Will new industry standards help eliminate shoddy workmanship? Introduced in 1997, NECA's National Electrical Installation Standards (NEIS) promise to try.

If you're up for a quick electrical pop quiz, here's a challenge. In the next minute, write down exactly what the phrase “neat and workmanlike manner” means to you in 100 words or less. If we all compared answers, it wouldn't take a market research analyst to tell us our definitions don't quite match.

Here's where the potential problem begins. According to Secs. 110-12, 725-7, 760-8, 770-8, 800-6, 820-6, and 830-7 of the National Electrical Code (NEC), anyone installing electrical products and systems must do so in a “neat and workmanlike manner.” What do these words mean? Depending on whom you talk with, the answer varies. Does leaving this phrase to personal interpretation jeopardize the safety of electrical installations? Sometimes. Will the electrical industry ever see the day when improper installations cease to exist? Probably not. But can these instances be drastically reduced? The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) says “yes.”

In response to what it saw as a general deterioration in the quality of workmanship in the electrical trade, Bethesda, Md.-based NECA developed the first quality standards for electrical construction in 1997: the National Electrical Installation Standards (NEIS). Since then, NECA has published 12 different NEIS; 10 out of 12 were approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) as American National Standards, and most were developed in cooperation with industry technical societies, such as the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, Aluminum Association, BICSI, Electrical Generating Systems Association, Fiber Optic Association, National Electrical Manufacturers Association, and the Steel Tube Institute. Organized in a series of installation manuals, NEIS are designed to supplement the minimum safety requirements of the NEC, not replace it. How do the documents differ? The NEC is strictly a regulatory safety standard. NEIS are performance standards.

State of the industry

Has workmanship declined enough to necessitate a set of national installation standards?

John Travers, a former electrician in the IBEW and current chief electrical inspector for the city of Hialeah, Fla., says he has noticed a deterioration in workmanship in the last 15 years. In 1994, Florida International University (FIU) asked him to participate in a study to determine the main reasons electrical installations fail. “It turned out that close to 40% of the reasons for rejection on electrical inspections was improper installation or lack of knowledge,” says Travers.

Although Travers submitted his findings to the state, the legislature voted in the opposite direction. After more than 50 years of licensing journeymen electricians, in 1998 the state voted to prohibit municipalities, cities, and counties from imposing competency or licensing requirements.

“Basically this meant the value of having a journeyman license in the state of Florida just went out the window. We also have an awful lot of electricians out there who really don't have any formal training, and their length of time on the job may be three months or less,” says Travers. “So we in the inspection industry suddenly became the quality control officers for all of the electrical contractors pulling permits.”

Travers quickly qualifies this statement with a disclaimer. He estimates only half of the work that gets done in Hialeah is done through the permitting system. “So my concern was if we don't have the ability to look at half of the work that's getting done and the state isn't requiring the people that are doing it to be trained, then we're on a runaway train headed for disaster,” says Travers.

Dann Strube, an NEC Consultant and Code Instructor from Lanesville, Ind., and former chief electrical inspector for Kentucky, agrees the quality issue is real. However, he explains the decline in workmanship as cyclic. He says workmanship was pretty good when he worked as an electrical worker and inspector in the 1970s. Then, a construction boom in the early '80s sparked a decline. “All of a sudden everybody was busy and pushing to get the job done, and workmanship kind of decayed,” says Strube. “Then when construction slowed down in the late '80s and early '90s, I'll be darned if workmanship didn't improve.”

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, Strube thinks the industry's on a downhill slope again. “Everybody's in a crunch to get the work done, so workmanship goes down,” says Strube. “But those who really care are still doing good work and always will.”

There's no question the industry's in a crunch for skilled labor, says Bob Baird, vice president of Apprenticeship & Training, Standards & Safety for Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC), Alexandria, Va. “The need for electricians is up at the same time that retirements are up, our nation's demographics have changed, and everyone is convinced their kids need to go into high tech, not the skilled trades,” says Baird. “So you have less skilled people doing more work.” But that's a training issue, not a standards issue, he says.

A forensic engineer with General Machine Corp. in Washington, D.C., James Ruggieri, P.E., adds another twist to the deterioration theory. He believes the problem stems from the fact that more homeowners and weekend electricians are performing electrical installations.

“Ordinary folks are feeling more comfortable going to Home Depot and picking up a handful of electrical devices. All you have to do is walk into the store, attend a seminar on how to wire a GFCI, and a salesperson will get you everything you need,” says Ruggieri. “Often, these people haven't even heard of the NEC.” Regardless, he maintains this cavalier attitude carries over into the electrical industry, as workers feel comfortable attempting jobs themselves rather than calling more experienced workers.

