one study found that the data consumed by wireless devices will double within the next three years, which will require that much more power for all that data storage, BICSI’s Silveira said. Data centers are being constructed nationwide to meet the hunger for information storage by companies of all kinds. Codes and standards are changing to meet that growth. Data centers have unique needs, which made the new standards necessary.
“Anybody working hard at business development should be looking into this area [of data center construction],” said Kerry Engmark, RCDD, operations manager at Cannon & Wendt Technologies, a Phoenix electrical and datacom contractor.
There also is a trend, according to technology research firm Gartner, toward consolidation of midsize data centers while the mega-data centers enjoy robust growth.
Focus on the future
In the past, Johnston said, “revisions to the NEC have been reactive to industry progress.” Revisions were incorporated as the statistics or identified required needs. However, that has been changing over the past two decades, he said, adding that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the NEC technical committees proactively have been approaching the writing of new rules and revisions to old rules.
“For good reason,” he said. “Technology is advancing in many areas often faster than codes and standards can be developed.”
The 2014 NEC is also expected to address which loads on the premises can be controlled and which cannot.
“It is also important the energy codes include specific energy-reduction performance for buildings, that they be able to refer to the installation rules in the NEC, rather than start developing installation rules in those other codes, adding an unnecessary level of confusion,” Johnston said.
Electrical contractors would be best served by knowing the latest standards and codes when it comes to low-voltage installations and maintenance and sharing what they know with the customer, Engmark said. He focuses on educating himself at conferences, such as the BICSI exhibitions, where he can talk about standards and government regulations and learn about products. He also shares that knowledge with his own staff members to ensure they are all keeping an eye on changes.
“I want to understand the trends,” he said. “I want to expand my product knowledge.”
Engmark also said he asks himself, as a contractor, what the company is doing to create an environment in which the client is learning.
“As we go down this path, my next direction will be vendor-specific training,” Engmark said.
Product vendors can provide a unique opportunity for education, and Engmark is in the final stages of a certification program for use of Cisco technology. The high-level education Cisco offers a curriculum that is also taught at colleges.
Ultimately, codes and standards will continue to offer guidance in areas of change that center around a very stable infrastructure.
“The electrical code has been around 100 years,” Silveira said. “[But,] what’s really changed in the industry? We’re still putting cable in walls. The applications may change, but it’s still electrical power.”
SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.