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How to Read the Code

I have watched many inspectors who are intimidated by the “code” book and choose to ignore it in lieu of attempting to understand it. I have said many times that it takes inspectors around three years to start asking the right questions and another two years to know where to go to get the answers. Many times this is by developing systems and processes that help you find what you are looking for (or by asking someone for advice).

So let’s start with the basics. As an inspector I can only legally enforce the codes and standards that are referenced by the code we adopted. If our state has a state wide building code, then the document utilized as the building code would be our starting point. If my community has adopted NFPA 1 as the fire prevention code, then that is our adopted code. The standards that are referenced in the appendix or administration chapters are only enforceable to the extent that it was referenced by the adopted code.

For instance, the International Fire Code 2006 references NFPA 101 The Life Safety Code in section 1025.6.2 (Smoke Proof Seating). The reference is only for the section in NFPA 101 on a life safety evaluation. This does not imply the entire life safety code is up for grabs (from a legal standpoint). In my community we have adopted the IFC 2006 and many times I will refer to NFPA 1, 101 or other non-adopted documents to help me enforce our code (gain additional information or alternatives). Now that we know what the “code” is, getting around the book can take some time. All inspectors should memorize the general layout.

When I say memorize I only talk about the general layout (do not memorize code, it will give you a headache). Take NFPA 13, The Standard for Automatic Sprinkler Systems (2007 edition). The standard has a basic flair to it (just like NFPA has set all new standards to do). The beginning three chapters are administrative, scope, definitions and reference standards. Then you get into the meat and potatoes. The front chapters are setup for system components (piping, sprinklers, valves, etc…). Then the chapters turn toward design (general and specific). If I am looking for information on sprinkler obstructions I would go to the chapter specific to sprinklers.

Just flipping pages in a code book to find your section is not the place to start. If you are looking for something specific go to the index of the code or standard. If you are going to look at a wider range of items, go to the table of contents. This starts you in the correct manner of reading code. Let’s take the question about sprinkler obstructions. Going to the index and looking up sprinkler can lead us on several goose chases (lots of flipping pages and not finding what I am looking for). If I know the sprinkler is a standard upright, go to the table of contents and look up sprinklers, then standard upright. It will narrow my path and get me to my answer sooner.

Like anything else code administration takes time and patience. Develop a system which works for you so you can get your answers quickly without memorizing the codes.

Do you have code questions, visit our discussion forums and ask all the questions you want (for free)!

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Mike Becraft September 30, 2008, 11:38 am

    It doesn’t address the making of biodiesel in the home, what and how do you inforce this?

  • Nick Markowitz Jr. January 22, 2009, 5:41 pm

    Part of the problem with reading and interpreting codes is getting to know
    what the word definitions means.
    for example if you picked up NEC70 and looked for Romex or BX wire
    you will not find it you will also not find the word hot or neutral

    Romex and BX are trade names to find romex you must look under
    non metallic cable for Bx you would look under armored cable
    hot and neutral you would find under grounded and ungrounded conductors.
    are you confused yet?
    why do we write codes to be so ambiguous and confusing
    why can we not write it in plain text and use common trade names in parenthesises then it might not be so intimidating.

    believe me when i tell you many contractors and code officials often wonder does NFPA actually stand for Not For Practical Application

  • FM William Burns January 27, 2009, 1:42 pm

    Nice article and right on point; with regards to the Biodiesel enforcement. There are avenues in the adopted fire codes for flammable and combustible liquids that will mandate separation and protection criteria in residential occupancies; it’s all in how you use the code as your tool. The residential occupancy would have to be considered a “Change in Occupancy” or “Change in the Contents Hazards” to affect regulatory actions.

    Communities who are experiencing this will need to develop partnerships with the environmental agencies, zoning, building and fire departments to use “Special Use Permitting” for those homeowners who are up front with their intended plans or reactive enforcement on those you discover after then fact…….don’t worry their neighbors will only tolerate the smells for so long and the police and fire departments will get tired of the odor complaints and you’ll discover them soon enough. The key is to talk to your city leaders and have a plan in place first to deal with it before it becomes a growing problem.

  • Dorothy Priolo January 1, 2011, 2:23 am

    One of my most valuable tools for slicing and dicing any code book is the highlighter. Yellow is for me. In these last hours of 2010, California is prepping for the use of the 2009 IFC (aka 2010 Calif Fire Code). In each code I use, I highlight the major subsections captions, esp. in Chapters like 27 & 34 which have similar section titles for different situations (i.e., indoor vs. outdoor storage, dispensing, aboveground, underground, etc….). This process helps in the first bit of research for that chapter of the code cycle, and the highlights serve virtual street signs to direct me to the right neighborhood. On future searches, the Hansel & Gretel pebbles (not breadcrumbs!) are already set out for me.

  • Mikey January 2, 2011, 4:16 pm

    Dorothy, I agree on major sections I also put frequent sections on the inside of the back cover….

  • M.Christopher Shay December 2, 2011, 3:41 pm

    The use of a highlighter is great, but I also will use the pre made tabs from the ICC and I make up my own for the top and bottom of my fire code bok.

  • FM D. Sang February 24, 2012, 5:13 pm

    I have also lived by the rule of reading the section before and after the “code section” of the related topic. Also, I use the Code and Commentary for my interpretations. This way I have a better understanding of the intent of the code, which is what we are trying to achieve in the first place.

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