Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2018.

Staying Current

A look ahead at the 2020 edition of the NEC, which will consider emerging issues including Power over Ethernet, marina and dock safety to eliminate electric shock drowning, and more


On average, more than one person a day dies in the United States as a result of a fire involving an electrical failure or malfunction. For a country that’s led the world in fire and electrical safety for well over a century—NFPA’s first National Electrical Code® (NEC®) was released in 1897, for example—this is a troubling statistic to consider.

Related Content

Read “Growing Pains,” the NFPA Journal article on the marijuana industry and related fire safety concerns.

Read “Marina Risk Reduction,” the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) report on electric shock drowning.

Read “The Danger Below,” the NFPA Journal article on electric shock drowning.

Read the proceedings from the FPRF workshop on Power over Ethernet. 

According to Chris Dubay, NFPA’s vice president of codes and standards, a few things can be blamed. “First, we basically ignore electrical systems,” he told the crowd at the Independent Electrical Contractors Business Summit in Las Vegas in January. “We put them in and then we leave them alone. As the building stock ages, so do those systems … Maybe it’s time to consider some inspection and required remediation of electrical systems when property is changing hands.” Dubay also noted that most jurisdictions lag far behind in code adoption and that unqualified people are performing electrical work—additional reasons for the continued deaths and injures related to electrical failure or malfunction.

With a new NEC on the horizon for 2020 and a vision to become the go-to global resource on emerging electrical issues like Power over Ethernet and electric shock drowning, NFPA is determined to change this narrative in the coming years. Several speakers will deliver education sessions at the Conference & Expo that center on electrical safety and reflect this effort.

The future of the code

The NEC is adopted in some way in every state in the U.S. Nineteen states use the 2017 version, 20 use the 2014 version, and eight use earlier versions—only three states lack statewide adoption. Outside of the U.S., NEC adoption is growing fast. The code is one of NFPA’s most well-known and widely used documents, and for the 2020 edition, a number of proposed changes are in motion to keep the NEC on the cutting edge of electrical safety.

One proposal would update the way the code guides users through conducting load calculations, which measure the amount of energy a building uses and influence what kind of equipment is necessary for its electrical system. The NEC currently uses tables that are more than 50 years old to guide users through these calculations, which, by many accounts, leads to commercial and industrial properties having oversized electrical systems.

In theory, these oversized systems can result in longer-lasting arc flash events with longer fault clearing times, according to Derek Vigstol, electrical technical services lead at NFPA. “The longer it takes to clear, the longer an arc flash event could persist,” he said. “The equipment might even be oversized to the point where the arc never clears, and you have an event where it just keeps arcing. If we can adjust the load calculation so we have tighter electrical clearances, I personally think that puts us in a better situation.”

The change for 2020 would add new load calculation tables that account for jurisdictions’ increasing efforts to make buildings more energy efficient and modern electrical technologies like LED lighting, which demands far less power than the lighting systems that were widespread decades ago. The change would translate to equipment better suited to the property—in addition to improving safety, it could also mean significant savings for properties on purchasing and installation prices for electrical systems. NFPA’s own four-story office building in Massachusetts is a good example. “We’re saving a bundle on direct energy costs using the new calculation method,” Vigstol said.

Michael Johnston, executive director of standards and safety for the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and chair of the NEC correlating committee, likened the change to the publishing industry’s transition from paper to digital. The code won’t abandon the old calculation method, just as newspapers still print physical copies; it will simply add a new one. “This type of change creates a lot of relevancy for the NEC,” Johnston said. “It shows we’re progressive and proactive, and it makes the code a lot more adoptable for these jurisdictions that want to adopt modern energy codes.”

Another issue the 2020 NEC may address is horticultural lighting. As marijuana legalization sweeps the country, marijuana grow facilities are becoming an electrical safety concern for many enforcers. (NFPA Journal covered the fire hazards of the cannabis industry in its September/October 2016 cover story, “Growing Pains.”) There’s nothing especially unique happening electrically, but it’s an intense load. A 2016 article in The Guardian shed light on how energy intensive grow operations can be. In Boulder County, Colorado, for example, one 5,000-square-foot grow facility was found to be consuming about 29,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each month—by comparison, a nearby household in the county used less than 1,000 kilowatt hours, according to the article.

