The development process of the National Electrical Code is open and easily accessible to anyone. The procedure used to change the NEC allows for input from all interested parties. Proposals, public comments, and Code-making panel actions are well documented and provide useful information about the intent and interpretation of the NEC. This information can aid all Code users, including those who do not want to participate in the Code-making process.
Code-making panels The National Electrical Code is a consensus standard. This means that all major interests are represented, and a change to the Code requires a consensus of those interests. Any person can make a proposal to change the Code. The proposals are reviewed by one or more of 20 technical committees, more commonly known as Code-making panels. Code-making panels are made up primarily of representatives of major interest groups. Some members may be individuals with special expertise who may or may not represent any specific group. Other panel members represent specific industries and may be eligible to vote only on a specific article or articles.
Although the members of a panel represent various interests, the panel members are selected so that no more than one-third of the members of a panel represent any one interest. Interests represented include electricians, contractors, engineers, inspectors, manufacturers, testing agencies, utilities, and some user groups. The interests to be represented are determined by the standards council with the advice of the panels. The panels, their members, and the articles covered by each panel are listed in the NEC following the table of contents.
The standards council is a group that takes responsibility for the final issuance of all National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) documents. NFPA documents include codes, standards, recommended practices, and guides. The members of the standards council are appointed by the NFPA board of directors. The standards council oversees the activities of the technical committees.
More than one technical committee is involved in the NEC, so the various committees are managed and coordinated by a technical correlating committee (TCC). Thus, the actions of the NE Code-making panels are coordinated and reviewed by a TCC. The TCC is responsible to make sure that the actions of each panel are made according to the rules, are within the scope of the articles covered, are properly reported, and do not conflict with other code requirements or with the actions of other panels.
National Electrical Code users have easy access to the schedule and steps in the NEC development process. The schedule for the development of the 1999 NEC is listed in the 1996 NEC following the Index. This section of the NEC also lists the requirements for proposals and comments, deadlines, and meeting dates. A sample proposal form is included.
Restricted voting vs. consensus Many other model building codes restrict voting rights to the building code enforcement community. Rather than form a consensus of representatives of various interests, decisions are made by panels of building officials and inspectors. Persons outside this group may have to find a qualified sponsor to have their views heard.
Arguments are made for and against both restricted voting and consensus processes. The most common argument for restricted voting is based on the idea that only building officials and inspectors can properly protect the public interest. Proponents say that restricted voting protects the "purity" of codes. Advocates of restricted voting point to the many special interests that might compromise public safety in favor of selling a product or reducing their own costs.
The arguments in favor of restricted voting go much like those of Alexander Hamilton who insisted that government should be controlled by the knowledgeable elite. In the case of building codes, arguing for codes written by building officials is like arguing for government by police. That is, only the police should be able to vote on new laws because they are the only ones whose job is protecting the public interest. The assumption is that building officials and inspectors (or police) have no conflicts of interest and will always vote for the good of the public.
Arguments for the consensus process are more like those of the pluralists. Pluralism assumes that all members of an affected group will be genuinely concerned with the good of the group, that people will naturally form interest groups, and that interest groups will represent the concerns of the people in their groups. Pluralism also assumes that everyone will join or otherwise be represented by some group. Although this view is not entirely accurate either, it is more like the form of democracy most of us are familiar with. We like to think that someone represents our interests in the making of rules and laws.
How the NE Code becomes law Readers should realize that although it is intended to be adopted as law, the NEC is not law until it is adopted by some jurisdiction. Many jurisdictions make local amendments to the NEC, often for reasons other than public safety, but the bulk of the NEC is unchanged by most jurisdictions. So Code panels are not law makers as such, but their decisions tend to have the effect of laws to many people.
Records of the development process are available to the public. After all proposals have been considered and reviewed by the TCC, all the proposals and their substantiation, along with the actions of the panels, are published in a document called the report on proposals (ROP). If the panels find a proposal unacceptable, or if there are dissenting opinions, the reasons for the rejection or any dissenting opinions are also included in the ROP.
