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.
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