HEALTH CARE TODAY RELIES ON ELECTRICITY to power equipment delivering an array of patient care functions. A visit to even a general care room in a hospital clearly demonstrates that electro-medical equipment is in constant use to provide high-quality patient care. As sophisticated as this equipment is, however, it does not operate without reliable power delivered through the facility’s fixed electrical infrastructure.
Health care occupancies have been specifically covered by the National Electrical Code® (NEC®) since the 1953 edition. The original concern was to safeguard against electrical ignition sources in areas where flammable anesthetics were administered. While these requirements are still found in the code, the fact is that nonflammable anesthetizing agents are used almost exclusively in U.S. health care facilities today.
Subsequent editions of the code addressed a variety of other electrical safety hazards, and today NEC Article 517, Health Care Facilities, contains installation requirements to safeguard patients against exposure to electrical current, provide for an adequate number of receptacles and circuits in patient locations, and help ensure continuity of electric power if the normal source is interrupted.
The 2014 NEC includes some important changes related to health care facilities, updates that bring the electrical infrastructure requirements in line with the need for electrical power associated with current health care practices. One key set of changes focuses on the terms used in the requirements covering health care facilities.
First, the term “emergency system” has been deleted. In past editions, the emergency system was one of two primary subdivisions — the other was the equipment system — of the essential electrical system. The emergency system was further subdivided into the life safety branch and the critical branch. The substantiation for this proposal noted that use of the term “emergency system” in Article 517 confused code users who were sorting out the proper application of requirements in Article 517 versus the requirements of Article 700, Emergency Systems. The essential electrical system of a hospital will now consist of three subdivisions: the equipment branch, the life safety branch, and the critical branch. Only the life safety branch must meet the requirements of Article 700.
A dynamic in Article 517 directly affects many of its requirements. Two technical committees are responsible for electrical safety requirements for health care facilities, and both operate within the boundaries of a specific scope of responsibility assigned by the NFPA Standards Council. The Technical Committee on Electrical Systems, responsible for Chapter 6 of NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities, is charged with developing requirements that affect the performance of electrical systems in health care occupancies. Code-Making Panel 15, responsible for Article 517 of the NEC, is charged with the development of installation requirements that protect people and property against the hazards taht arise from the use of electricity.
There is a synergy between the groups’ efforts, and the result of their technical activities is to ensure electrical safety for patients and health care workers. In fact, many of the Article 517 requirements are extracted from NFPA 99. For example, definitions from Chapter 3 and performance-related installation provisions from Chapter 6 are prevalent in Article 517. These definitions and requirements are annotated by bracketed references to the NFPA 99 requirements on which they are based.
In my next column, I’ll cover more of the changes to the NEC that affect electrical installations and their performance in the health care environment.
Jeffrey Sargent is a regional electrical code specialist for NFPA.