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 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.
National Fire Protection Association homepage
Here is the read-only version of NFPA-70 (registration required)
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.