Protect Yourself With the NEC

Why the National Electrical Code and what is its purpose?

The why and what really are the same: NEC is a standards document intended to protect personnel — like you, me and our families — and material, such as your station equipment.

The National Electrical Code is an amazing document, one of the oldest, most widely quoted and recognizable standards extant. It is also one of the most misquoted and misunderstood documents not read by people who should have done so.

This is unfortunate, as the application of the NEC has a daily, profound effect on us personally and professionally.

Think about it. How many times today have you turned on a light, switched on an appliance or used electric power in some manner? Every electrical function that you initiated was somehow touched by the mandate of the NEC.

The universe of electric power can be divided into three traditional worlds: generation, delivery and consumption. Generation and delivery, in the past, were the realm of utilities; consumption was ours.

Today this is not necessarily so. New economies bring competition to generation — for instance, electric power is the largest monetary export of Canada — and to delivery, where multiple purveyors compete for customers trying to achieve lowest dollar costs (sounds like broadcasting!).

Things are changing, and you soon may be responsible for delivering your own power or generating some portion of your own.

The NEC primarily involves the world of consumption, defining standards from the place where the utility leaves off to the place where kilowatt-hours are used to do work.

From private to public

The NEC has an interesting history. It appeared during a transition period, around 1898, when early power technology purveyors and entrepreneurs such as Thomas Edison (DC) and George Westinghouse (AC) started to get out of the “soup to nuts” electric business. The custom had been for a single source to sell into mainly commercial or municipal markets the access to generation, power delivery, switch gear, premise wiring, lighting, utilization equipment, right down to instruction on use, maintenance, even new electric arc light stock. Essentially the customer enjoyed turnkey operation.

Electricity soon started moving into homes. With that, wiring began to be done by people without technical training.

The insurance industry recognized the need for standards. It would be impossible to insure all the places where power equipment was located unless wiring and devices met minimum standards.

The greatest risk was from fire or personal injury precipitated by improper installation or utilization of electricity. This was a real concern. Materials were not sophisticated (e.g., the covering on wire was often knitted and embroidered cotton over paper), and no universal standards assured uniformity among manufacturers.

The National Fire Protection Code, the fire insurance industry’s standards tome, got its first electrical section in late 1897. That section blossomed into the NEC.

Progressively, it developed into an independently published document as a more expansive, cohesive, specific text with more than 1 million changes implemented in the last 110 years over subsequent editions, perfecting older details while simultaneously assimilating and covering new materials, technology and techniques.

In paperback the 2008 NEC runs something close to 1,000 pages. An updated NEC comes out every three years or so. The latest copy on my desk is dated 2008; according to the publisher, the 2011 edition begins shipping in November.

One way I can tell if someone has actually ever read the NEC is to ask them how it begins. Essentially, the document starts with definitions but then continues by explaining itself in the first section — what it is and what it is not.

What it is: a set of standards that, if followed, will result in a safe (hence insurable) electric installation. What it is not, we are cautioned by the authors, is a “design manual.” For that reason, we also are cautioned that by following the NEC, our installation will be safe, though it will not necessarily be efficient. As long as the installation is minimally compliant, the optimization design for efficiency, suitability and quality are left to the engineer.

Who knows better?

I frequently encounter two phenomena: an arrogance among station personnel (including management) that they know better than the NEC; and “horror stories” involving broadcast electrical installations.

Most of these disasters, it appears, occurred when there had been no attempt to follow the dictates of the NEC.

The NEC does not and has not appeared wholly formed right out of the head of Jupiter. Over the years, thousands of knowledgeable people like you, from across the industry, have provided input and labored over substance and language to meet the goal of safety. In a typical version update, more than 1,500 people are involved on dozens of subcommittees, trying to optimize a few thousand words of changes. These folks typically bring 30,000 years of experience to the task.

Do you think that with your meager experience of a single lifetime, you or anyone around you should undercut them on safety factors?

