NFPA-70 (The National Electrical Code) And The Radio Amateur.

Amateur radio is full of rules. Many of them are unwritten, others are quite clear. Some rules are not about manners or operating protocol, but instead were created for the very practical purpose of safety and standardization. NFPA-70, also known as the National Electrical Code, is the accepted standard of electrical safety and conscientious radio amateurs should be familiar with the relevant parts of it.

What is the NFPA? What is NFPA-70?
The National Fire Protection Association is a private non-profit trade organization serving the fire fighting/public safety community. Founded in 1896, they’ve produced a massive number of publications defining what is considered correct & safe for nearly everything: Fireworks displays (NFPA-1123), fire equipment specifications (NFPA-1901), alarms & signaling (NFPA-72)…in total they have over 300 distinct standards. There is even a safety standard for…church pipe organs? Yes, really!

Among the sweeping NFPA output is publication 70, referred to as NFPA-70 and/or the National Electrical Code. This nearly 900 page document is the foundation for most of the local electrical codes and ordinances across the United States. NFPA-70 is revised every three years (the last was in 2017) and states and municipalities often take a few years afterward to implement changes.

NFPA-70

PHOTO COURTESY OF AMERICAN NAUTICAL SERVICES, INC.

NFPA-70 is the result of contributions by hundreds of safety professionals, engineers, scientists, and other experts. Nothing is added to or removed from the National Electrical Code without exhaustive vetting and evaluation.

What the NFPA is not.
The National Fire Protection Association is not a government agency and has no legal authority. It cannot enforce its rules on anyone outside the organization. They simply establish standards and others are free to embrace or reject the advice. NFPA-70 is not a technical guide or manual on how to physically wire and setup electrical systems and devices.

Why radio amateurs should care about NFPA-70.
As concerned amateur radio operators seeking to excel in and advance the craft, we of course want to do things the right way. That means taking ideas developed by others and implementing them into our radio activities. There are also practical and legal considerations. For example, if you use a non NFPA-70 compliant wiring method, troubleshooting the system later may be difficult, especially if someone else is doing the troubleshooting. They will be expecting to find things done a certain way, and if they’re not, repairs are more difficult than they need to be. They will need to take extra time to fix the mistakes.

And while I’m not deliberately trying to be overdramatic, not following the National Electrical Code can cause catastrophic and even deadly results. If your house burns down because of your unsafe electrical wiring, you’ll be looking at a long hard road of red tape with your insurance company and they’ll probably be asking a lot of uncomfortable questions for which you won’t have good answers.

If anyone is injured or killed in the accident, in addition to the emotional burden of responsibility you will expose yourself to the almost certain possibility of a lawsuit. Don’t roll your eyes…it happens so often that there are personal injury lawyers who specialize in cases related to NFPA-70 violations. If you should unfortunately find yourself sucked into this vortex, it will be a life-altering event that will not end quickly or inexpensively even if you do have really good insurance. The risk, however small, can be reduced by working to code.

NFPA-70 is the base document states, municipalities, and insurance companies use to make local rules, and the government bodies that determine your local electrical codes take what it says very seriously. In many if not most cases, local ordinances are stricter than what is in the National Electrical Code. To put it another way, the NFPA may have no direct authority to make anyone do anything, but they have a great amount of influence over the people who do.

Another big player in this scene is the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). They are a separate private trade group of electrical industry professionals. They have their own set of protocols which are patterned after NFPA-70. NECA works closely with labor unions to develop safe work practices and job skills. The NECA is not so much about making rules as it is about implementing them in the real world.

The good news and the bad news.
It would be reasonable to think that with nearly 900 pages of rules hanging over your head, it’s almost impossible to avoid stepping on a code violation landmine. The good news is that most of those 900 pages pertain to things that have nothing to do with off grid power or amateur radio.

If you have built your amateur radio station using common methods (such as those outlined in ARRL manuals), then you are probably already in compliance. Of particular importance is grounding & bonding, antenna lightning protection, and proper spacing of antennas & feed lines from high voltage power sources. If your’e the paranoid type who thinks you’ll go to prison if your exterior coax runs too close to the electric meter, relax. There are no “building code police” randomly knocking on doors and inspecting radio gear.

The bad news is that accepted standards and enforcement can vary considerably depending on where you live and who is doing the enforcing. Some municipalities require a permit for even minor projects and will send an inspector to pick through every little thing. Others will let you do almost anything with very little accountability. I’ve personally experienced both of these scenarios.

Loose local standards is not a valid excuse for doing unsafe work and blowing off NFPA-70. And don’t think just because the local standards are exceptionally lenient that you won’t be held responsible later if something goes wrong. You should always follow the rules and do a quality job even –especially– if no one is watching.

What is in NFPA-70 for hams?
The National Electrical Code has several points of particular interest to radio amateurs and off gridders. Each section is numbered, with subsections also identified. You don’t have to hunt through all eight hundred and something pages. I’ve already done that for you. The index below is from the 2017 release.

