In some previous issues of IAEI News, articles about some of the many “hot spots” in the electrical inspection process were identified and detailed. There are a vast number of areas in the Code where the electrical inspector or building inspector has to operate out of his or her comfort zone. Qualifications of inspectors are very important. A couple of the most important characteristics or “traits of a good inspector” are knowing when to ask questions, and knowing what questions to ask. This article takes a closer look at the electrical inspector and the process of approving an electrical installation and the associated equipment. It’s a big responsibility for the inspector and the jurisdiction, but it is often taken for granted by both.
Photo 1. Example of new transformer marked to indicate it has SCGFP
The Purpose of the Code
The first section in Article 90 of the NEC conveys the purpose of the Code without any exceptions. Here one gains a general understanding of the primary objectives of the NEC. Safe installations of electrical equipment, conductors and systems are the primary concerns. Section 90.1(A) reads as follows:
(A) Practical Safeguarding The purpose of this Code is the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity.
Notice that the word “practical” is used in this section. For all intents and purposes, that means that a reasonable approach to ensuring safeguarding of persons and property from hazards that arise from the use of electricity must be made. The inspector has a critical role in carrying out that responsibility. The NEC is primarily a code that regulates safe electrical installations and does not include provisions that deal with safe work practices. There are other important industry standards that apply to how the work is to be accomplished, and address how to accomplish the work safely.
Information in the fine print note following Section 90.1 is subtle but relevant to this issue of practical safeguarding of persons and property. It indicates that hazards often occur because of overloading of wiring systems by methods or usage that does not conform to the minimum requirements of the Code. It is important to understand that the NEC provides the minimum requirements for electrical safety. That means that installations of systems including equipment and conductors must at least meet those requirements. It is fairly common for jurisdictions to have local codes or amendments that modify or supplement the minimum rules in the NEC, but these are generally of a nature that makes the rules more restrictive and are usually necessary due to unique or adverse conditions within a particular jurisdiction. Local code rules or amendments are usually formal documents in writing that are adopted into law at the time the NEC is adopted for use by the jurisdiction. The best approach for system designers and installers is to obtain a copy of the local rules or amendments and develop an understanding of their meaning. Taking this important step in the construction process goes a long way in establishing good relations with the jurisdiction.
The Approval Process
Have you ever heard the common phrase, It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it? In the electrical inspection business, this takes on a serious meaning. The NEC establishes the responsibility for interpretations and approvals in the introductory Article 90. Section 90.4 indicates that the NEC is intended for adoption and application by governmental bodies that exercise legal jurisdiction over electrical installations. This basically means that the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) has authority and a responsibility when the Code is adopted into law. This section also indicates that the AHJ responsible for enforcement of the minimum rules in the NEC also has the responsibility of interpreting those rules and appropriately applying them to electrical installations and systems in the approval process. The AHJ has the responsibility for the approvals of equipment and materials and can also grant special permission when necessary in carrying out those responsibilities.
There a few key words or terms utilized in Section 90.4. Let’s take a look at each definition to develop a common understanding of the message conveyed by this requirement in the Code. When a common language of communication is established and used in the field, the approval process is facilitated. Basically using defined words and terms helps keep the responsible parties on the same topic.
The wordapprovedis defined in Article 100 as “acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction.”
Authority having jurisdiction (AHJ)is defined as “the organization, office, or individual responsible for approving equipment, materials, an installation, or a procedure.” The designation of the AHJ is generally determined by the local governmental bodies.
Special permissionis defined as “the written consent of the authority having jurisdiction.”
A mandatory requirement in Section 110.2 indicates that the conductors and equipment required or permitted by the NEC shall be acceptable only if they are approved. We’ve already developed a general understanding of the word “approved” after reviewing the definition above. It is equally important to understand how far-reaching the word “equipment” is, where used in the NEC. Section 110.2 applies to conductors and equipment, which includes a lot. Jurisdictions adopting the NEC should develop a clear understanding of how inclusive this section is and how it affects their job responsibilities.
Equipmentis defined in Article 100 as “a general term including material, fittings, devices, appliances, luminaires (fixtures), apparatus, and the like used as a part of, or in connection with, an electrical installation.”
This definition of the word “equipment” from a practical standpoint establishes some parameters of how far reaching the scope of approving authorities really is.
Equipment and Installation Approvals
Now that we have developed a better understanding of the meaning of the word “approved” and who or which entity does the approving, let’s look at how the approval process is applied in the field. For the most part, inspectors understand the responsibilities they have when issuing approvals for electrical conductors and equipment. There is a personal responsibility as well as an organizational responsibility to ensure that the electrical installation is essentially safe.