The NEC normally has its greatest impact on us during new construction or retrofit, when engineers and contractors are most involved; the NEC affects both.

I have a leg in both camps; I am not only a registered professional engineer but also a licensed electrical contractor in several states. These are separate yet complementary activities.

An engineer has a strong mastery and knowledge of concepts and a workable knowledge of materials and their use. Conversely, a contractor has a strong knowledge of materials and a workable knowledge of concepts.

An experienced engineer can design for you an installation that is not only safe (NEC-compliant) but also more efficient, flexible, reliable and expandable. But even the best contractors may not be tuned into the specific needs or challenges of your station, although they will supply a workmanlike and compliant (hence, safe) installation.

Building codes and inspections

The National Electrical Code precisely is Section 70 of the National Fire Protection Code, or NFPC. The latter gathers codified safety standards for many types of installations, where there is a potential for fire danger and personnel injury (for example, range exhaust hoods for food preparation areas are covered in Part 94).

In most jurisdictions, an official body is involved in the permit and inspection process for new and retrofit construction. For most folks and their businesses, such as your station, that is the building office of your local municipality. Most of us interact with this authority in the person of the “building inspector.”

To draw together the plethora of codes and standards that affect construction, the Building Officials Code Authority publishes the BOCA code, which, with rare exception, is the umbrella standards document used by most inspection agencies.

For the most part, the NFPC and with it, the NEC, are taken whole form into the BOCA — similar to how the EIA-222 standard is taken in to cover construction and modification of tower structures. However, when you apply for your building permit, you should specifically inquire about the codes, the exact version used and what mandatory inspections are required.

Many jurisdictions have additive codes; the NEC is taken in whole body and an additional set of regulations are strapped on. Massachusetts, for instance, has specified exactly the color code for wire that should be used with various voltage systems. The NEC provides some latitude.

Certifiably Buc!

Author Charles “Buc” Fitch has been named Educator of the Year by the Society of Broadcast Engineers. Radio World nominated him in recognition of his many contributions to industry knowledge and training, including his Certification Corner series in RW Engineering Extra.
Also, many municipalities use a previous version to maintain uniformity among inspectors and to allow all arbitrated decisions to have been finalized regarding new inclusions before they implement that version of the NEC. There are many locations still using the 2005 code such as Connecticut (at last check), and not the current, 2008, edition for this reason.

In regard to inspections, most locations require at least two: all rough-in and finished wire systems that will be hidden by walls, and a final. Occasionally, that final inspection can require all loads running so that the inspector can do a voltage drop, current and balance check.

In some locations such as Saratoga County, N.Y., inspections are done by a third party such as an independent underwriter, with the results being supplied to the building office and/or utility.

If they are going to be the inspectors, do not connect a wire to a screw before you speak with and arrange for the underwriter. Their involvement varies tremendously from location to location. Many locations that use underwriters require advance design approval.

On some projects involving major construction or elaborately designed systems, a peer review is substituted. In Massachusetts, these are known as Section 116 or 127 inspections, wherein the proponent hires an outside engineer (like me) who in turn actually works for the building inspector. As the project evolves, designs are reviewed, inspections are made, reports of these are filed by the outside engineer with the BI and the work proceeds at its own pace as long as the installation is compliant.

Examples of Section 116/127 events that come to mind include a multi-user tower, a complicated data processing center and a huge shopping complex. All were complicated and outside the usual experience of the building office, not to mention their time resources.

The NEC Thing

In summary, the NEC, by itself, is a safety standard that takes on the force of law because of its place in building and safety regulations. No matter the circumstances, your electrical installation will be subject to the NEC. But if you’re still not convinced, here are some reasons why you should follow the NEC:
  • -You owe it to the person who follows you — the next guy at the station — to make certain your work is safe and predictable so that he doesn’t have the “shock” (pun intended) of discovering something odd, weird or unsafe.

