Deciphering the NE Code can seem like breaking through impenetrable stone. Its legalistic language stymies novice and master electricians alike. But thanks to technology, help can be just a mouse click away.

The National Electrical Code can be a conundrum. It can be a hydra-headed monster that frustrates and confounds those bound to abide by its multi-faceted rules. Mostly, the NE Code can be a bear.

Can the novice electrical-installation professional truly learn to decipher the vagaries of the NEC?

"Yes," says CEE News Contributing Editor Joe Tedesco. "When properly used, the Code is not difficult to understand. And we experts can teach beginners to understand it!"

CEE News NE Code Contributing Editor Mike Holt concurred.

"Understanding the Code is like learning a game of chess: It must be done step-by-step. But it takes some effort."

Holt recommends these steps: 1. Attend a comprehensive class for a week (about 40 hours) on electrical theory.

2. Attend a comprehensive class for a week (about 40 hours) on the NEC.

3. Attend a comprehensive class for a week (about 40 hours) on NEC calculations.

4. Then attend a Code review class each year for about two days (16 hours).

Hey, wait a minute, Code Guys! That sounds like a lot of attention and comprehension to spend on learning to follow instructions that should be self-evident - even to apprentice electricians. Can't you give us some shortcuts to get a handle on the Code?

"Not really," says CEE News Contributing Editor Noel Williams. "One problem with the Code - and indeed with any code - is its language and the assumptions behind it. Section 90-1(c) says the code is neither a design guide nor an instruction manual for untrained persons. However, Article 90 - the key to the code - explains the purpose of the code, what is and is not covered, how the Code is organized, the hierarchy of code rules (what rules can modify general rules), who makes interpretations and enforces the Code and language conventions. These conventions include mandatory and permissive language and the intent of Fine Print Notes."

Williams also emphasizes that even though the Code contains an article of general definitions and a definition of specific terms, it's not intended to guide laymen.

"The Code does not define common technical terms," says Williams. "Therefore, a Code reader must understand basic electrical concepts like current, voltage, impedance, interrupting capacity and the respective units of measurement, amperes, volts, ohms and AIC ratings, which are not explained in the Code. I know of no way of getting around this basic requirement."

THE LONG AND WINDING CODE The National Electrical Code, the electrical professional's bible, was borne out of fire more than a century ago. Specifically, big 19 superscript th Century fires burning through big cities spawned the need for an electrical code. First came the Chicago fire of 1871. Then came a rash of other big-city fires, most notably in Boston. A 15-minute trolley ride takes you from Boston to the Quincy, Mass., headquarters of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The NFPA, an international, nonprofit organization with more than 65,000 members from 70 nations, has produced the NE Code for 100 years.

After years of deliberations among insurance, architectural and electrical groups, the first National Electrical Code was drafted in 1896, when a small group of concerned professionals met in New York to address the inconsistencies in the design and installation of fire sprinkler systems. (The minutes to this first meeting are available at www.mikeholt.com/nec/NCSE1896a.htm.

Today, the NFPA's codes and standards - including the NEC and various building and fire codes - affect virtually every building, process, service, design and installation in the U.S. Right from the start, the NE Code aimed to be a wide consortium of experts. Though the Code has grown and matured through the years, its mission has remained the same: To safeguard people and property against electrical hazards.

In the beginning, the intent of a "national electrical code" became "one code that would meet the full approval of insurance, electrical, architectural and allied interests." Today, all NFPA codes and standards are administered by about 6,000 NFPA volunteers who come from a wide range of professional expertise. These volunteers serve on more than 200 technical committees, which are made up of experts representing areas such as governing agencies, fire services, educational institutions, businesses, insurance companies, industry and consumers. The 200 technical committees are overseen by a 13-person Standards Council, appointed by the NFPA Board of Directors. The Council administers the codes and standards making activities and regulations.

Ultimately, every three years the NEC is developed through an American National Standards Institute (ANSI)-recognized consensus process in which all interested parties have an opportunity to contribute to and vote on the document. So ultimately, today's comprehensive, description-rich NEC took a long time to develop and takes a lot of work to revise every three years.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION Like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and every other living, breathing national document that serves as a workable standard, the NE Code is shaped by politics. Because of special interests, particularly among manufacturers, parts of the NE Code have become a bone of contention for manufacturers and a Rubic's Cube for installers. Nevertheless, most of the Code remains straightforward with exhaustive rules that save people and property from electrical hazards.

Democracy, Thomas Jefferson once said, isn't perfect, but it's the best we have. Winston Churchill said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. So far, a democratic electrical code has saved more lives and property than a closed autocratic electrical code. In 1977, the NFPA opened the Code to all interested parties in an effort to make the Code cycle a truly democratic process.

The NE Code allows anyone to submit a proposal for a new project. Once the proposal has been received, NFPA publishes an announcement in NFPA Update, its membership newsletter. The announcement asks members for comments on the project and provide details of which people and what materials may be involved.

If the Code Standards Council determines the need for the proposed project, it either assigns the project to an existing technical committee or establishes a new committee.

In July the NFPA issued the National Electrical Code Committee Report on Proposals for the 2002 NE Code. This report covers the more than 4000 proposals that were received for the 2002 NEC. (See Noel Williams' article on page 16.)

The sheer number of code proposals fielded by code panels raises many questions about the effectiveness of the Code process. Is the process too political and too bureaucratic? Is it too democratic - that is, too wide open to any yahoo wanting to speak his mind? Are there too many Code proposals for the panels to handle? Are there too many panels? Do most proposals get the short shrift from panels because they're not from special-interest manufacturers' lobbyists? Or, rather, do panels spend too much time entertaining silly proposals? In short: Does the Code still work for everyone? Does it still protect people and property?

