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The Challenge of Increasing Electrical Safety, Part 1

Posted By Jim Pauley, Thursday, January 01, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 07, 2013

Municipalities across the nation have faced unprecedented difficulties adopting the new 2008 National Electrical Code® (NEC®), from the National Fire Protection Association, Inc. (NFPA). In fact, national associations have launched public relations and political offensives to halt or slow adoption primarily due to claims that the new code will significantly increase the cost to build homes. Unfortunately, in many cases it falls to electrical inspectors to counter these inaccurate statements.

We will explore these issues as the first of a three-part series about electrical safety, the NEC and the inspection community. This article will cover lessons gleaned from the 2008 NEC code adoption process. Part two will cover the shifting political view on electrical inspection, and part three will discuss how qualified inspectors, continuing education and the performance of solid inspections add value to installers, users and the local jurisdiction as a whole.

Adoption of the 2008 NEC

Publication of the 2008 NEC reminds us once again that there are a host of dedicated electrical professionals that worked together to improve the safety associated with the distribution, control and use of electricity. It reflects the latest thinking in electrical safety and continues a tradition of keeping the protection of people and property as the primary objective. Put simply, without a document like the 2008 NEC, lives would be at stake.

But publication of the NEC is truly only the first step toward facilitating improved electrical safety; state and local jurisdictions must adopt the code, thereby setting the standard for how electrical safety will be approached by consulting/specifying engineers, electrical contractors and electrical inspectors. Analysis of recent adoption processes over many jurisdictions has brought to light significant concerns that electrical safety is viewed by some individuals as a secondary priority to dollars.

Politics is local

Although the electrical industry has done a good job of conveying improvements in electrical safety, the industry is not as organized as it needs to be to effectively take on political battles that result during some of the adoption processes. Large organizations with significant monetary resources are well connected at the local government level and, as a result, they can act as major influencers on the code adoption process. Adoption of a new edition of the NEC used to be a non-event; this year, it has resulted in battles in municipalities across the country. In fact, in many areas, homebuilder associations have launched major offensives to derail the adoption of the 2008NECwherever possible. Whether or not they are successful has depended in large part on the level of active involvement from the electrical inspection community to counter false claims.

The electrical industry will never match the associations’ political connections, nor can it match the money they contribute at the local level. However, the electrical industry can play an active role by bringing facts to the forefront of discourse about the 2008 NEC and thereby force relevant issues to be addressed on the merit of electrical safety. The electrical inspection community is by far the best local resource for politicians to acquire facts about the importance of a new edition of the NEC. There is no better evidence of this than the exemplary work of three inspectors in a recent situation in Ohio.

The Ohio example

After Ohio adopted the 2008 NEC early in 2008, a homebuilder wrote the Ohio Board of Building Standards, stating that adoption of the new edition of the code would significantly increase the cost of a home construction. Significant inaccuracies of some of the claims being made about the 2008NEC, along with a major political push by the homebuilders association, resulted in the governor of Ohio issuing an order that the state revert back to the 2005 NEC.

Three Ohio inspectors, Tom Moore, O.P. Post and Tim McClintock (all members of the International Association of Electrical Inspectors), decided to take a stand and set the record straight. What they uncovered was quite revealing and has become a rebuttal to much of the misinformation on a national level.

They developed a factual analysis that exemplified the true costs of code compliance to the 2008 NEC—including an analysis of tamper-resistant receptacles and arc-fault circuit interrupter protection, the key points of contention of the homebuilders. They focused on what theNECactually requires for compliance for homes of various sizes. Their analysis revealed that the following increases could reasonably be expected:

900 sq ft home $160.18, or $0.18/sq ft

1,700 sq ft home $205.27, or $0.12/sq ft

2,100 sq ft home $241.36, or $0.11/sq ft

They arrived at these numbers by using pricing for over-the-counter materials, and did not take into account any discounts that professional installers might receive.

Not only did their analysis begin to discredit the misinformation propagated by homebuilders and related associations about the involved costs, it also forced a debate on what the code actually requires versus those items that would be considered an "”upgrade”" beyond the basic minimum safety requirements. Opponents to the 2008NECcountered that a house would never be wired using the minimum number of circuits or receptacles required by the code. However, when you engage them in a debate about why they believe this to be true, you find that their argument is focused on what they believe the requirements to be versus what is actually required by the code. Naturally, if the number of circuits or number of receptacles is increased beyond what the code requires, the cost will be higher. However, when it comes to the adoption process, the entire debate should focus on what the code requires.