Section 250 –bonding and grounding.
Section 280 –surge arrestors.
Section 300 –general requirements for wiring methods and materials.
Section 310 –conductors for general wiring.
Section 400 –flexible cords and cables.
Section 411 –low voltage lighting.
Section 445 –generators.
Section 480 –batteries.
Section 550 –mobile/manufactured homes
Section 551 –recreational vehicles, trailers, campers.
Section 690 –solar/photovoltaic cells and panels.
Section 694 –wind energy.
Section 702 –standby/backup systems.
Section 712 –DC microgrids & systems.
Section 810 –radio & television. This is where the ham radio specific topics are.
—810.7 –bonding and grounding.
—810.11-810.18 –receiving antennas.
—810.51-810.70 –amateur radio.
Chapter 9 tables –additional data and information on a variety of topics.

Where to get a copy of NFPA-70.
The NFPA aggressively sends lawyers after alleged copyright and DMCA violations of their intellectual property; that’s why I haven’t directly quoted anything in this article. As such, the only place I could find where you can (legally) read NFPA-70 for free online is from their website (registration required). Be advised: This is a view only .pdf document. You cannot download it or even copy-and-paste it. I wasn’t kidding when I said they are very protective of their publications.

Your public library might have a print copy or you can buy one from Amazon and other booksellers. Be prepared for sticker shock: Some editions are over $200.00. Amazon Kindle or Fire users can download the electronic version for about ten bucks. I went this route and discovered that the electronic version is very poorly laid out, clumsy, and hard to navigate on my Fire tablet. The upside of course is that it’s a lot less expensive.

To be totally honest, you probably do not need your own copy of the National Electrical Code. It’s very detailed and wonky; most of it is not directly relevant to amateur radio or off grid power. I doubt anyone has ever read it cover-to-cover, or needs to. I suggest reviewing the sections above in the free on line version. You’ll notice that you’re already doing a lot of what’s in there but will find areas where you can improve.

Resources.
National Fire Protection Association homepage

Here is the read-only version of NFPA-70 (registration required)

The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA)

These short but effective statistics from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 82 are a poignant explanation why 99.9% safe is not good enough.

What you need to know.
NFPA-70 is already part of your life whether you realize it or not. Off grid radio amateurs disproportionally tend to dislike formal rules in general and government rules in particular. I get it..I come from that stock too. But for reasons of safety and quality the National Electrical Code is worth your attention. And living in an area where enforcement of the rules is causal is not a green light to do sloppy, unsafe work. You always have to live with yourself and there is a lot of pride and self-satisfaction in doing a job correctly and safely.

Complying with NFPA-70 is easier and cheaper than throwing some slop together and having to deal with the consequences later. Do it right, by the rules, the first time, and the long term payoff will be self evident.

4 thoughts on “NFPA-70 (The National Electrical Code) And The Radio Amateur.

  1. randall krippner

    It’s always a good idea to remind people about electrical safety, so thanks for bringing up the NFPA and building codes. I worked in building maintenance for 16 years in a school so electrical codes, building and construction codes, plumbing codes, fire codes, etc is something I worked with on a daily basis. A lot of people complain about them and even think they’re unnecessary but they forget that the reason all of those codes and requirements are there is because a lot of people DON’T adhere to safe practices, and property damage, injury and even death have been the result. The ARRL also has a book out called “Grounding and bonding for the Radio Amateur” which can be very helpful.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Good morning, Randall! I have been accused of placing too much emphasis on safety in my Off Grid Ham articles, but since safety always seems to be an afterthought I figure someone must keep the concept front and center. At the same time, I also do not want a reader to be involved in an accident as a result of bad advice they got from this website. I’m here to offer verifiably accurate information and it does not offend me if others decide to take a different path. I did my part; what they choose to do after that is on them. People in rural/unincorporated areas will sometimes brag that they can do anything they want because the few rules they have are barely enforced anyway. Theses are the folks who especially need to follow the codes because if they are in the middle of nowhere and something goes dangerously wrong, help is a long way away. The fewer resources you have to get you out of trouble, the more motivated you should be to avoid trouble in the first place.

      And to be totally fair, it’s true that many codes & ordinances are very heavy handed and in some cases deliberately petty, especially in large cities where labor unions have political clout. NFPA-70 is an apolitical document that concerns itself only with safe practices, but as I mention in my article, local codes are often stricter than what NFPA-70 requires.

      Reply
  2. Mike, KE0GZT

    Thanks, Chris -Given the arrival of spring weather, a lot of radio-related work may be on the agenda -including some of the electrical variety. The ARRL ‘Grounding and Bonding’ book referenced above is a great source of information. I found a used copy at a hamfest last year for about half the retail price ($25.00 new), so keep your eyes peeled for a copy -or just buy a copy from ARRL. I’ve used it to reassure myself in different areas, and help me decide if I need to get an electrician to bounce a question off, and even do the work if need be. Better safe than sorry, when it comes to electrical work (including lightening protection).

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      I have not read the ARRL grounding/bonding book, but since you’re the second person to mention it, I’ll have to place it on the list. A lot of this stuff is intuitive but it is always a good idea to verify that you’re doing it right.

      Reply

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