  • -At minimum the system will continue to be safe, if not as efficient as you might think it could be. A focus on safety will often prevent you from injuring yourself, saving you from your own ineptitude when you’re fatigued or careless.

  • -You will preserve your insurability. Neither life nor business insurance will cover a loss from incompetence without a challenge. If you die of shock precipitated by an electrical hazard that you installed, it could be ruled a suicide.

  • -Any savings in time or money that you create by cutting safety corners in the electric system will just be squandered by someone else. At the mint, they’re printing money three shifts a day, but they’re not making another you. No matter how little you might think of yourself, someone will miss you. So think of them before you use Scotch tape instead of a wire nut.

Make risk management work for you. If you do not feel comfortable doing electric work, the NEC is a great reason to have an outside professional come in to do it. “Boss, we can’t afford to have an unsafe or uninsurable installation, and it moves the liability outside the station. You know, the NEC thing …”

Charles “Buc” Fitch, P.E., CPBE, AMD, is a frequent contributor to Radio World. This article is an excerpt of a presentation at the 2010 SBE Chapter 14/Connecticut Broadcasters Association Engineer’s Day.

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for your free Radio World NewsBytes newsletter here.

Rating People: 4   Average Rating:     
Comment List:

Yes, the NEC committees are dominated by the manufacturers and the motivation for the most part for thisis, as noted by the responders, because of their vested financial interest. They can step into this vacuum because most others in the industry seem to be hesitant to expend the time, energy, expense and dedication to participate in the process. Due to the sub-committee nature of the organization of the NEC it would be difficult for our industry to send a single omnibus representative but possibly we could work out a mutual rep arrangement with SEPTE, IEEE, AFCCE et al where we each place a representative on selected committees that have a direct impact on our industries. Any volunteers ...
By The author responds on 9/9/2010
The NEC has some good things in it but it's primarily run by large corporate interests. The characteristics and physics of electricity haven't changed since it's discovery but there's always somebody selling you some new way to protect yourself. All the better when you put it in your latest NEC edition and then sell you a new product as well. Don't believe me? Pick up the latest NEC and look in the front of the book at the corporations represented. It will open your eyes.
By Journeyman Electrician on 9/8/2010
The industries with the vested interest created the vacuum. Then conveniently stepped in to fill it. Not very ethical. Any outsider asked to be part of the process at this point would essentially be unwelcome and unlikely to have any influence. It's a big unmovable machine now and lots of corporate power behind it.
By Journeyman Electrician on 9/9/2010
Just think of the money to be had if the NEC committees broke the 1000 pages into separate volumes! The industry surrounding that would be a real money maker.
By Anonymous on 9/10/2010
1,000 pages of requirments full of shall'S and will have's is nothing to brag about. It's an intimidating and out-of-control document and more along the lines of a U.S. Congressional ruling then a docment designed to protect you.
By Anonymous on 9/9/2010
Manufactureres have a vested interest in the NEC. They decide what's going to be in it and then sell you the products! Nice relationship but not very ethical.
By Anonymous on 9/9/2010
Let's see now .... We have NEC code, OSHA requirements, NFPA, IEEE, Oh, and of course, we must wear the appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equiment) plus all the other applicable state, local, federal requirements. Yeah - I'm real glad there's a bunch of industry people looking out for me while I work.
By Anonymous on 9/16/2010
It's a little bit like letting the fox free access to the henhouse don't you think? Most people in the industry are too busy making a living to get involved in the nuances and minutia that the NEC dabbles in. An every 10 or 12 years would be more than sufficient. The NEC and all the peripheral books, literature, educational classes, new products, etc. is a big lucrative business. Let's face facts, it's more about making money then safety.
By Anonymous on 9/9/2010

Post your comment

Your Name:  Required
Your Mail:       Your email will not be published.
Your Site:    

max. 800 characters

Posts are reviewed before publication, typically the next business morning. Radio World encourages multiple viewpoints, though a post will be blocked if it contains abusive language, or is repetitive or spam. Thank you for commenting!