As the 2008 edition of the National Electrical Code (NEC) nears adoption by jurisdictions across the country and beyond, there are rising concerns about changes and additional new requirements. Each edition of the Code brings changes that are driven primarily by the motive of improvements in electrical safety for people and property, the purpose of the Code. The NEC provides the minimum requirements for safe electrical installations. Essentially, this means installations must be equal to or greater than the contained rules. With any change comes anxiety and apprehension, a natural reaction.

There are three new NEC requirements that are receiving an excessive amount of attention. They deal with improvements in safety for unsuspecting children in dwelling occupancies and expanded requirements for protection against arcing faults, and additional requirements for ground-fault circuit interrupter protection. The merits of each change as they relate to safety. Within the throes of debating cost and compliance with minimum safety rules, it is important to remember those who benefit from the requirements: consumers. Typically, the general public is unfamiliar with the electrical rules keeping them safe both at home and at work.

May is designated as Electrical Safety Month, so it is appropriate to review a few key safety improvements resulting from enhanced requirements in the NEC.

Purpose of the NEC

The NEC’s purpose is clearly evident in the introduction of the text. Section 90.1, the very first rule, indicates that the purpose of the Code is the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity. This long-standing requirement serves as a simple and straightforward reminder of the basics of electrical safety. Compliance with the NEC rules results in electrical installations and systems that are essentially free from hazards. The NEC is the minimum set of electrical rules that must be followed for compliance and assurances that occupancies are safe from potential electrical hazards. Without question, consumers expect electrical safety, even when they are not aware of the rules that make residences and businesses safe.

Adopting the NEC

Code-enforcing jurisdictions are busy with their adoption processes. Entities that adopt and use the NEC have the benefits of a document that has been developed and maintained by qualified technical committees through an open consensus process.

When the NEC is adopted by a jurisdiction, it usually is through a process that makes it law. Where the NEC is adopted legally, anything less is illegal. That is an interesting way of looking at it, but it holds true, especially in a court of law. Often jurisdictions adopt the NEC without amendments because the jurisdiction places trust in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the open consensus Code-development process. Most jurisdictions are not interested in writing their own Code rules when the minimum has been clearly established through substantiation and fair deliberation. Some jurisdictions adopt the NEC with amendments that are usually more restrictive than the minimum set forth in the NEC, and such modifications are necessary because of unique conditions.

Most jurisdictions adopting construction codes, including the electrical Code, understand the importance of maintaining a minimum standard for electrical safety. So why would any jurisdiction delete electrical rules from the already established minimums developed in the NEC? In some unique instances or because of special conditions, it may be necessary to modify or amend the minimum standards, but this usually is done to be more restrictive and for justifiable and defendable reasons.

It is important that jurisdictions consider the risk in such actions. Such modifications to electrical safety rules that lessen the minimum requirements can present liabilities and result in less protection for people and property than consumers deserve. The problem is that the voice of consumers is seldom heard or considered in a jurisdiction’s Code adoption process. The consumers and unsuspecting public just expect their electrical systems to be safe and meet the latest safety requirements. As well they should. After all, the building safety department of any major jurisdiction has the consumer’s safety in the forefront, or at least they should, right?

The development process

Qualified technical committees develop and maintain the rules in the NEC on a three-year cycle. These technical committees have a huge responsibility to review all proposed revisions and new requirements and, through consensus, establish the rules that make electrical systems safer. History has demonstrated that Code rules are typically born from evidence that clearly indicates a need to reduce electrical fires and injuries and deaths of people. Installations that adhere to the minimum requirements in adopted codes and standards result in reduced numbers of electrical fires, electrical injuries and deaths. The data speaks loudly here. The NEC is the most widely adopted Code in the world and the most comprehensive set of electrical safety rules for installations and systems. Its development is through an open consensus process involving everyone, including electrical contractors. Everyone can participate in this development process, resulting in a Code that is the most complete set of rules.

Improved electrical safety in dwelling units

The 2008 edition of the Code has been revised to improve electrical safety in dwellings by the continued expansion of arc-fault circuit interrupter protection, ground-fault circuit interrupter protection, and introducing a new requirement for listed tamper-resistant receptacles in areas and rooms of dwelling units as specified in 210.52. The deletion of Exceptions 1 and 2 to Sections 210.8(A)(2) and (A)(5) result in increased levels of protection against electric shock and electrocution in unfinished dwelling basements, garages for dwellings and accessory buildings. Section 210.12(B) was revised to continue the incremental expansion of arc-fault circuit interrupter protection in most areas and rooms of dwellings. And a new Section 406.11 has been included to require listed tamper-resistant receptacles in all areas where receptacle outlets are specified in 210.52. These three revisions to the Code demonstrate the continued improvement in electrical safety for dwellings and, more importantly, the occupants.

