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A Beginner’s Journey: Tips to begin navigating the National Electrical Code

By Derek Vigstol | Nov 15, 2023
STOCK.ADOBE.COM / ELLENGOLD / MAXIM_KAZMIN
For me, it all started a little over 20 years ago. A spark that ignited a passion for learning about all things electricity and drove me to make the best career choice ever—to become an electrician. 

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For me, it all started a little over 20 years ago. A spark that ignited a passion for learning about all things electricity and drove me to make the best career choice ever—to become an electrician. First, however, I quit my pursuit of an engineering degree and enrolled in a program that would teach me how to harness the power of the electron in a safe and useful manner. After a couple of years on the waiting list, I was sitting in my very first class that would introduce me to the world of NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code.

The instructor was a gentle soul, and he was my first introduction to learning all about the NEC. I have many fond memories of those days, many of which involved Mr. Plude’s great sense of humor. One thing that will always stick out about our time together was how he so plainly put the reality of learning the NEC: “You don’t have to memorize the whole book. Just memorize a process to look up whatever you need to know.” 

This wisdom is gold for a Code geek like me. I don’t need to know every word on every page, I just need to know how to use the Code book like any other tool in my arsenal. And thus began my journey to becoming the guy who won an NEC trivia game sponsored by the NFPA and eventually landing a job at 1 Batterymarch Park, in Quincy, Mass.—NFPA headquarters.

I never would have thought that a kid from Minnesota would end up being the voice on the other end of the phone when an NFPA member or AHJ called the technical questions hotline, but there I was. I owe it all to the philosophy of learning how to find what I needed in the NEC and not trying to memorize the book. I am here to share my experience with you in this new Code How-To column.

Using the Code

Section 90.2 lays out the purpose of the document and is a key statement about learning how to use it. We can break this section into two parts. The main part describes the NEC’s purpose: the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity. 

The other clarifies that the NEC is not intended to be used as a design specification or instruction manual for untrained people. This section made clear to me that I would not be able to just simply pick up the book and be an electrician—I also needed training.

Second, the NEC covers most of the rules for installation, but it does not account for everything. This book is about practical safeguarding, not best practices.

If I was going to learn how to use this book to my advantage, I needed to understand how it would be a basis for my training.  I would still need to install electrical equipment in a manner that would be more efficient and cost-effective and provide for better safety. By understanding this purpose, I could go forth and learn how to use the NEC to my advantage as a trained electrician.

This was also the mentality I brought to the classroom when I began to take others on this same journey. Don’t memorize the book, because we are going to become trained professionals that will only need to reference the NEC as a method to ensure our more cost-effective, efficient and safe installations are above and beyond minimum requirements.

The best place to start

Where do we start? The foundation of how to find anything within the NEC is to understand the document’s layout. However, it is important to note that the process I am about to explain will likely be different going forward, as there are already plans to change the layout of the NEC in the 2026 edition. Keep in mind that this document is ever-evolving. For now, we will go by the structure of the 2023 edition.

The NEC is laid out in three major divisions:

  1. Requirements that cover all installations in general (Chapters 1–4)
  2. Requirements that cover special or specific situations (Chapters 5–8)
  3. Reference materials (Chapter 9 and informative annexes)

We can break this down even further and put requirements into specific buckets:

1. Requirements that cover all installations in general (Chapters 1–4)

  • Requirements that apply generally to installations (Chapter 1)
  • Requirements for planning/setting up the installation (Chapter 2)
  • Requirements for the materials used to build the installation (Chapter 3)
  • Requirements for equipment that will use the electricity (Chapter 4)

2. Requirements that cover special or specific situations (Chapters 5–8)

  • Requirements for installations in special locations (Chapter 5)
  • Requirements for installations of special equipment (Chapter 6)
  • Requirements for installations involving special conditions (Chapter 7)
  • Requirements for installation of communication systems (Chapter 8)

3. Reference materials (Chapter 9 and informative annexes)

  • Reference tables as required by chapters 1–8 (Chapter 9 Tables)
  • Nonmandatory information to help apply NEC requirements (informative annexes)

With the requirements of the NEC laid out, finding the right part of the Code to reference is easy. I ask myself a simple series of questions, and the answers point me in the right direction: 

  1. Am I installing power or communications systems? If it is communications, I go to Chapter 8 first. If the answer is power, I go to question 2.
  2. Does this installation involve any special locations, equipment or conditions? If so, I put a bookmark in the article that corresponds to the special situation and then move to question 3.
  3. Does my inquiry involve the equipment that will use electricity? (Chapter 4 or 6)
  4. Is the inquiry about the materials I will use to build the system to supply electricity to the equipment? (Chapter 3 as modified by applicable chapters 5, 6 or 7)
  5. Does the inquiry involve planning or laying out the installation, or is it a more generalized question? (Chapter 2 or Chapter 1 as modified by applicable chapters 5, 6 or 7)

This process at least gets me into the correct ballpark. The next stage will require further digging into the specific articles identified in the initial questionnaire. However, that is a topic for the next month’s column, when I’ll dive a little deeper into the rabbit hole of learning how to use and understand the Code and examine an article’s structure.

stock.adobe.com / Ellengold / Maxim_Kazmin

About The Author

Vigstol is an electrical safety consultant for E-Hazard, a provider of electrical safety consulting and training services. He is also the co-host of E-Hazard’s electrical safety podcast “Plugged Into Safety.” For more information, check out www.e-hazard.com.

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