As a result, once the true facts about the costs began to emerge, even some local homebuilders began to question the veracity of the level of debate.

The cost of affordable housing

One of the most common arguments regarding 2008 NEC adoption surrounded the issue of affordable housing. In fact, the Ohio analysis was extremely beneficial in refuting claims that the 2008 NEC would make housing cost-prohibitive for low-income individuals and families.

Low-cost housing is an important societal need. It is also important to recognize that low-cost housing is also most likely to be constructed to the minimum code requirements with few, if any, upgrades. As such, using the 1,700–square-foot cost provided above, it’s safe to assume that a $205 increase will not harm affordable housing. One only has to visit a construction site to realize that the amount of material waste during construction adds far more to the cost of a home than the increased electrical safety provisions.

Lessons learned

Here are some lessons learned from many of the 2008NECadoption hearings that inspectors can use to counter issues that may arise during local adoption processes:

Bring the facts to the forefront.

Don’t allow the inaccuracies to control the debate. For example, associations fighting adoption of the 2008 NEC claim that combination AFCIs are new and unavailable. In fact, combination AFCIs have been required by the 2005 NEC since January 1, 2008, and the product is readily available and has been so since 2007.

Bring in experts to discuss the requirements.

Experts like NEC code committee members or even manufacturer representatives can help guarantee that questions about new provisions and products are appropriately answered. Case in point: At a recent code hearing, a homebuilder on the committee noted that talking points from his association pointed out that tamper-resistant receptacles would be difficult to use for the elderly. Samples of the tamper-resistant receptacles and a plug were subsequently handed out to the committee by a local inspector, and committee members realized first-hand that the product does not create resistance to plug insertion.

Rally the electrical industry.

There is strength in numbers, and code adoption is actively supported by a large number of industry associations, including the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), IAEI and others. Having all of these organizations represented at adoption hearings can play a key role in bringing accurate information to light.

Use the media.

When the debate turns political, return the focus to safety and facts by involving members of the local media. The media has an interest in informing the public of issues that adversely affect public safety. In fact, media can ask the difficult questions that others can’t about an issue at hand. Making experts available for media interviews can be a crucial means for providing the facts about electrical safety.

Don’t "replay” the debate of the technical issues without the facts.

This generally happens when a locality wants to amend a code provision. Certainly, there are factors that may warrant such an amendment (e.g., climatic concerns, such as ambient temperature, or to correct a known error). However, attempting to re-argue all of the elements that led to a requirement for a tamper-resistant receptacle or combination AFCI protection is almost impossible. Why? These debates took place at the national level with reams of material, presentations and hours of debate among a broad range of parties. It is impossible for a limited discussion at a local adoption hearing to cover the level of debate that occurred over a three-year code development cycle (or longer if multiple cycles were involved). Consider that the residential electrical arcing hazard was identified outside of the NEC process well before the issue was placed before the code-making panel in 1993. AFCI protection technology would unfold over the next six years, with a safety provision entering the 1999NECin order to address arc-fault hazards.

Electrical inspectors play an important role

The electrical inspection community is the balancing force in all of these arguments. Inspectors have the public’s best interest in mind, and often have the best local contacts that can bring facts into the debate. For decades, it was the electrical inspector that almost single-handedly got a new edition of theNECadopted.

But electrical inspectors cannot do it alone, nor should they. Inspectors should network with their state and national-level representatives. They can contact NEMA, IAEI, NFPA, the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) and other organizations to solicit assistance. Most would be willing to mail support information to distribute at local adoption hearings to bolster an inspector’s case for adoption. Also, inspectors can proactively distribute information in advance of a meeting to inject facts into the discussion long before a vote or public hearing.

Ultimately, being proactive and having a heightened commitment throughout the electrical industry to play an active role in the debate to adopt the 2008NECwill help refute inaccurate arguments and increase electrical safety in communities across the country.


Read more by Jim Pauley

Tags:  Featured  January-February 2009 

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