Electrical Code rules are developed and enforced with the objective of protecting people and property. How can anyone argue against revised or new requirements that improve electrical safety for people and property? What does the consumer want and deserve? How significant is the additional cost? The appropriate and responsible responses to these questions are that the consumer deserves the benefit of the latest safety features in electrical systems. The added cost is insignificant when compared to the benefits. If consumers are made aware of the types of protection afforded by these new requirements, they undoubtedly will want them in their home.

Not compromising safety (risk management)

Electrical safety should not be compromised by efforts to circumvent NEC adoption by jurisdictions. The risk management departments of inspection jurisdictions strongly advise not compromising the minimum requirements of national standards that they adopt, especially when the reasons are not safety driven and usually are not defendable. Often the risk management departments are unaware of this type of activity. It is no secret that some groups are actively lobbying jurisdictions to reject adoption of the current edition of the NEC for reasons related to cost. As safety requirements change, so does the cost of doing business. Successful and reputable organizations understand this concept and know the marketing benefits, as well.

Here is something to think about: When the cost of building materials increases, does the cost typically get passed on to the customer? Yes. Yet, when the cost of building materials decreases, does the customer see these discounts? Probably not.

Organizations that are proactive and proficient in business understand the value of keeping current with the latest safety requirements that ultimately affect consumers. It is to the advantage of electrical contractors to understand the latest electrical Code being enforced by jurisdictions where they perform work. This step in the preplanning process of any job is important.

Integrity of the NEC

When the NEC is adopted into law and enforced, the consumer benefits. Any requirements deleted from the Code in the adoption process results in a compromise to already established minimums. It is risky business to selectively choose to delete new electrical Code requirements for reasons related to cost or other reasons that are not related to safety. This results in a compromise in the integrity of the Code.

Nobody wins when the NEC adoption comes under attack by groups that apparently oppose electrical safety, the primary purpose of the NEC. NEMA and NFPA address the cost of this compliance with the additional requirements in the 2008 NEC in detailed fact sheets and comprehensive information they provide to the public free of charge (see box for valuable links on the Web). Get the facts about how the cost of dwelling unit construction is affected before opposing requirements that are driven by well-substantiated revisions that demonstrated clear evidence of improvement needs. The benefits of protection far outweigh the minimal additional cost to meet the 2008 NEC requirements.

The NEC technical committees have a big responsibility to act in the interest of safety and the best interest of protecting people and property. The result is a Code available for adoption and enforcement by building departments, a Code that has the integrity of the most extensive and fair development process in the world. The integrity of the NEC and the electrical safety it provides should not be compromised by selective adoption.

The Electrical Code Coalition

The Electrical Code Coalition is a group of industry organizations concerned with proper Code development, adoption, application and enforcement that supports the safe use of electricity. These organizations include, but are not limited to, the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Edison Electric Institute (EEI), International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The integrity of the NEC has to be upheld without compromise to have the end result of electrical safety within the home and beyond.

The NEC provides the minimum requirements for safe electrical installations. Compliance with the NEC rules provides electrical systems that are essentially free from hazards to people and property. New rules in the Code will require more GFCI protection, expanded AFCI protection, and enhanced protection for unsuspecting children from shock and electrocution hazards at receptacles.

Efforts to circumvent these new requirements are ongoing and should be carefully considered by Code adoption authorities. There are risks in operating below the minimum electrical safety rules. Subtle reminders through unpleasant statistics are readily apparent. The minimum requirements for electrical safety are compromised when local adoption processes lessen them by deleting rules selectively and without reasonable substantiation. There always should be justifiable reasons to lessen the requirements of already established minimums. Consumers deserve responsible leadership that has their interests and safety first, rather than interests that are not safety driven.

When it comes down to it, the bottom line should always be electrical safety and the integrity and history of the rules that provide that positive result for the consumer.

JOHNSTON, former director of education, codes and standards for IAEI, is NECA’s executive director of standards and safety. He is a member of the IBEW and an active member of the NFPA Electrical Section, Education Section and the UL Electrical Council. Reach him at mjohnston@necanet.org.