"Some long-time panel members attend meetings with `canned' comments packaged into a database," says Joe Tedesco. "Panels spend too much time on non-technical-items or proposals or word changes such as `luminaire' and not enough time on safety issues." And too often, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. That is, proposals are not accepted on their merits but rather because people are persistent or persuasive. But persistence can be a good thing too. Tedesco said one Code panelist's metal-to-metal contact safety proposal finally got accepted after three Code cycles of rejection because the proposal's author stared down the other panelists from the doorway with folded arms and shamed them into accepting the proposal for the sake of safety.

"The reason for the Code is safety, period," Tedesco says. But often, he says, panelists bend from pressure from manufacturer lobbyists and end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. "When you keep bending the intent of the original proposal to rub the backs of manufacturer lobbyists, you compromise the essence of the proposal and water-down its effectiveness."

Tedesco, who's also a former NFPA Staff Liaison and panel member of the NEC Committee, maintains an extensive library of electrical books, including NEC Preprints and other reports dating back to the 1965 NEC. "I believe in the facts of the Code, not the politics," he says.

So, ultimately, is the Code truly a democratic process?

"Yes," Holt says. "But the manufacturers and electric utilities have a tendency to vote as a very large block and if they don't like a rule, you can be sure it won't pass."

TOWER OF BABBLE - TOWARD A CLEARER NE CODE Considering the Code has been continually revised and rewritten by committee for the past 100 years, it's no wonder the language can seem antiquated. The Code mixes bewhiskered terms and phrases; legal doubletalk, passive-voice admonitions, and technology buzzwords - all designed to guide up-to-the-minute installation methods.

Often the Code's dense word blocks of minutiae and legalese bog the reader down into a tedious and time-consuming loop. Does any one person fully understand the breadth and depth of the Code? And would such enlightenment be healthy?

As an objective exercise, this writer - an English major, the archetypical layman - attempted to plow through the Code's introduction. The Code starts off on solid ground when spelling out its intentions clearly in Article 90-1 A. The very first words of the Code - Article 90 - seem perfectly clear, simple and straightforward:

"90-1. Purpose.

(a) Practical Safeguarding. The purpose of this Code is the practical safeguarding of persons and property arising from the use of electricity."

The next line is also absolutely clear: "(b) Adequacy. The Code contains provisions considered necessary for safety."

But in the very next sentence, the Code stumbles with vague, fuzzy language: "Compliance therewith and proper maintenance will result in an installation essentially free from hazard but not necessarily efficient, convenient, or adequate for good service or future expansion of electrical use." Huh? Well, I guess that sentence means the Code mandates safe methods of electrical installation, not necessarily the best methods of electrical installation. But it's only the third sentence and already legalese creeps into the Code's verbiage. And the reader catches the first note of the Code's long concerto of doubletalk qualifications.

Mike Holt disagrees. "For the most part, the NEC is actually quite clear," he said. "But there can't be a rule to apply to every installation. So sometimes a person needs to understand the basic rules and the exceptions, to know how to apply the rule to an unusual installation."

Holt said he believes that our legalistic society no longer depends upon people following proper work practices.

"Sometimes the Code is intended to be unclear, so that people on both sides of an issue can claim a victory. I think if there were an editor to ensure that grammar, text, spelling, etc. was consistent it would be helpful, but the NFPA hired an editor in 1971 to make the 1974 Code's language consistent. And the upshot is the 1974 Code came out a year late in 1975."

The best way for a person to understand the NEC is to read a book that clearly explains the intent of the rules with lots of examples and graphics, Holt says. The book needs to be written in simple language with the understanding that the reader is very intimidated with the subject.

"The next thing is to read every article about the Code in books and magazines (such as CEE News) and to be sure they have their Code book with them. If a person takes the time to read these articles (with their Code book), they'll be surprised how quickly they will retain the information," Holt says.

Indeed, a cottage industry of code consultants are ready to help you decipher the Code - for a price. These Code experts produce a raft of Code-explication books written to coincide with each Code cycle. The consultants and books exist to clarify the stilted, legalistic language, which is the bane of every profession's code. Clearly written rules can shine through the fog of ignorance; Poorly written regulations can muddy the clear waters of reason.

Nobody knows the NE Code like Noel Williams. He has also tested the waters of other codes, where he has found the same language problems to be true.

"I took a two-day class to help me begin to understand the International Plumbing Code, and I still needed a lot of expert advice and a couple of other books to figure out how to apply it when I tried to plumb my own house. I like to joke now that I still don't know enough to be a plumber, but I might know enough to be a plumbing inspector."

The installer should be a "Qualified Person" and should review the Code on all of the rules that might apply before starting the installation. Allowing people in the field to challenge their interpretation of the rules will keep installers sharp. Becoming a member of the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), Richardson, Texas, and attending meetings will also help the user to understand the Code.

The National Fire Protection Association 's Web site is www. nfpa.org. The NFPA also recently designed a web site to answer Code questions. The site - www.necdirect.org - features free access to the 1999 Code, newsletters and articles. Mike Holt's Web site is at www.mikeholt.com/nec/understanding.htm. Joe Tedesco's Web site is www.joetedesco.com,

For more than 100 years, the National Fire Protection Association has been developing and updating codes and standards concerning all areas of fire safety. An international, non-profit organization with more than 65,000 members from 70 nations, NFPA's mission is to reduce the burden of fire on the quality of life by advocating scientifically-based consensus codes and standards, research, and education for fire and related safety issues. While the NFPA is involved with extensive fire research and produces numerous fire safety educational programs and materials, its lifeblood is its codes and standards making system. Currently more than 300 NFPA fire codes and standards are used throughout the world.