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The Parable of the Codes

Posted in Parables

A couple had their house rewired, and got into a bit of a set-to with the electricians about how the job was done. Contractors often have to deal with clients trying to micromanage things, but this couple actually knew about electrical building codes, and could see that the electricians were skipping some crucial steps. Basically they were treating the code’s redundancies, specifications, and assorted failsafes as if they were optional layers of protection, details that they could choose to bypass in the interests of getting the job done quicker, cheaper, and easier. Things like rough terminations, extra outlets on a circuit, things like that. Of course, the layers they were skipping were ones that would be covered by sheetrock before the electrical inspector came around. When called on this, the response the couple got was along the lines of, “Come on, when was the last time you heard about anyone being electrocuted by their house?”

U.S. building codes for electricity go back to the 1880’s, when the lightbulb was just beginning to hit its stride. Homes that were built with no regard for the presence of wiring were suddenly festooned with wires bearing live current. At first, many of these wires were completely uncovered and/or poorly grounded and/or insufficiently conductive. The consequential injuries and deaths soon prompted the creation of local standards that in some regards seem quaint now. One, from New York in 1881 specified that, “All Arc lights must be protected by glass globes, enclosed at the bottom, to effectually prevent sparks or particles of the carbons from falling from the lamps, and in show windows, mills and other places, where there are materials of an inflammable nature. Chimneys with spark arresters shall be placed at the top of the globe.”

In the same document, though, were provisions for impedance, emergency shutoffs, and insulation, so the authors had the basics covered. The following decades saw a rapid growth and refinement of recommended practices, and a national code was widely accepted by the beginning of the 20th century, covering things like fuses, circuit breakers, wall switches, and receptacle outlets. From the beginning, fire prevention was at least as high a priority as electrocution prevention, and the early codes were sufficiently thorough and rigorous that they are not profoundly different from modern versions. As one writer pointed out, we are likely to feel comfortable sleeping in a house with 90-year-old wiring, but probably not so happy about riding in a 90-year-old car or airplane.

In the 1960’s ground-fault-circuit-interrupters (GFCI) came on the scene, followed in the 1990’s by arc-fault-circuit-interrupters (AFCI), which made for wonderful, life-saving additions to the codes. Today there are still many deaths and injuries attributable to residential wiring, but the bulk are due to operator error, not to shortcomings of the codes.

Unfortunately, as the couple discovered, not everyone wants to follow the codes, and I think this is in part due to their long history. Codes are formally certified traditions. They are evidence of experience that leads to adaptive, productive, safe behavior. They cover many, many years of human experience, so they are messages from our forebears, a way of saying, “We screwed up. Don’t you screw up. Follow these rules and you’ll be alright.” Or as a friend of mine put it, “Tradition is so you don’t have to make 200 years of mistakes.” The trouble is that codes and other forms of tradition, in order to be concise, can’t always give the full reasons behind a given practice, so those reasons tend to slip into a different usage of the term code, in which information is hidden from those who lack understanding. The inheritors of a code have to revive the reasons for its existence constantly, or risk forgetting why it is there. Those electricians were so insulated, so to speak, from electrical disasters that they thought the rules were just some sort of paranoid bureaucratic imposition on sensible behavior. And there might be such rules, but that is not the way to bet. It is much more likely that every line of every construction code is written in blood.

 

 

This is a version of a tale from the same raconteur who, several many years ago, gave me the Parable of the Parrel. And I still can’t remember his name.

For more tales and puzzles (attributed and otherwise), scroll down in this department. You might also enjoy perusing our catalog, where all the goods are up to code.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Victor Raymond
    Victor Raymond

    Very interesting story and unfortunately far too common.

    When is was studying to get my pilots licenses it soon became apparent that each rule or regulation was preceded by loss of life. The way to stay alive in that world of high velocity in three dimensions was to follow the rules as if your life depended on it.

    I remember on adage, “there are old pilots and bold pilots but not old bold pilots.” I will confess to have violated the rules on occasions but never twice as to make a habit of it.

    February 9, 2018
    |Reply
  2. What many people either forget or loose track of is that many codes, rules, regulations and such were originally written in blood, people died for that rule. If you work in most industries long enough and look at rules you can many times figure out who died for that rule or in one case I knew the person that died for new standard operating procedures for maintaining equipment with stored energy.

    The Coast Guard has a very formal risk assessment procedure they go through before each mission to identify specific risks and the overall risk for a particular mission. That process came about after the Coast Guard lost too many people and equipment. I have talked with CG people that have had to do Next of Kin Notifications, (when a member died) and everyone made it their mission to never be required to do another NOK again.

    Those that do not pay attention are doomed to repeat the past accidents. Wish I had a dollar for every time someone made an error and when I pointed out the correct way to do something and they said to the effect “so that is why we should do things that way (to code or best practices)”

    The codes and standards are there for a reason.

    February 9, 2018
    |Reply

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