Living by the "Code" Reduces Electrical Risks

December 2002

106-year-old Code Protects Lives and Property

It's the final word on what is correct-and what isn't-in electrical wiring. It has guided the work of electrical contractors for generations. And, because it is updated continually, it has been safeguarding virtually every structure in America through more than a century of electrical and electronic progress.

It is the National Electrical Code®, a document published by NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) and developed by a series of voluntary National Electrical Code panels and a Technical Correlating Committee, which oversee the review and revisions written into this "bible" of electrical authority. The NEC® is approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which accredits NFPA's code- and standard-development process. As a result of this open consensus code development, anyone may propose a change to the NEC, provided you have a strong case and sufficient backup for your proposal.

The NEC, or simply the Code, has provided guidelines for the proper installation of electricity in more than 100 million homes in the United States. And it continues to assert a major influence through laws that are aimed at preventing fires, electrical shock and electrocution, thereby protecting both property and lives. Because NFPA is not an enforcement authority, the Code is purely advisory until adopted. Nonetheless, it is routinely enacted into law by local jurisdictions, including state, county and city governments. The NEC is adopted in every state and is the foundation for electrical safety around the world.

Various insurance, electrical, architectural and allied interests developed the original document in 1897. In 1911, NFPA, which itself dates back to 1896, became the Code's sponsor, a relationship that continues to this day. Besides sponsoring the Code, NFPA is involved in many other programs aimed at raising awareness of electrical and fire safety.

The Code is one of the most respected and trustworthy documents in industry. Rather than being a nuisance, it eliminates the guesswork from electrical work and speeds up installation times.

Not surprisingly, many homeowners are only vaguely aware of the NEC, and others have never heard of it. Yet, homeowners can be the most effective force in ensuring that their own electrical wiring meets the standards of the Code. The majority of fire deaths continue to occur in homes, although fatalities have declined steadily since the NFPA began tracking them in 1977, accounting for 3,110 deaths in 2001. Only 1999 had a lower number of home fire fatalities in the past quarter-century.

But there is still room for improvement. Mark Earley, Chief Electrical Engineer at NFPA, observes that "Bad wiring is still a significant cause of fires and fatalities. If every home met the Code, these deaths could be practically eliminated."

According to Earley, the Code changes substantially with each new edition. A home may have been built to the Code, but subsequent wiring could have been installed improperly, or it could have deteriorated or been damaged in the interim. "If you don't know when your home was last inspected, it may be a good idea to call an electrical inspector," he advises. "Get an estimate of the work that needs to be done, and bring it up to code."

Typically, homes are inspected when first constructed, and often when they are resold. The latter inspections, paid for by the buyer, are usually performed by a private general inspector. When major electrical work is done, an electrical specialist who is an employee of the municipality or other local authority will perform an inspection. The Code is an important tool for reducing the risk of fires and injuries caused by deficiencies in an electrical system. Homeowners should know what it is, and make sure the wiring in their home is in compliance with it.

You can also visit our Building Wire section for more information about residential electrical wiring.