What Does It Mean When a Home “Meets Code”?

Does the fact that certain work within a home has “met code” assure the quality of that work?  Not necessarily.

The technology has existed for many years to keep a home’s electrical wiring from arcing and catching fire from electrical short circuits — but has only recently been added to the electrical code.  The requirement for the use of this technology (an arc fault circuit interrupter, or AFCI breaker) has yet to be adopted everywhere and where it is adopted, its requirement is often limited to only those circuits in a bedroom (as if bedrooms are the only rooms in a home where electrical wires will arc and burn, I suppose).

For years, home dwellers were severely shocked or electrocuted when a hair dryer would accidentally be dropped into a sink or tub, even though the technology existed (in the form of a ground fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI receptacle or breaker) to help prevent injuries from such accidents.  Again, it took many years and a series of small, incremental steps before GFCIs were finally required to be installed in homes where such requirements were adopted and enforced.

In this sense, the requirements themselves are lacking in prompt implementation and practical application.  Most items are added to codes and become “standards” only after many years of accumulated evidence of property damage, injuries and death.  Today’s recent addition of life saving fire suppression systems in the newer building codes — and the subsequent attempts to limit its application — is one recent example.

These requirements … and other building standards covering everything from the foundation to the roof, and everything in between … are what is commonly referred to as “building codes” or “code requirements”.

When codes are adopted by law in cities, counties and/or states … they become only the basic minimum requirement that a builder, remodeler or other contractor must meet.  Anything less than these basic minimum standards are considered illegal.  In that sense, simply “meeting the code” in some cases could also mean “barely legal” with the possibility than an even higher level of quality or assurance of safety can be attained.

Thus, “meeting code” is far from being any type of assurance of quality.  It only means that the minimum requirements established by law have been met.

Jurisdictions that have these basic minimum requirements will usually have someone tasked to enforce them called the “Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ)”, “building inspector” or “code enforcement officer”.  His visits to a construction or remodeling site are typically short and limited and sometimes serious violations of minimum building standards can be overlooked, but his pending inspection goes a long way to motivate the contractor to adhere to the standards.  Some home owners and contractors will perform work on a home without the proper permits whereby the AHJ is unaware of the work and does not inspect it.  For these reasons, not all homes for sale can be considered safe to occupy without having an independent inspection performed by a professional prior to purchase.

If you are fortunate enough to live in an area where building codes have been adopted, it is important that you ensure that the proper permits have been acquired by your contractor … not only to meet the requirements of the law for obtaining a permit, but to ensure that your contractor meets the skill and licensing requirements in your area and to have the work inspected for compliance.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Electrical Safety: Some Thoughts on Knob and Tube Wiring and Insulation | Houses and Stuff

  2. The Code is the negotiated and agreed upon minimum standard. Like the five grades in school, (A, B, C, D, and F), Code is the line between a D and an F. With a D you may pass but it is nothing to write home about. Too many things are being put into the Code that have nothing to do being a minimum standard. (Energy standards, Arc Fault devices, home sprinklers. If you want an A then add them but don’t use the Code for social engineering.) You cannot protect everybody from everything, especially their own lack of common sense. We have anti-collision radar installed on airplanes but we do not install it on cars and trucks. The Code should be a reasonable balance between the insurance industry who wants to minimize their risks, and the manufacturing industry that states, “Trust me it’s safe.”

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