The conformance assessment process is supported by entities that ensure that equipment is evaluated and tested to meet applicable minimum product safety standards. The Code refers to these entities as “qualified electrical testing laboratories” in Section 90.7. Equipment that is listed or certified as meeting applicable product standards provides inspectors (jurisdictions) with reasonable assurances that the product or equipment is safe. The important thing to always remember here is that where equipment is listed or certified, it carries a valuable means to help inspectors in the approval process. A product listing or certification is not an approval, but it sure goes a long way in facilitating the approval process. Inspectors, as a general rule, typically rely on equipment listing or certifications as a basis for their approval of the equipment. This is an important part of the overall conformance assessment process.
Section 90.7 also indicates that it is not the objective of the Code that factory-installed internal wiring or the construction of listed equipment be inspected at the time of installation other than situations that might warrant detecting of alterations or damage. Inspectors are generally not equipped to inspect to product standards; they do not have the necessary time it would take to do this task and often do not have the required expertise. This is the job of the qualified electrical testing laboratory and a key component of the electrical safety system in North America.
The previous issue of IAEI News provided an excellent article about the differences between the conformance assessment process used in North America and those being used beyond the boundaries of North America. Emphasis was made about the three essential elements of the North American Electrical Safety System. Those three essential components are (1) installation Codes and standards, (2) product standards and certification, and (3) enforcement (inspections and verification of conformance).
Code Requirements for Listed Equipment
The NEC does not have a general provision that requires all electrical equipment be listed; however, there are several requirements throughout the NEC that specifically require that listed equipment be utilized. In these situations, listed equipment is a mandatory requirement and is more restrictive than what the Code generally requires. Remember, that the Code indicates that conductors and equipment are acceptable only where approved by the authority having jurisdiction. One example of where the Code amends this and requires listing is found in Section 600.22 which requires ballasts for electric signs to be identified for the use and listed. Another example of a specific equipment listing requirement is found in Section 600.23(A) which requires transformers and electronic power supplies to be identified for the use and listed. The basic product safety standard that these transformers and power supplies must be listed and evaluated to is UL Standard 2161.
Modifications or Variances from NEC Requirements
Figure 1. Recognized component mark Courtesy of Underwriters Laboratories
The authority having jurisdiction may waive specific requirements in the NEC or permit alternative methods where it is assured that equivalent objectives can be achieved by establishing and maintaining effective safety as indicated in Section 90.4. This is commonly known in the field as a variance or modification to the minimum requirements of the NEC. A variance does not mean one does not have to comply with the NEC or even minimum safety objectives, it only allows for equal and effective means to attain equivalent safety objectives acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction. These modifications or variances are typically applied for and either approved or rejected by the authority having jurisdiction. Where the modification or variance is acceptable to the AHJ, it must be issued in writing and is generally recorded on file by the AHJ. This is an example of meeting the definition of special permission of the authority having jurisdiction. The International Building Code (IBC) and The Building Construction and Safety Code (NFPA 5000) both include provisions for modifications or alternatives to code rules.
International Building Code (IBC 2003)
104.10 Modifications. Wherever there are practical difficulties involved in carrying out the provisions of this code, the building official shall have the authority to grant modifications for individual cases, upon application of the owner or owner’s representative, provided the building official shall first find that special individual reason makes the strict letter of this code impractical and the modification is in compliance with the intent and purpose of this code and that such modification does not lessen health, accessibility, life and fire safety, or structural requirements. The details of action granting modifications shall be recorded and entered in the files of the department of building safety.
Building Construction and Safety Code (NFPA 5000)
1.5.1 General. Nothing in this Code shall prohibit methods of construction, materials, and designs not specifically prescribed in this Code where equivalent alternatives are approved by the authority having jurisdiction.
1.5.2 Approval of Alternatives. Alternative systems, methods, or devices approved as equivalent by the authority having jurisdiction shall be recognized as being in compliance with this Code.
As can be seen in these codes, modifications and alternatives are allowed under the conditions of these sections, but must also be approved by the authority having jurisdiction and recorded or documented. This documentation should include, at a minimum, the details of how equal and effective safety has been achieved. This is generally what is understood to be special permission granted by the authority having jurisdiction.
Other Alternatives for Obtaining Inspector Approvals
Inspectors face situations in the field that involve approval requests for equipment that is not listed or certified by a qualified electrical testing laboratory or bears no label or mark as evidence of this. So are there any options? There are a few reasonable options that are acceptable to approving authorities and owners. A field evaluation is a service usually offered by various qualified electrical testing laboratories. This service generally includes evaluating the product in the field on a one-time basis for that particular site. The field evaluation offers a viable alternative to those situations where equipment is not listed and labeled. Manufacturers can exercise the option of having the equipment evaluated to applicable standards in the field to provide approving authorities with a basis for approval. Obviously some of the testing that would normally be required in the test laboratory could not be performed as part of a field evaluation because it may be destructive testing. There are some unique cases where replacing the equipment is the only alternative that will facilitate approval by the AHJ.
