How standards and codes become law

In a democratic society, we rely on laws to regulate how we govern and maintain order. Americans have gathered to make laws since our colonial period and we continue to make laws to maintain a well-regulated society. Although specific procedures for creating laws have developed over the centuries, democratic law-making remains marked by a need to have the consent of the people, a system of checks and balances, and a public policy flexibility suited to the problems of time and place.

The history of standards

The history of standards in the U.S. began in 1830, when the role of overseeing weights and measures was carried out by the “Office of Standard Weights and Measures,” which was part of the U.S. Treasury Department. Merchants needed a standard for weights and measures for their purchases of grain, oil or other products sold by weight. In those days, there were metric units, British units, and an assortment of scales of questionable accuracy. In one location, a merchant would purchase some goods and be issued a bill of sale with a specific weight in the source city and when the merchant got to another city to sell the product the scale would read a significantly different weight. Early traders lobbied for standards on weights and measures to assure they were being fairly compensated for their purchases and sales.

Another early standardization issue arose when many of the large fires occurred in the major eastern cities, which were constructed of mostly wooden, combustible materials. When a large fire or conflagration occurred, many fire departments came to assist at these fires only to find that their hose threads did not match and they were unable to assist. They soon realized the advantage of standardizing the fire hose threads so fire departments could respond with mutual-aid and be assured that the hose threads would fit. After a large conflagration in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin began to lobby for wider streets and fire resistant building materials to minimize the chances of a repeat occurrence. This was an early form of standardization.

In 1901, the National Bureau of Standards was founded to serve as the national physical laboratory dealing with standardization issues for the U.S. The Bureau of Standards was set up with divisions to develop commercial standards for materials and products. Some of these standards were for products intended for government use, but those product standards also affected private-sector use. Standards were developed for products including: fire hose threads, clothing for military uniforms, automobile brake systems and headlamps, antifreeze, plumbing products and electrical safety.

The National Bureau of Standards became the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 1988. As standards development moved along there was a need to assure standards were developed in a fair and consensus process.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI)

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) was formed to make sure the standards were developed in a fair and consensus manner to promote and facilitate voluntary consensus standards and ensure their integrity. ANSI is active in both national and international standardization and is a major proponent of the United States Standards Strategy (USS). ANSI does not develop American National Standards (ANSs). ANSI provides all interested parties with a neutral venue to come together and work towards common agreements.

ANSI ensures that there is access to the standards process, including an appeals mechanism and that the standards process is made available to anyone directly or materially affected by a standard that is under development. Thousands of individuals, companies, government agencies and other organizations such as labor, industrial and consumer groups voluntarily contribute their knowledge, talents and efforts to standards development.


A standard is a document, which is typically developed by a standards development organization or an industry trade group in order to standardize products or processes. Standards are typically established by consensus that provides rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results.

Standards play an important role in everyday life. They may establish material, quality, size, shape, capacity or performance of a product, process or system. They often have tests to specify a minimum level of performance for a process, product or personnel. They also can define terms so that there is no misunderstanding among those using the standard.

Conformity assessment

Conformity assessment is defined as any activity concerned with determining directly or indirectly that relevant requirements are fulfilled by the standards development organization. (As defined in ISO/IEC Guide 2 Standardization and related activities.)

While a standard is a technical expression of how to make a product safe, efficient, and compatible with others, a standard alone cannot guarantee performance. Conformity assessment is required by ANSI to assure the standards developer is following proper procedures. This conformity assessment provides assurance to consumers by increasing consumer confidence when personnel, products, systems, processes or services are evaluated against the requirements of a voluntary standard meeting an ANSI Standard.

ANSI overview

ANSI provides a neutral forum for the development of policies on standards issues and serves as a watchdog for standards development and conformity assessment programs and processes.

The ANSI process provides and promotes a process designed to protect the rights and interests of the public and every participant through a set of four "cardinal principles."

Openness – The ANSI process is fair and open. Any materially affected and interested party shall have the ability to participate.

Balance – Participants should represent diverse interests and categories, and no single group should have dominance in standards development.

Due Process – All objections shall have an attempt made towards their resolution. Interests who believe they have been treated unfairly have a right to appeal.

Consensus – Agreements are reached when more than a majority, but not necessarily all, of the participants concur on a proposed solution.

