Changing the Code: The Process Behind Submitting Proposals for NEC Changes

0719 Code Applications Image Credit: NFPA
Code amendments were presented and discussed at the technical committee reports meeting at the NFPA Conference and Expo. Image Credit: NFPA

As I finish my last of 10 cycles as Secretary of the NEC, I marvel at the changes during the nearly 40 years of my involvement. We have seen numerous new technologies, from electric vehicles to solar photovoltaic systems to wind turbines to power-over-ethernet-connected buildings everywhere. However, many things have remained fundamentally the same. So what are the main points for someone looking to get involved in providing input to the NEC ?

Does NFPA write the NEC?

One thing that hasn’t changed in 40 years is who develops the NEC —the public. Over the years, many people have given me their opinions about an NEC requirement or something they believe should be included. My response has been, “I look forward to your public input.” Public input is the opportunity to develop an idea for review by an NEC code-making panel. Simply conveying your idea to me won’t “get ‘er done” as a neutral facilitator of the process. I don’t advocate any positions. The responsible panel needs to hear your idea from you! I am happy to discuss people’s ideas, but they have to present a convincing idea to a panel. The panel must understand exactly what the idea is. It should be fully developed, including the necessary Code language. If you have a network of colleagues, you may want to consider discussing it with them. A number of organizations, including NECA, regularly contribute to NEC development.

The basics

To make a very long process seem a little shorter, there are two meetings of the 18 panels and NEC Correlating Committee. In many cases, each panel creates a task group, which is a subgroup made up of a few panel members and others to take a first look at submissions before their panel meets. The panel meetings are nine months apart, and the first is typically held on the East Coast and the second on the West Coast. These meetings offer the opportunity to submit ideas. But remember, no new material can be considered in the second round, so get new ideas in during the first round. You can always polish them in the second round.

Each panel considers each idea (called a public input in the first round and public comment in the second round). If a panel likes an idea, they make the change (or any part of the change they agree with) in a revision; if they don’t, they resolve it and provide the submitter a committee statement explaining the decision. The idea can be modified, or additional substantiation (preferably data) for the original idea can be added and resubmitted in the second round.

If, after the second round of panel consideration, you still don’t like the panel’s decision, you can challenge it at the NFPA Conference & Exposition in front of the membership present. If you still don’t succeed during all the other steps, you can appeal to the NFPA Standards Council, a group that is like the Supreme Court over all the other lower courts (panels). A successful appeal must contain a compelling reason to overturn the results of the Code process.

Who can submit?

Anyone except NFPA staff can submit public inputs and comments. Many submissions are from electricians, inspectors, inventors and contractors. Sometimes companies or associations develop submissions, but they still must be submitted in the name of an individual.

Format and nerdy (but necessary) rules for text development

Once you have developed the text you’d like to submit and determined a proposal within the Code , it is always good to do a final check in the NEC Style Manual. It is available for download it from the NFPA website at www.nfpa.org/assets/files/AboutTheCodes/70/NEC_StyleManual_2015.pdf.

I will warn you that the NEC Style Manual isn’t for the faint of heart. It provides a lot of detail that can seem overwhelming. Some of the big rules include that the Code language only provides requirements. It does not include guidelines, recommendations or suggestions. Use of the word “shall” in every sentence characterize requirements. Informational notes are just that; they provide information, not recommendations, permissions or interpretations. If an interpretation is needed, the language should be rewritten to eliminate the need for an interpretation.

The Code language should be as succinct as possible. Submissions that are the most fully developed have the best chance. Also, remember a recommendation to the responsible panel that simply reads “fix XYZ” gives the panel very little to work with. A recommended change includes proper wording that is usable, adoptable and enforceable. In other words, it is brief and to the point.

What makes a submission persuasive?

A good substantiation that succinctly presents the justification/reason for the change is a crucial component. Often, less is more. We live in a busy society where we are all deluged with information. When friends and colleagues send files, the smaller ones tend to get our immediate attention, and the larger ones are postponed, sometimes indefinitely. Similarly, the more succinct the information in the substantiation, the better. The submission should be substantial enough to make the argument clearly. Many submittals include supporting material.

How much is enough, and how much is too much? For a complex change, more information is often needed. Fact-finding reports from independent laboratories are often very helpful. If submitting a fact-finding report, a summary of the conclusions may be helpful, as long as the complete report is also submitted. When a fact-finding report is not submitted at the public input stage, the panel will often ask for them to be submitted for the comment stage. More data with a succinct summary is better earlier in the process and often yields the best results.

Often, the text submitted to modify the NEC or the reports or data cited in the substantiation is the property of another individual or company. The submitter of a public input or comment must have the rights to submit the material they are submitting. This includes the language that is being submitted, substantiation and any supporting material. This is a question of ownership and use of copyrighted intellectual property. Even if it isn’t evident that it is copyrighted, the owner’s permission is needed. Often submissions include technical journal articles the submitter did not write. Submission of copyrighted material slows down the process. Because the record of public inputs and comments is published online, the submitter must contact the copyright holder to secure permission. The NFPA cannot publish copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright holder. If copyright permission is not obtained, anyone wishing to see that part of the submission must go to the NFPA. So before submission, ensure you provide the NFPA with the proper permissions.

Submission

Now that you have the perfect public input or comment, it’s time to submit. In the past, changes were submitted on paper; now NFPA exclusively uses an online submission tool. The tool provides a path to directly write Code language. If the change is to existing Code language, the submission tool provides the existing language that can be modified. It isn’t necessary to retype the text. This improves accuracy.

Should you attend the panel meeting to make your case?

All NFPA committee meetings are open. Those who wish to make a presentation should get permission from the chair in advance. Depending on the meeting’s progress, you may have a limited window of time (typically 5 to 10 minutes) in which to make your presentation; the chair has wide latitude to limit presentation durations. Your participation will be limited to your presentation and responding to any questions. You will not be able to participate in the subsequent discussion. The meetings are conducted in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order, which requires all discussion to be through the meeting chair.

The NEC Correlating Committee

The Correlating Committee will review all of the work of all of the Code-making panels. The Correlating Committee does not make technical changes. It reviews the reports to ensure compliance with the NFPA Regulations Governing the Development of NFPA Standard and compliance with the NEC Style Manual. The Correlating Committee also ensures the panels are acting within their scope and will correlate the actions among the panels.

The entire process is designed to be transparent. All meetings are open, and all the documentation of the meeting actions are available online. This is intended to ensure the process for changes to the NEC and other NFPA codes and standards is fair and produces the highest quality product possible. The NFPA process may not be perfect, but I’d say it does a pretty good job.

About the Author

Mark Earley

Mark Earley, P.E., is the chief electrical engineer. Retired from the National Fire Protection Association, he was secretary of the National Electrical Code Committee for 30 years.

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