Baird concurs. He says there's no question the electrical industry has shot itself in the foot. “Because a number of companies have actively marketed the D-I-Y approach for an increasing number of electrical products people think anyone can do electrical work,” he says. “That attitude has led us to where we are shoddy work by untrained people, a lack of respect for the industry, and difficulty in attracting skilled workers.” But again, Baird stresses this is a training issue, not a standards issue.

As Director of Codes and Standards at NECA, Brooke Stauffer hears a lot of complaints about the decline in workmanship especially from inspectors. He attributes this trend to several factors: the decline of the union means more electricians receive less formal training than they used to get from the union apprenticeship program; an increasing portion of the workforce doesn't speak English as a first language; the quality and academic standing of candidates entering the electrical profession is declining; and engineering drawings and specs are less complete than in the past.

“Twenty years ago, there was more of a body of shared knowledge about what made a good electrical installation. All of those details that weren't in the Code were basically enforced by the fact that everybody had been through the same training program, all of the inspectors were former electricians, and consulting engineers were specifying most of this stuff,” says Stauffer. “In the absence of those factors, some of the things that tended to encourage good workmanship are kind of disappearing. So in a way, the NEIS program was an attempt to write these details down before the institutional memory was lost.”

Although the IEC supports the NEIS effort, Baird explains his organization doesn't agree these standards are necessary. He agrees it's important to write down some of the industry's best practices. However, he says many of these guidelines aren't necessary or realistic in every situation. He raises the following questions as examples: Do you always have to run conduit plumb and parallel? Do temporary wiring systems have to be installed to the same aesthetic standard as the final system? Do you have to always use a specific wiring method or specific box or a specific fastener?

“These are just a few of the areas in which we believe NECA has gone beyond reason,” says Baird. “Every new requirement you add impacts the final cost to the customer and doesn't necessarily add one thing to the final quality or safety of the installation.”

Who uses NEIS?

Although various electrical professionals can use NEIS contractors and installers who build the electrical systems, inspectors who approve them, and owners who pay for and use them the main purpose of the standards is to provide “best practice” guidelines for consulting engineers who design and specify electrical systems. The question is, Will acceptance of NEIS result in high-quality electrical construction jobs?

Executive Director for the South Florida Chapter of IEC Association since November 1993, Bob Holstein says “no.” Members in his chapter see no reason to supplement the NEC with additional standards. “The independent electrical contractors embrace safe, efficient, Code-compliant, and workmanlike installations of electrical systems and feel the regulations prompted by the other codes, including NEC, OSHA, and NFPA, are sufficient to provide the necessary installation standards,” he says. “Apprentice training programs provide the necessary training on how to implement the safety and installation standards as referenced by the other Codes. Any additional training required after apprenticeship is promoted through our access to continuing-education training, professional electrician training, and on the job training (OJT) with licensed electrical journeyman.”

Ruggieri disagrees. With more than 22 years of design and construction experience, he uses the NEIS to establish a basis for proper installations in his forensic casework. Working on complicated court cases involving electrical incidents and casualties and serving as an expert witness on casualty investigations, Ruggieri says he sees large gaps as to what constitutes a proper installation.

“In my casework, I get to see the effects of those gaps and interpretations when I visit the morgue,” says Ruggieri. “If you've ever seen a fourth-degree burn, they go inside out from the marrow, and electrical accidents are probably the worst.”

Ruggieri says the courts are now paying close attention to consensus standards as a means of determining system deficiencies and will challenge and disqualify “junk science” experts. For example, he says the language of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (1993) stresses the role of the courts in acting as gatekeepers to prevent the submission of evidence based on alleged scientific methods not generally accepted in the relevant scientific community or backed by credible research.

Ruggieri estimates that 95% of the casualties he sees result from incorrect installation or maintenance. He believes incorporating the NEIS into engineering specs will help fill a sorely needed gap and provide specific guidelines and methods to supplement the NEC. “The NEC and UL do an excellent job of detailing what constitutes a proper device for installation. However, they leave it to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to translate and render those guidelines to the platforms of the jurisdictions,” he says. “The number of regulatory gaps is tremendous and this generates a lot of uncertainty. These standards talk about how to build a house using the bricks, but they don't tell you how to put the mortar between those bricks.”

Travers has also seen his share of preventable electrical accidents. Four years ago, a 12-yr-old boy in the South Florida area was electrocuted by an improper electrical installation after taking cover under a bus shelter during a rainstorm. Only three months ago, two boys playing in a mud puddle after a storm were electrocuted because a nearby streetlight that was partially underwater was improperly grounded.

When he first saw the NEIS in the late 1990s, Travers immediately saw an opportunity to better define the “neat and workmanlike” references in the NEC, which also appeared in the South Florida Building Code. As Director of Codes and Education for the Miami-Dade division of the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), he went before the board of rules and appeals and explained the problem. After a joint effort by the NECA South Florida IAEI Chapter, building officials, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Miami-Dade County became the first governmental entity in the United States to approve the NEIS for regulatory use at the end of 1999.