The NEC already includes information needed in dealing with such a large electrical load. Still, there’s a desire to have more guidance specific to these types of facilities, Johnston said. NECA discussed the idea of developing a recommended practice on installing and maintaining electrical systems for marijuana grow facilities, he said; faced with concerns over the future legality of the industry, however, NECA’s Codes and Standards Committee didn’t move forward. While he doesn’t envision language being added to the NEC that references marijuana grow facilities, Johnston thinks broader language on horticultural lighting could be added, with mention of marijuana grow facilities as an example.

To follow the progression of the 2020 NEC and provide input, visit the document information webpage.

Emerging electrical issues

While topics like marijuana grow lighting could make their first appearance in the NEC, other emerging issues have already made their way into the code as NFPA works to build additional resources for them.

Power over Ethernet (PoE) is a good example. Few topics have been as buzzed about in the electrical world in recent years as PoE, which uses communications cables to supply power in addition to transmitting data. The integration of data and power allows buildings to become “smart”—with a PoE system, for example, a building can tell which spaces are occupied, information that’s useful not only for saving money on electricity but also possibly lives in the event of an emergency.

PoE also includes potential hazards. Since the cables are often bundled, heat dissipation becomes a concern as more power is added to them. The NEC already includes limitations on how much power PoE cables can carry before they are subject to more stringent installation requirements than traditional communications cables. For the 2020 edition, Johnston said he sees the code “evolving a little bit more to manage the heat issue.”

Ongoing Challenge of Electrical Safety by the Numbers

At least one question of scope will also be addressed. Chapter 8 of the NEC has traditionally covered communications, provisions that were not subject to the power requirements of the earlier chapters, Johnston said. PoE changes this, however, and a proposal was put forward to eliminate that exemption. “There’s power in those cables now,” Johnston said. “There’s no longer just data. That’s a huge issue for the communications industry. They want to maintain the independence, but there are going to be rules in those other, earlier chapters in the NEC that can’t be ignored.”

Additionally, in October, NFPA’s research arm, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, held a PoE workshop at the University of New Hampshire and published the proceedings online. Attendees left the one-day event with recommendations that the research and regulatory communities better define and clarify the terms involved with PoE, outline an approach for conducting a risk analysis for each application of PoE, and more.

The workshop was “only the beginning of a longer journey as we dive into this new era that many refer to as the ‘Internet of Things,’” Foundation Director Casey Grant wrote in his Research column in the November/December 2017 issue of NFPA Journal. “This new era, along with the devices and technologies that support it, including PoE, are here to stay. It is imperative that the regulatory community rises to address this new sweeping challenge.”

Another emerging issue that’s been a focus of NFPA is electric shock drowning (ESD), which can occur when a person jumps into electrified water in areas like marinas, where boats and docks containing electrical systems can “leak” current into the water. If the current itself doesn’t kill the person, it can paralyze them and cause them to drown. (NFPA Journal published an article on ESD, “The Danger Below,” in its September/October 2017 issue, following the August publication of a Fire Protection Research Foundation report on ESD. The topic is also covered in the NEC section of “In Compliance” in this issue.)

The NEC includes provisions on wiring and electrical equipment at marinas, boatyards, and docking facilities. But the boats themselves are often the problem, experts say. While the NEC doesn’t include provisions on the wiring of boats within its scope, it can add recommendations for testing them. “I see the code evolving a little more to possibly require some type of testing as boats come into marinas to make sure they’re not introducing a current into the water,” Johnston said. There are already some proactive marina construction companies that are installing testing areas for boats before they can dock, he said.

With so many members of the public using boats and marinas, far more people than just the ones who use the NEC need to be familiar with ESD. Even within the boating community, the phenomenon isn’t well known. Because of this need for public education, NFPA hopes to by this summer launch a national awareness campaign on ESD. The campaign would include messages on about ESD, signage for placement at marinas warning people about ESD, and more. Learn more about ESD online.

On top of emerging challenges like PoE and ESD, a lack of skilled workers is troubling the electrical industry. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2015 to 2024, about 6,000 to 7,000 electrical workers will have been needed to be added to the workforce while another 6,000 to 7,000 will have been needed to replace those retiring or leaving the trade. This demand makes working with the most up-to-date information even more critical, and Dubay left attendees of the IEC summit with that thought.

“I recognize that the one-two punch of labor issues and continuously emerging technologies has put even greater demands on you and your team,” he said. “It is critical that you work smarter today. Whether you and your employees are performing routine electrical tasks or dealing with new communications systems or having to install new energy sources, it’s important that you do it armed with the most current information and knowledge available. We’re one of those key information and knowledge resources. Take the time to engage with us … I have no doubt that we can continue to learn from one another and raise the bar on electrical safety in our country.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: iStockPhoto