Pulling Back the Curtain: How and why major work on the National Electrical Code really gets done

When I was first involved with the NEC , there were several ad hoc subcommittees. Some were assigned a very specific task to meet over lunch or in the evenings during a committee meeting. Others met between the panel meetings and were usually assigned larger tasks. Some longer-term groups had done some very notable work.

Voltage

The voltage ad hoc subcommittee’s plan was to use the terms low-, medium- and high-voltage in the NEC . Their work resulted in a number of proposals to begin using those terms. Between the first panel meetings (then known as the TCR meeting) and the second panel meetings (then known as the TCD meetings), the correlating committee had time to consider the implications of the change.

We electrical people tend to be very precise. The correlating committee considered what would be the appropriate energized parts warning label for equipment operating at 480V. Should it be “danger—low voltage?” We were struck by how such marking would be interpreted.

Nonlinear loads

The ad hoc subcommittee on nonlinear loads was convened to consider the implications of all of the electric discharge lighting and variable speed drives that were coming on the market and the emergence of personal computers, which were starting to use switch-mode power supplies. These technologies change waveshapes and generate harmonics, which won’t cancel out in the neutral conductor, resulting in increased neutral current.

There were no hard and fast rules about how much distortion current could be expected. Therefore, informational notes and some Code rules to consider the available neutral loads were inserted into the Code in several places, including 210.4(A), 220.61(C), 310.15(E), Table 400.5(A)(3), 450.3, 450.9, 520.2, Table 520.44(C)(3) and Chapter 9, Example D3.

Ad hoc subcommittees were replaced by task groups, which are essentially the same. They exist for a limited period of time for a defined purpose, so when their work is complete, they are discharged.

After the 1996 cycle, the Usability Task Group was created. Its job was to try to make the Code more user-friendly. For the 1999 Code cycle, it reviewed the structure of chapters 3 and 4. New articles in Chapter 3 were inserted where there was room. The chapter included wiring methods and equipment. Some articles were moved out of Chapter 3 and into Chapter 4 because they covered equipment. The articles were also reorganized to group like articles together. This resulted in similar raceways being grouped together, and cable articles were arranged together. The task group also recommended a standard format for all articles about wiring and raceways.

Standby power sources

After the 2005 Code was issued, we discussed the need for new requirements for a more robust standby power source than the systems covered in Article 700. At this point, we had experienced the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, 9/11 and several devastating hurricanes. Article 700 is fundamentally a power supply system that is intended to ensure power for the safe evacuation of a building.

The correlating committee created a task group to consider what Article 700 is intended to achieve, to consider if changes were needed or if a new article was necessary to address the needs of mission-critical facilities.

The task group believed that Article 700 could remain with its current scope, but a new article was needed for mission-critical facilities that required a certain level of hardening so their survivability could be more certain during an emergency. Examples of such facilities include police and fire communications centers and 911 call centers. In some areas, these facilities are distinctly separate. In others, one or more may be combined.

As timing would have it, the meeting took place while Hurricane Katrina was pounding the Gulf Coast. As the meeting began, reports circulated that the levees around New Orleans had been breached. Some news reports included stories of failed generators. The task group put together a draft of the new Article 708, Critical Operations Power Systems. This task group was subsequently designated as Code-Making Panel 20 for one cycle. For the following cycle, the new Article 708 was reassigned to CMP-15.

Prior to the 1999 cycle, each member of the correlating committee would be individually assigned to review the work of designated Code-making panels. One person was the primary reviewer, one was the first alternate and another was the second alternate. No two people would have the same group of panels to review. The members worked alone and would not usually communicate because it was an individual assignment. Consensus building took place in the full correlating committee meeting. After many cycles of this method, it was decided to organize the correlating committee into task groups. Task group assignments were based on trying to group together similar subject matter. The results were much better, and the correlating committee meeting went more smoothly.

The old way

Until the 2017 cycle, proposals and public comments were sent to Code -making panel members and alternates to review prior to the meeting so they could offer individual recommendations. The system worked fairly well, but there were problems. The panel could have a number of proposals on the same section, some of which contained different recommended actions. If a panel wasn’t careful, contradictory actions could result.

The correlating committee, with the help of staff editors, would identify conflicting actions and direct the panel to fix them. However, directing a panel to fix text could only take place at the proposal stage. If it happened at the comment stage, the correlating committee would review the conflicting actions and try to make a decision on the best course of action. Sometimes, they would be forced to hold the actions of the related items so they could be resolved in the next cycle, through a TIA or through an action on the floor of the NFPA annual meeting.

The new computer platform

Starting with the 2017 cycle, the processing system for the NEC changed significantly. For 20 years we used FileMaker Pro, an off-the-shelf database software package, to process the NEC , and the initial templates were all built around the Code .

After the 2011 Code was processed, a new custom software package was developed for processing all NFPA codes and standards. It was decided to develop this process using the other NFPA codes and standards first, so that by the time we started to use it for the NEC , it would be much further along in development. The NEC was the last document put through this new process and is constructed differently than most of the other NFPA codes and standards. The NEC presented some challenges to the software, but over time, most of the problems have been worked out.

One of the greatest features of the new software was that it prevented the creation of conflicting text. Only one action could be taken to change an identifiable piece of text. This meant that all of the public input to change a piece of text needed to be considered at one time so the panel would not be starting and stopping every time they turned the page of the agenda.

Task forces

A new work strategy was necessary. It was decided that all of the panel work would be divided up and assigned to task groups of panel members. The chair of each CMP would assign the work based on the anticipated needs of the panel. The work could be by article, groups of articles or smaller pieces. For example, sections 110.26, 210.8 and 210.52 always receive plenty of public inputs and comments.

The chair may deem it necessary to assign one or more Code sections to a task group. The task group reviews all of the public input for that section and develops a proposed action for consideration by the entire panel. Where the section can be subdivided, the task group can recommend individual actions for the subdivisions, but this may not be necessary. It is usually the preferred action only where some of the subdivisions are considered controversial, so that some of the work can proceed if some of it could stand on its own and it is still worthwhile that it move forward.

It is important to remember that the task group is not the consensus body. It is merely a subset of the panel charged with making a recommendation for consideration by the full panel. The full panel is the final deciding body to vote on a panel action. Does task group work get rubber stamped? No! Some of it does get modified. Sometimes, it gets sent back for further work.

What is the benefit of task groups? They give full consideration to concepts submitted by the public about the Code and establish a direction. That preliminary work results in a much better Code . All NFPA meetings are open, including task group meetings.

When I first joined the NFPA staff, we only tended to interact with members of the CMPs at those two meetings per cycle. Otherwise, most of us were strangers. In our rapidly moving industry, that is not a good way of getting anything done. By the time I retired, we communicated much more frequently. The panels are much more engaged and it shows.

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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