The 2017 National Electrical Code is Onerous

by Colin Berkshire

Colin here. If you are in telecommunications, you need to read the 2017 National Electrical Code that goes into effect in July in many parts of the country. It is one scary code.

Every device connected to the electrical network must be a “listed” device. (Meaning it must be tested by UL or one of the few other nationally recognized testing laboratories.)

But the most significant part is that this regulation applies to everything connected to the electrical network. Everything. All voltages. Everything.

This means that every VOIP PBX must be a “listed” device. Every connector, every wire, every punch-down, every paging speaker, every everything.

And, in most states it also means that you can no longer install telephone or network cable without having an electrician’s license. (Some states have an easier to get license for low voltage work. Washington State still requires 2,000 hours of mandatory training to get your low voltage electrician’s license.)

The new code also requires every conduit used for low voltage circuits to be done by a licensed electrician using “listed” components. Our company has traditionally installed surf tubing (flexible plastic conduit) ourselves. Sometimes we will pipe-bend conduit if it is only to be used for low voltages.

So where is the demarcation line in the 2017 National Electrical Code? It’s at the outlet…sort-of. Anything permanently installed is considered to be permanently wired, even if it is simply plugged in. This means a rack-mounted PBX qualifies as being permanently attached to the electrical network and must be installed by a licensed electrician.

I sat down with the head of the electrical inspection department in a jurisdiction where we have a facility. I wanted clarification.

He confirmed that when the 2017 National Electrical Code is adopted in Washington State it will no longer be legal for our staff to install any rack equipment. We cannot punch down cables to any patch panel. We cannot install any cable trays above ceilings. We cannot run telephone or network cabling. All of this must be done by a licensed electrician. (He helpfully pointed out that the requirements to get your low voltage license are only 2,000 hours of apprenticeship, and not the 4,000 hours required of a journeyman electrician.)

The 2017 electrical code also changes the labeling on network cabling. Power Over Ethernet (POE) now requires special cabling with the “LP” legend printed every 24” along the cable. So the boxes of cable you have been using are soon going to be worthless. It is unclear to me whether we will be allowed to use previously installed Cat-5 or Cat-6 ethernet wire for POE applications.

There are other significant restrictions that will affect telecom. You can only have 96 “LP” type ethernet cables in a single bundle or wire tray. This is going to be a significant issue in data centers where bundles come together into RJ-45 patch panels.

It’s very clear that the way we have been operating our data and telecom infrastructure is coming to an end. The AHJ (“Authority Having Jurisdiction”) may initially have a gentle hand as the rules phase in. But the writing is on the wall: Your days as a telecom installer are numbered.