What About Risk Management Concerns
Where the authority having jurisdiction is an entity of government, either at the state or local levels, or even a private organization, there generally is a risk management department that has interest in liability issues for the particular jurisdiction. Those risk management groups often are involved in decisions that approving authorities have to make especially when it comes to public safety regarding mandatory requirements for using listed or certified electrical products and equipment. Generally the minimum requirements of applicable local, national and even federal codes and regulations must be met to be in step with risk management expectations. It is common practice for many jurisdictions to require listed equipment to be installed and used. This also provides some reasonable assurances that the jurisdiction is in compliance with OSHA minimum requirements. Where there is a product safety standard that electrical equipment can be evaluated to, test to, and listed to, listing or certification is a usually a mandatory requirement of that authority having jurisdiction.
Where inspectors issue approvals without requiring a third party listing or certification by a qualified electrical testing laboratory, there is risk and liability assumed in approval of equipment that is not listed or certified. Jurisdictions should exercise caution with such decisions. Communication and education about the risks and consequences should be a strong consideration.
Listed or Certified Equipment Is Marketable
Where manufacturers have products evaluated to applicable safety standards, the products gain value in the industry market. Many building owners, engineers and designers, insurers, and other responsible parties insist on the installation and use of listed electrical products by specification. They understand the value from various key perspectives. On the other hand, there are others that are not informed enough to understand the difference and consequences. It is important for inspectors to understand the differences in listing and other product certification marks. Knowing when the equipment marks are acceptable and when they are not is another responsibility of the authority having jurisdiction. Not just any label on equipment is evidence that the product meets minimum safety standards. Inspectors should become familiar with the listing and certification marks used by the various qualified electrical testing laboratories.
Unfamiliar labels should be questioned and investigated to ensure conformance. In fact, some labels that indicate conformity may be a certification to a standard that is not even applicable in the United States. An example is the CE marking provided on some products by a manufacturer. This marking only indicates that the product is declared by the manufacturer to conform to the European directives and has nothing to do with certification to appropriate US standards. However, there are instances where this marking has been presented as being equivalent to an acceptable listing mark.
Equipment or parts marked only with a recognized component label are limited in how they can be used. They cannot be used as stand-alone products for field installation. A product that bears only a recognized component mark is intended only for use in end-use equipment that is evaluated and listed or certified as an assembly. See the UL Directory covering General Information for Electrical Equipment for more detailed information about the recognized component label. The following is an example of the recognized component mark used by Underwriters Laboratories.
The Installer Perspectives
The trained electrical workforce is aware of listed electrical products and equipment and has a general understanding of the importance of equipment listing or certifications. Electrical workers may not be aware of all the different listing marks for equipment, but they are usually aware of how important it is to inspectors. As they secure that panelboard or safety switch in place, the product listing labels and other markings are usually visible, although many of the labels and the information marked on equipment these days seems to be getting smaller and smaller and more difficult to read. As electrical workers install that receptacle or switch, the listing marks are on the products.
Listed products are required to be installed in accordance with any installation instructions included in the listing. An example is listed irreversible compression connector for connectiing two electrical conductors together. The installation instructions provided with these listed products should include important information for the electrician such as the minimum and maximum size conductors allowed for use with the connectors, the type of conductor (copper or copper-clad aluminum) allowed, and the type of compression tool and die to be used with the compression connector.
Trained electrical workers understand the importance of following these installation instructions.
First, there are reasonable assurances that a suitable electrical connection between the conductors has been made and will be safe; and second, the inspector knows he can approve the connection.
For the electrical worker, installing and using listed electrical equipment and following the installation instructions facilitates approvals from the authority having jurisdiction; in other words, it means more green tags. Let’s face it, green tag approvals mean a whole lot more to electrical workers and owners than red tags and inspectors’ notices of violation.
Inspectors have the responsibility for approval of conductors and equipment used in electrical installations. They also are responsible for making the interpretations of the rules in the NEC.
As a general rule, authorities having jurisdiction utilize equipment listing or certification as a basis for approvals. There are various qualified electrical testing laboratories that evaluate, test, and list electrical equipment to applicable safety standards.
These organizations usually provide equipment field evaluation services in addition to the laboratory testing and evaluations, and these can resolve approval challenges in the field.
Electrical safety is directly related to the use and installation of products that have been evaluated and listed to applicable product safety standards. Remember listed or certified equipment is not approved equipment. Where equipment is listed or certified to meet applicable safety standards, it generally serves as a strong basis for the inspector’s approval.
As always, one should consult the local authority having jurisdiction to become familiar with their policy on the installation and use of listed or certified electrical equipment or for any local requirements that might amend the minimum requirements in the Code.