In order to maintain ANSI accreditation, standards development organizations are required to consistently adhere to a set of requirements or procedures known as the "ANSI Essential Requirements: Due process requirements for American National Standards," which govern the consensus development process. Due process is the key to ensuring that American National Standards (ANSs) are developed in an environment that is equitable, accessible and responsive to the requirements of various stakeholders.

Standards developers accredited by ANSI must meet the Institute’s requirements for openness, balance, consensus and other due process safeguards.

The hallmarks of the American National Standards process include:

• Consensus on a proposed standard by a group or “consensus body” that includes representatives from materially affected and interested parties.
• Broad-based public review and comment on draft standards.
• Consideration of and response to comments submitted by voting members of the relevant consensus body and by public review commenters.
• Incorporation of approved changes into a draft standard.
• Right to appeal by any participant that believes that due process principles were not sufficiently respected during the standards development in accordance with the ANSI-accredited procedures of the standards developer.

How a code is changed

When someone sees a deficiency in a code, or if there is a need for clarifying a code section, a proposed code change form can be submitted to a model code organization or to a state or local code organization in order to change the code.

The code change form should have the proposed language to be added underlined and proposed language to be removed stricken with a line through it. In addition to the proposed code change language, the proponent must also provide a substantiation or reason statement to be printed in the proposed code change book below the proposed code change.

The proposed code changes are gathered, collated following the sections in the code book, and then published for public review prior to the code hearings. Code hearings are scheduled a few months after the code change proposal deadline. At the code hearings, the proponents and opponents of the code change are given the opportunity to speak for and against a given proposed change.

Proponents are typically are allowed to testify for about 3 minutes with a reason for why the code committee should adopt the code change. Opponents are given the same opportunity to oppose a code change and to state their reason for opposition to the change. Rebuttal testimony is then given by each side with a couple of minutes for rebuttal to any points brought up by the other side during the testimony. This part of the code change process can be very educational as you hear the reasons for and against a code change.

Standards adopted in the codes

If an industry standard is completed and it obtains an ANSI accreditation, it can be submitted to a code organization or jurisdiction for adoption in the code for that jurisdiction. This is typically done through the above mentioned code change process. The process that states and local code organizations utilize to adopt and implement code changes is similar for most jurisdictions. That could be a model code development organization or a national, state or local government entity if they maintain their own code.

Model codes are typically developed using a consensus process. With models codes, code officials, architects, engineers, designers, manufacturers, organizations and contractors contribute to the process that will provide a code that can be adopted by states or local jurisdictions. With product standardization, manufacturers can focus on research and development rather than designing their products to meet different sets of code requirements in different jurisdictions. Education and certification programs can be standardized and used internationally.

The code development process is a key to gaining the trust and confidence of the global building and construction industry. A consensus code development process is designed to protect the health, safety and welfare of people around the world. Finally, the code change process allows all jurisdictions, regardless of size, to benefit from the expertise of the professionals in the development of the model codes, available for local adoption.

How a code or standard has the force of law

A code or standard created in a consensus process by itself does not have the force of law until the standard or code is adopted by ordinance in a given jurisdiction. Some standards may set a minimum standard of care, but the enforcement is still voluntary and not mandated. When the standard is referenced in a code and then adopted by ordinance then it has the force of law. When the standard is referenced in a code, and the code with the specific year version is referenced in an ordinance as the legal document governing the construction of buildings in that jurisdiction, it has the force of law. However, the appendices to the codes and standards are generally not enforceable by law.

Appendices by nature provide supplemental information and they are not part of the standard or code. In some jurisdictions, the appendices may be separately adopted. But, the language in the appendices is generally not written in mandatory language, and if an appendix in a code is adopted it may need to be amended to have mandatory language.

It is for this reason we must read and understand the proposed standards and proposed changes to standards, and the proposed codes and proposed changes to codes in order to make sure the language is correct and enforceable. Standards are a lot more than just a bunch of alphabet soup documents. Codes and standards, when adopted, are the basis of the laws governing the minimum requirements for health and safety to protect the public. Codes and standards should not be used for an agenda or to mandate water or energy conservation at the expense of health and safety.

Ron George, CPD, is president of Plumb-Tech Design & Consulting Services LLC. Visit

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