Codes, Standards and Certifications: Three Legs of Safety

Codes, Standards and Certifications: Three Legs of Safety

This piece was originally published in the May 2017 issue of electroindustry.

Rob Neale, Vice President, National Fire Service Activities, International Code Council

As a former municipal fire official, I’ve been asked a hundred times, “What is the better type of smoke alarm that I should buy for my home: ionization or photoelectric?”

My answer is always the same: “What type of fire do you expect to have?”

Both technologies have inherent strengths: ionization smoke alarms are better at detecting rapidly growing, flaming fires; photoelectric detectors excel at sensing slow-growing smoldering fires that emit dense smoke.

Regardless of technology, the devices must adhere to rigorous testing and performance standards before they are released to the market. Equally important is that the devices are installed and maintained in accordance with the codes, standards, and certifications that manufacturers, testing laboratories, and code officials promulgate to achieve high degrees of reliability.

Three-Legged Stool of Safety

Codes, standards, and certifications play complementary roles: codes are adopted into laws that require something be done, standards describe how to do it, and certifications confirm that the items are installed and maintained as intended.

States, local jurisdictions, and regulatory agencies adopt codes that prescribe the minimum level of risk they are willing to accept. In municipal and state governments, they have the force of law. Once adopted, it is incumbent on legally designated code officials to enforce them. However, codes alone cannot anticipate the variety of conditions that may occur during the design, construction, and occupancy of new and existing buildings. Standards play a substantial role filling in the blanks that codes may not address.

In a perfect world, there would be a clear demarcation between the two, but in the real world of prescriptive codes and standards, the boundaries are sometimes blurred. Codes occasionally describe detailed compliance solutions while standards’ mandatory language may be misinterpreted by less experienced code officials as compulsory, even though they may not have the force of law. Third-party product certifications provide an additional level of reliability by verifying that materials and products conform to product testing standards, and are suitable for installation and use in accordance with applicable installation standards.

The International Code Council’s integrated building, fire, mechanical, plumbing, and other codes are the predominant construction codes in the United States. Called the I-Codes, they are used in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and many federal agencies. When referenced in codes, standards become mandatory parts of the documents. The I-Codes reference more than 1,300 installation and product testing standards. They rely heavily on consensus documents developed by business and industry, including NFPA 70 National Electrical Code® and NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®. NEMA 250 Enclosures for Electrical Equipment (1,000 Volt Maximum) is adopted by reference into the International Fire Code® to regulate ozone gas generator construction.

Codes, standards, and certifications depend on each other, like three legs of a stool. If one falters, there may be problems.

Avoiding Complications

Codes and standards provide minimum levels of protection for people to feel safe where they live, work, and play. It is important that requirements be practical and reasonable; otherwise, people won’t comply with them.

Typical product certification standards establish minimum construction and performance criteria to address normal and abnormal conditions. Functionality and reliability are critical for fire and life safety equipment, such as arc-fault or ground-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs or GFCIs). A contemporary issue emphasizes that point: legislation proposed in several states would allow builders and homeowners to remove AFCIs after repeated unwanted tripping. Unfortunately, there is no data to quantify what constitutes “repeated unwanted” tripping, leaving code officials to interpret the alleged inconvenience on personal experience.

Product testing standards are an important economic driver because they reflect the consensus of industry professionals and interested persons. Standard developing organizations may use an American National Standards Institute–approved process to ensure that all interests are well represented.

Standards take much of the guesswork out of local code enforcement. Generally, they are based on empirical study and experience. If a code official requires the installation of a fire detection system to fulfill a requirement of the fire code, he or she can refer the designer to a model consensus standard rather than try to provide a detailed description of what is required. When the plans for that system are submitted for review and approval, the code official can use that same standard to confirm compliance.

Standards also are the basis for product evaluation and certification. Product certifiers can perform tests that local code officials likely cannot: destructive or non-destructive examinations, field tests, and small or full-scale fire tests. Certifications include instructions and markings to identify the manufacturer, how the product is to be used and installed, caution warnings, and maintenance. Test laboratories that provide product certification should be accredited in order to demonstrate competence, ability, and independence.

Creating a Level Playing Field

Individual certifications from organizations such as the National Institute for Certification of Engineering Technologies and the International Code Council’s certification and testing department verify an individual’s competence in the understanding and application of installation codes and standards.

Codes provide the minimum requirements, standards tell us how to get there, and certifications help ensure that all are integrated into a system that operates correctly. Together, they create a level playing field for the design, installation, construction, and maintenance of systems and products. The diversity and mobility of the modern economy dictate that codes and standards for products and systems must move seamlessly from state to state, or even country to country.


NEMA 250 Enclosures for Electrical Equipment (1,000 Volt Maximum) is available for purchase in the NEMA Standards Store.


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