“We had a standard that the inspector as well as the installer could look at,” says Travers. “Because we didn't have any definitions per se to work off of before NEIS, they gave us a benchmark to start from in terms of what is an acceptable or workmanlike installation.”

Unfortunately, South Florida will take a step backward, explains Travers, when the state's uniform Florida Building Code supersedes the South Florida Building Code on Jan. 1, 2002. Why will the state go back to a softer standard?

“There was a very strong movement by the builders' associations lobbying effort to adopt and enforce a Florida Building Code, because our South Florida Building Code was rather area-specific in that we deal with hurricanes on a pretty regular basis, and we had a lot of really tough and stringent rules as far as structure and resources,” says Travers. “I'm not knocking the NEC, but it seems that throughout the U.S., certain areas have had to adopt local codes because of climate conditions or other reasons. For now, we've lost our ability to do that.”

Despite the fact that professionals from all facets of the electrical trade have incorporated the NEIS into their work, are these standards truly beneficial if they're not enforceable by law?

The enforceability issue

Although the NEIS are voluntary standards, many inspectors believe they are enforceable through the plan review process. Once a consulting engineer references NEIS in a specification, a Code official can enforce them. But is it the local AHJ's job to police a job on discretionary items on behalf of the owner?

Strube believes the NEIS will do several things including provide good guidelines for inspectors about acceptable practices for installing electrical systems, possibly trigger some Code proposals, and improve workmanship. However, as a former inspector, he thinks the enforceability issue is kind of a stretch.

“When I worked for Kentucky as the chief electrical inspector, we were empowered to enforce the NEC and nothing else. So if the engineer said put it in rigid metal conduit and they wired it some other way, it wasn't our fight,” says Strube. “If the installation met Code that's all we were interested in. It wasn't our job to enforce the specs. Some inspectors may say it's their job to enforce what the engineer wants, but I'm sorry, it's not unless other standards are adopted by the AHJ.”

Travers disagrees. He characterizes the difference in philosophy among inspectors as “the difference between somebody who genuinely is on the lookout for the safety of the people and those that are punching a clock.” He says the reason why some inspectors enforce the bare minimum comes down to a serious morale problem in a lot of the bigger municipalities. “Instead of the electrical inspector feeling confident about what he knows about the Code, he's got somebody sitting perched on his shoulder waiting for him to make a mistake so they can issue a disciplinary action,” says Travers. “Now he becomes afraid to make any decisions. If it isn't black and white, his reaction might be ‘I'm only being paid from the neck down, so I'm going to have to get my supervisor to approve this.’ That throws the whole system into slow gear.”

Ruggieri doesn't see the enforceability issue as a problem. “Nothing is enforceable unless it's incorporated by reference into the rules by the AHJ,” says Ruggieri. “Even the NEC is not enforceable if no one prescribes it.”

Although the NEIS are not mandatory industry standards, Ruggieri says they still hold water in court because they establish what is considered workmanlike practices. When a vagueness in the NEC comes up in court, Ruggieri cites the NEIS. “If you have a national consensus standard like this that offers clear information as to what constitutes good practices, you have a sound footing that can quench even the most hostile opposing attorney,” he says. “Even if it's not specified, a judge will accept NEIS because it's an ANSI-approved industry consensus standard end of story.”

At press time, there are 16 NEIS under development. If you'd like to learn more, visit www.neca-neis.org. or e-mail neis@necanet.org.

Sidebar: ANSI-Approved National Electrical Installation Standards

NECA 1-2000, Standard Practice for Good Workmanship in Electrical Contracting (ANSI)

NECA 100-1999, Symbols for Electrical Construction Drawings (ANSI)

NECA 101-2001, Standard for Installing Steel Conduits (Rigid, IMC, EMT)

NECA/AA 104-2000, Recommended Practice for Installing Aluminum Building Wire and Cable (ANSI)

NECA 202-2001, Recommended Practice for Installing and Maintaining Industrial Heat Tracing Systems (ANSI)

NECA/FOA 301-1997, Standard for Installing and Testing Fiber Optic Cables

NECA 400-1998, Recommended Practice for Installing and Maintaining Switchboards (ANSI)

NECA 402-2000, Recommended Practice for Installing and Maintaining Motor Control Centers (ANSI)

NECA/EGSA 404-2000, Recommended Practice for Installing Generator Sets (ANSI)

NECA/IESNA 500-1998, Recommended Practice for Installing Indoor Commercial Lighting Systems (ANSI)

NECA/IESNA 501-2000, Recommended Practice for Installing Exterior Lighting (ANSI)

NECA/IESNA 502-1999, Recommended Practice for Installing Industrial Lighting Systems (ANSI)