How Important Is Interpretation?


Fuses and circuit breakers protect lives and property from damage during electrical faults. The most common hazards include overload and short circuits. Some also protect against ground faults—whether they are ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) or ground-fault protection of equipment (GFPE) devices—while others protect against arcs. Current-limiting devices are also available for protective devices against large inrush currents. Some that only protect against short circuits are used for fire-pump applications. More exotic protection schemes are available for some specific applications, such as under-voltage, loss of phase and excess power factor. The need for exotic protection is not a minimum National Electrical Code requirement. The higher levels of protection are often dictated by the risk or impact of a higher level of damage on the installation.

Electrical installations are not the only ones where protection methods are used to minimize damage from unusual conditions. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)’s Boiler and Pressure Code contains requirements for combustion safeguards to protect boilers and pressure vessels. Common safeguards include fuel oil pressure and atomizing air pressure interlocks, combustion air interlocks, high and low gas-pressure interlocks, and low-water-level interlocks.

Hydrolevel was a small company that manufactured a low-water-cutoff device. Low-water cutoffs stop the fuel supply to a boiler when the water level falls below a certain point. This prevents dry-firing the boiler, which could lead to explosions. The cutoff point is usually the lowest point in the sight glass gauge.

When Hydrolevel entered the market, there was a dominant manufacturer (Company X) of low-water cutoffs that made a float-type device. The Hydrolevel device differed because it was a probe-type device that incorporated a time delay, which was intended to prevent unnecessary activation caused by surges or bubbles in the boiling water.

A Company X employee served as vice chair of a subcommittee for the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, which had responsibility for low-water cutoffs and interpreting requirements.

After Hydrolevel won a contract with a customer of Company X, employees met with the chair of the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code subcommittee to discuss the concept behind the new product.

The question involved whether low-water cutoffs could employ a time-delay feature.

The subcommittee’s chair was an officer of a company that inspected and insured boilers and machinery. The chair and vice-chair were part of the group that developed an interpretation question that was submitted under the signature of another Company X employee. It was the standards development organizations’ (SDO) policy to send interpretation questions to the chair of the responsible subcommittee for interpretation, and the SDO was unaware the chair had participated in discussions resulting in the interpretation question he was answering. The chair of the subcommittee could issue informal interpretations, which would not require a subcommittee vote. The response was issued as such. The interpretation indicated that time delays were not permitted.

Company X’s employees used the informal interpretation to indicate the Hydrolevel product was noncompliant with the requirements of the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code. Hydrolevel was unaware of the interpretation letter for several months. When Hydrolevel learned of the letter, it appealed to ASME. A revised interpretation was issued that indicated a time delay was permitted, as long as the cutoff operated before the water level reached a certain point. This would have allowed the Hydrolevel cutoff to be used. However, by that point, Hydrolevel was unable to recover from the damage to its product, and the company closed.

Hydrolevel sued ASME, the dominant manufacturer and the boiler insurance company. Company X and the insurance company settled with Hydrolevel out of court, but ASME did not. The lawsuit continued despite Hydrolevel’s business failure. ASME defended the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately rendered a decision against ASME.

The court noted the committee members acted within their apparent authority in rendering their interpretation and acting as agents of the SDO. The defense also argued they didn’t financially gain from the interpretation and should not be held responsible for others’ actions. The original interpretation was rendered in 1971, and the case was argued before the Supreme Court in 1982.

The Hydrolevel case drew attention from SDOs around the country, including NFPA, and some filed court briefs. Many tightened their interpretation processes to ensure they could not be manipulated. Today, NFPA interpretations are mostly staff opinions rather than formal interpretations. Committee members are discouraged from rendering interpretations unless they make it clear the interpretation is a personal opinion and not NFPA’s official position. Formal interpretations must be questions that can be answered with a yes or no. They must be balloted on by the entire Code-making panel or technical committee, and, if the committee has a correlating committee, it also will be balloted.

Formal interpretations can be issued under limited conditions. The interpretations can only deal with the literal text, and they cannot be used as a method to create new requirements. These conditions where interpretations are not permitted are outlined in Section 6.1.5 of the Regulations Governing the Development of NFPA Standards. There are four specific areas.

  • An interpretation that involves the determination of compliance of a design, installation, product or equivalency of protection. The committee can’t operate as a testing laboratory or inspection entity. Even if the staff handles the interpretation, there are limitations on what the staff can do, and they can’t provide product or installation evaluations.
  • An interpretation that involves a review of plans or specifications or requires judgment or knowledge that can only be acquired as a result of on-site inspection. The committee can’t be involved in installation-specific judgments nor will the staff. A few times, I have had people send me sets of plans or sketches. My response was always the same. “I have not reviewed your plans.” Questions involving plans can be very tricky. The question may focus on a specific area, yet some other part of the plans is not in compliance. The fact that they crossed my desk could expose me to liability.
  • An interpretation that involves text that clearly and decisively provides the requested information. There is no reason for a committee interpretation where the code language is clear and unambiguous. Yet, occasionally, people contact NFPA to ask the committee if they really meant what the code already says.
  • An interpretation that involves subjects that were not previously considered by the committee or that are not addressed in the code. Interpretations cannot be used as a way to write code language. If it isn’t covered by the existing language, it isn’t covered. It may be necessary to submit public input into the committee process to have it considered for the next edition.

This is a brief summary of a complex case. It took place a long time ago, but it affects what happens in code work today. I am not a lawyer and am not attempting to render legal advice.

Codes and standards affect commerce. If the processes are not properly followed or do not have adequate safeguards, there can be significant financial consequences. All codes and standards professionals are educated about the Hydrolevel case because understanding what has gone wrong helps us all to recognize why rules are in place. It also helps those in the process to recognize when things are going off the rails.

What happened in the Hydrolevel case is the reason why NEC informal interpretations are typically handled by the NFPA staff, and are characterized as personal opinions. If a committee member provides an interpretation, they must indicate it is a personal opinon. If a formal interpretation is processed, it is handled through the entire Code-making panel and the NEC Correlating Committee. It is then published on the NFPA website.

Developing voluntary consensus standards is an enormous responsibility. The process must have integrity and safeguards to ensure no one can game the system.

As I was told many times by NFPA’s legal staff, it isn’t just the wrongdoing that is a problem. It is also the perception of wrongdoing. The public must have faith in the system. The NFPA process is overseen by its standards council, which reports to the NFPA board of directors. Interpretations can be appealed to the standards council, and so can staff interpretations.

If the interpretation isn’t satisfactory, it may be necessary to submit a change for the code’s or standard’s next edition. Changes between cycles—tentative interim amendments—have a higher bar for submission because there must be a compelling reason why it can’t wait for the normal process.

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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