Comments and proposals The ROP is available to the public. A copy of the ROP is automatically furnished to anyone who submits a proposal. Copies are also available from NFPA for the asking. For this Code cycle, the ROP for the 1999 NEC is available on the Internet at www.nfpa.org. The ROPs for the 1996 and 1999 NEC included a "preprint" or draft of the NEC as it would appear with all committee actions incorporated the document.
The ROP for the 1999 NEC contains 1165 pages of proposals and committee actions, and 430 pages of the NEC draft. A comment period follows the release of the ROP. Again, anyone can make a comment on the actions recorded in the ROP. The comment period runs for about four months. The ROP includes forms for comments.
After the close of the comment period, the panels meet again to review all the comments. Based on the comments, the panels may reaffirm or change their actions. Another document, called the Report on Comments (ROC), is produced and made available to the public according to the schedule published in the NEC. The ROC is available to the public, and copies are automatically furnished to anyone who makes a comment. The ROC for the 1999 NEC will be available in April 1998 in two forms: paper and electronic media.
The ROP, as modified by the ROC, represents the version of the new NEC recommended by the panels and the TCC for adoption. This version is presented to the NFPA membership at the NFPA annual meeting. The time and location for the annual meetings are listed in the NEC schedule. (A mistake was made in the schedule listed in the 1996 NEC. The 1998 NFPA Annual Meeting will be held in May in Cincinnati, Ohio, not Los Angeles.)
Usually, very few changes are made at the annual meeting. However, at the 1995 annual meeting for the 1996 NEC, some panel actions were overturned by the membership. For example, the rule of Section 384-4, which mandates dedicated spaces for panelboards, was changed in panel actions. The change would have provided alternatives to the 25-ft height of the dedicated space in other than industrial occupancies. This action was overturned by the membership so that the rule from the 1993 NEC was retained in the 1996 NEC.
The final version The version of the NEC that comes out of the annual meeting is reviewed and issued by the standards council of NFPA. NFPA also provides a procedure for appeals. Appeals of TCC actions can be made to the standards council. Actions of the standards council can be appealed to the board of directors. Occasionally, the actions of the board of directors are appealed to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Five appeals were heard for the 1996 NEC. All of the appeals were denied. The final 1996 NEC is the version that emerged from the 1995 annual meeting.
The ROP and ROC documents provide useful information on intent, purpose, and interpretation of the NEC. This can be valuable for all Code users whether or not they choose to make proposals or comments. Because the panel must make a statement when they reject a proposal, rejected proposals often provide insight into the panel's thinking and intent. For example, Section 250-26(c) contains a numbered list of things that can be used as grounding electrodes for separately derived systems.
This list has often been interpreted to be a hierarchy. That is, item one (building steel) was understood to be the first choice, item two (water pipe) the second choice, and item three (made electrodes) the third choice. A proposal was made for the 1993 NEC to include a Fine Print Note that would state clearly whether a hierarchy of choices was intended or not. The proposal was rejected by Panel Five with the comment, "There is no order intended or conveyed by the present wording." Although no change was made, the panel did state their intent. From this and other rejected proposals, we learn that no order of preference is intended and the proximity of the electrode is the governing factor.
The changes made in the NEC are flagged by vertical lines in the margins, but they appear in the Code without explanation. Many magazine articles and books are available that identify the important changes and their meaning. But the ROP and ROC contain the actual substantiation provided by the submitter as well as the comments of the panel, if any.
Even the reasons for a change are subjected to interpretation. If the actual reasoning of the submitter or the panel is wanted, the original documents cannot be beat. This author made a proposal for the 1996 NEC regarding the "fishing" of EMT. The proposal was accepted. A number of books and articles on the changes later gave the reasoning for the new rule. At least three new scenarios not contemplated by the author were given to justify the rule. Although they were valid scenarios, they did not give the original reason the rule was submitted and accepted.
NFPA has established a development process for the National Electrical Code that allows all interested parties to participate. The process produces a wealth of information that can aid all users of the NEC.
Although the deadlines for proposals and comments for the 1999 NEC have passed, the ROP is available now, and the ROC will be available in April. Sometime in the future, when the reader is struggling with the intent or wording of some new NEC rule, the ROP and ROC can be invaluable.