NEC sections explicitly state they are not intended to influence design. For instance, Section 90.1 explains that the Code is “not intended as a design specification or an instruction manual for untrained persons.” Further, Section 90.1(B) states, “a system meeting the requirements of the NEC may not be adequate for good service or for future expansion.”
Innovation doesn’t have a timetable; new solutions are almost always introduced to market much faster than the NEC can react since the Code is reviewed and updated on a three-year cycle. A design engineer’s main priority is to bring technology to the forefront and build systems based on their customers' current and future needs. Doing so safely is accomplished by working with team members and electrical inspectors at key phases of the construction process.
A project’s success depends on subject matter experts, design engineers and inspectors working together to reach a common goal. However, the NEC doesn’t inform on how to best communicate during either the design or build phase. And while every professional is committed to safe systems, silos can form organically throughout the construction process.
For example, elevator design and installation is an industry with some room for collaboration improvements. Elevator control panels must conform to NEC requirements yet are typically specified by architects, not electrical engineers or contractors. Architects are primarily concerned with space considerations and aesthetics, less so with detailed electrical safety matters, like short-circuit current ratings, interrupting ratings and selective coordination. Safety reviews are not standard either, with multifunctional inspectors brought in to examine hydraulics and mechanicals on top of electrical specifics. In short, electrical engineers and inspectors—the people who know power systems best—aren’t significantly involved. This, in my opinion, may compromise the integrity of a project as potential complications may not be flagged early enough in the build process.
Open lines of communication are the best way to design and build systems safely and efficiently. When creating a new system, electrical engineers first design their solutions then meet with peers and subject matter experts of different disciplines to conduct project reviews at predetermined points throughout the design process. The team looks for errors, omissions and NEC considerations and resolves them well before installation. Catching potential problems early saves time, money and a lot of headaches.
The relationship between electrical and mechanical engineering groups in the HVAC arena is a great example of efficient teamwork. Most consulting firms insist that their electrical and mechanical groups work together; you’ll often find them working side by side—literally, with desks next to each other. That might seem like an unrelated detail, but being on the same team, in the same room, dramatically improves collaboration. And the information they share during project reviews greatly reduces the likelihood of error.
In another effort to improve team communication, companies look to independent specialists before construction begins. For instance, some electrical consultants and contractors will hire “code experts,” such as current and retired electrical inspectors, to review plans in an effort to catch issues well before installation begins. The experts are also called upon to review progress at various installation stages to ensure the Code is met and that the right subject matter experts are on the ground at the appropriate phase of the build, improving efficiency and reducing the chance of error.
Open lines of communication are the best way to design and build systems safely and efficiently.
Another best practice is found at firms that promote, encourage and even facilitate employee development through education. Many companies provide employees opportunities to learn by engaging with organizations like the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), and even suppliers who offer educational programs.
I believe Code education can happen well before engineers enter the workforce. Today’s undergraduate and graduate programs offer little to no NEC coursework, so it’s easy to understand how new engineers might fall into the rut of using the NEC as a design guide. This lack of training leaves engineering graduates who are new to the workforce to learn on-the-fly during projects. In my opinion, colleges and universities should teach codes and standards curricula to prepare students for real-world design scenarios. The more versed design professionals are upon graduation, the more effective they’ll be at developing systems that meet customer needs without violating codes and standards requirements.
The NEC, while crucially important to safety, is a collection of bare-minimum safety requirements and is far from a design guide. When creating an electrical system, engineers should first focus on their customers’ needs and the overall performance of power distribution systems and then work with team members and trained inspection professionals to review their solutions through the lens of the NEC.
Today’s customers expect to pay for more than the bare minimum. Design engineers must go above and beyond the Code to create systems that address customer needs now and in the future.