Going Global

Published On
May 15, 2020

I have been asked many times over the years what electrical code other countries use. Does IEC stand for International Electrical Code? Does this affect electrical professionals who only work domestically?

I will answer the last question first so that you can decide if you want to read further. Because of our global economy, what happens in the electrical marketplace globally affects the domestic market. So, who are they and how do they operate?

The National Electrical Code is used throughout the United States, including the territories. Countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America also use it, as do some Asia-Pacific countries. Canada uses the Canadian Electrical Code, Part 1, which is harmonized with the NEC .

Around the world

Much of the rest of the world uses a number of standards to accomplish what the NEC does. Three standards development organizations affect the electrical industry around the world: the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC); the International Organization for Standardization (ISO); and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). ISO is the best known because of the ISO 9000 quality standards and the ISO 14000 environmental standards. It is also well known for its photography standards. Many of today’s digital cameras have an ISO setting, which sets the camera’s sensitivity to light.

All three organizations are based in Geneva. ISO and IEC are private-sector organizations, and ITU is a U.N. entity much older than the U.N. itself. The U.S. representative body for ISO is the American National Standard Institute (ANSI). The U.S. representative body for IEC is the U.S. National Committee of IEC, which is staffed by employees of ANSI. However, it has its own management structure. The ITU membership is a member-state or government membership, and the U.S. Department of State is the official representative.

The Federal Communication Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration are also part of the administration team. A number of private-sector entities are sector members or associate members of ITU.

ISO deals with most areas of standardization, except for electrical and electronic standardization, which are handled by IEC. Some product area standardization is handled by both ISO and IEC. A large joint committee, JTC1, handles some joint standardization projects for ISO and IEC.

The close collaborative nature of the relationship among ISO, IEC and ITU, along with international preference for more global standards, gives the three organizations easy access to the U.N.

IEC has published 10,700 documents that include standards, technical specifications, technical reports, publicly available specifications and miscellaneous standards and conformity-assessment-related publications. ISO has published 23,077 standards. ITU has published more than 4,000 standards. In some areas of standardization, such as smart cities, the three organizations may have related standards. They often work together to eliminate conflicting requirements between organizations.

IEC standards are electrical standards, which potentially affect the NEC and product standards used in the United States. NEC Articles 505 and 506 are based on IEC standards. Article 505, “Zone 0, 1, and 2 Locations,” is the IEC equivalent to Class I locations. Article 506, “Zone 20, 21, and 22 Locations,” combines Class II and III location requirements into one article.

The standards from a variety of U.S. SDOs are increasingly based on IEC standards, including many product standards. In the case of Underwriters Laboratories, the telltale sign that a product standard is based on an IEC standard is that the standard number is five digits and begins with 6. Often the IEC-based standard completely replaced the previous UL product standard. The new standard contains the IEC standard with U.S. amendments considered necessary to integrate the product into U.S. infrastructure.

Back home

The United States has had a well-established standards system for many years. The country’s size and its market have been a major advantage for companies doing business here. Previously, there was a patchwork of standards used in other countries. Now, many are using IEC standards, or CENELEC standards, which are IEC Standards with European amendments. Many manufacturers now favor IEC standards because it makes it easier to design one product that can be marketed internationally. Countries can adopt an IEC standard with national amendments. Even where there are national deviations, making differentiated products is simpler than having to make products in accordance with vastly different product standards.

Different voltages and line frequencies can present challenges for making common products. In the electronics industry, the switch-mode power supplies, used to power computers, cellphones and other electronic equipment, have been an important innovation. Switched-mode power supplies will provide a fixed DC output as long as the input voltage is somewhere in the specified range from 50 and 60 hertz sources.

The principal differentiation is the cord-cap used. Manufacturers may need to use a different flexible cord and plug arrangement for different countries. Travelers who use computers and cellphone chargers in multiple countries with different distribution systems now simply need the appropriate plug adapter, rather than having to travel with a completely different power supply. Years ago, international travelers needed converters to adapt the available power to a standard 120-volt output.

International trade agreements, such as the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement, have called for harmonizing codes and standards to eliminate nontariff barriers to free trade in this hemisphere.

Technical assignments

ISO and IEC assign technical work to various technical committees (TCs). The ones most directly related to the NEC include TC 64, Electrical Installations, which has a scope somewhat similar to the NEC and NFPA 70E, and TC 31, Equipment for Explosive Atmospheres, which includes material covered in Articles 500-516 of the NEC , along with several other NFPA standards. Other TCs address a variety of equipment used in the electrical infrastructure.

The U.S. National Committee has mirror committees, known as technical advisory groups (TAG), which provide U.S. positions for the development of new standards and revisions to existing standards. U.S. representatives also participate in the IEC TCs, project team, and working groups. Unfortunately, many of the TAGs do not have much participation. Manufacturers and testing laboratories have the greatest interest in effective product standards. However, the TAGs and the IEC technical committees don’t necessarily have balance.

ISO and IEC have voting systems for approving standards based on the principal that each country receives one vote. Countries in the European Union (EU) often vote the same because they use common standards, which are EU amendments of IEC Standards. European methods usually become part of IEC standards. The electrical systems of the Americas have many similarities, so the United States, Canada and Mexico often vote the same. Some U.S. requirements are relegated to “in some countries clauses” in IEC standards with support from countries such as Canada and Mexico.

However, IEC membership dues are not equal among the countries. Dues are based on the member country’s economic capacity and electricity consumption. The United States is in the top tier of country membership dues, with only five or six other countries.

In some regions, the industry relies on supplier’s declaration of conformity (SDoC) rather than product listing. I have heard at international meetings “One standard, one test worldwide, supplier’s declaration of conformity.” This is particularly true in Europe. SDoC is a self-certification of compliance. For products marketed in the European Union, the marking consists of the letters “CE” surrounded by stars. This certification implies the manufacturer has evaluated the product for compliance with the applicable standards. Most European electrical standards (known as CEN or CENELEC standards) are based on IEC standards. The European version may delete “in some countries” clauses.

The electrical safety system used in the United States relies on product standards and third-party listing. Electrical inspection authorities rely on listing marks to ensure compliance with product standards. If a listing mark is not present, a field evaluation may be requested to ensure the product can be installed safely. In a field evaluation, the product will be evaluated against an existing products standard, if available. The major difference between a field evaluation and a normal listing process is that during a listing process, samples will be subject to testing, which may destroy them. This is not practical when evaluating one-of-a-kind items installed in the field. Listing also involves ongoing surveillance of current production of the product to ensure that the product manufactured today continues to comply with the product that was submitted for initial evaluation.

SDoC does not rely on an outside party to ensure the current version of the product is the same one that was originally certified. Nor does it ensure that updates to standards result in necessary changes to products currently being produced. Reliance on this system depends on the faith placed in companies to police themselves.

The United States has good code and product standards, however, what happens globally does affect what happens locally. More U.S. participation in what happens globally strengthens what happens domestically. Standards should be adopted because they are safe and not simply because they are international.

About the Author

Mark Earley

Mark Earley, P.E., is an electrical engineer. Retired from the National Fire Protection Association, he was secretary of the National Electrical Code Committee for 30 years and is president of Alumni Code Consulting Group.

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