What is the difference between standards and codes?

By Ron George,CPD,
President, Ron George Design & Consulting Svcs.

I often talk to attorneys and people who ask questions about what is required for a given installation. In these conversations, the words code and standard are used interchangeably. But, there is a difference between codes and standards.


I find that often people who are not familiar with the process think that a standard is a government document or code. This is not true. Standards are usually developed by standards developing organizations (SDOs) that serve as a secretariat for a standard. I usually have to explain the a standard is a document that is developed in an open, public consensus process that informs interested parties of the intent to develop or update an industry standard for a product, system design, or personnel qualification. The interested parties can serve on the working group tasked with drafting the standard, and when the draft is complete, it is released for public review.

The SDO body overseeing the standard development process votes on all of the proposed changes, which can be either editorial or substantive. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) occasionally audits SDOs to ensure that standards are developed properly and that all public comments are properly addressed. If a comment is not considered germane, the person who made the comment must be notified that their proposed change is not being incorporated into the draft, along with a rationale explaining why a majority of the committee rejected the change. The person has the ability to appeal the decision if they choose, and each SDO has a procedure for dealing with appeals. All comments must be addressed before the standard can move forward.

When all of the comments are addressed, the standard can be submitted to ANSI for approval. If the standard is approved, it becomes an American National Standard. At this point it is simply an industry consensus standard, and it has no real force of law. For a standard to have the force of law, it must be referenced in a model code that is then adopted by a jurisdiction as the code for that jurisdiction


A model code is just a document intended for jurisdiction to adopt as the code in the jurisdiction. It has no force of law unless it has been adopted by a local jurisdiction with some form of legislative process or ordinance. A jurisdiction must pass an ordinance by adopting a particular year edition of a model code as the plumbing code, mechanical code, building code, etc. for that jurisdiction. When an ordinance references a code as the code for that jurisdiction, it then becomes the code that must be enforced by the inspectors in that jurisdiction.

There are three model plumbing codes in the U.S. The codes are (in alphabetical order): the International Plumbing Code (IPC), National Standard Plumbing Code (NSPC) and Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC). The model codes are typically updated on a three year cycle. The 2015 codes are in the final stages of code hearings and are getting ready for publication in 2014 in order to be able to be purchased and reviewed by various jurisdictions in late 2014 for adoption in 2015. The proposed code changes for the 2018 codes will be due in 2015 and the three year code change cycle begins all over again.

Some jurisdictions are known to procrastinate and can take 10 years or more when it comes to officially passing an ordinance to adopt the most current code language. This delay often comes from a state or local jurisdiction having to form a local code committee to review the model code language and propose revisions for the local jurisdiction. The revision process may take up to a year or more, and then when the revision process is done the jurisdiction must print its own version of the local code with both the model code language and the local amendments. Dealing with multiple versions of codes can get confusing for contractors and engineers that do work in areas that border several jurisdictions and have to use multiple codes with different year editions of the codes.

The International Plumbing Code change process

The International Plumbing Code (IPC) is part of the Group “A” Codes that are heard in the first year of the code three-year code change cycle. The Group “B” codes are heard in the second year and the Group “C” codes are heard in the third year. The code change process begins with a published deadline for submitting proposed code changes that are generally due to be submitted in the first month of the first year of a code change cycle. The code change agenda is then published in March of the code change cycle’s first year.

There is typically a Committee Development Hearing (CDH) in the spring of the first year of the code change cycle. After the code committees and the assembly meet, discuss and vote on the proposed code changes, there is a period when the public can propose comments on the proposed code changes for consideration at the Public Comment Hearings (PCH). The PCHs are usually in the late summer or early fall of the first year of a code change cycle. After the PCHs, the results are published and the new edition of the code is ready for publication after the group “B” and Group “C” codes are complete with code change cycles.

Retroactive code changes need to be considered

This scenario plays out about twice a month in my office and the story tends to get old. It seems like déjà vu all over again every time an attorney starts talking. Attorneys introduce themselves and go on to tell me a story about a child, elderly person or handicapped person who was seriously scalded in a tub/shower or shower with an old two handle shower valve. The attorney will go on to ask, “The code shouldn’t allow scalding hot water to come from a shower, should it?”

The first part of the attorney’s statement is always as confident and forceful as a public address speaker, and the last two words tend to get a little desperate. Attorneys are always asking how water so hot can be allowed to flow from a shower.

“Is it allowed to be over 120 °F?” the attorney will ask.

I say it depends. The attorney usually goes on to tell a horrible story with all the details about how a person was scalded in the tub/shower. This story repeats itself over and over again and it begins to sound like a broken record player.

The plumbing industry has been dancing around code language that has an exception for existing installations to remain if they were code compliant when the building was built and as long as no hazard or unsanitary condition is present. Then it gets into the interpretation of what a hazard is and what is grandfathered as an existing condition. The codes can only be enforced when a building is built or renovated.

Following, are excerpts from the 2012 IPC that show the language that is often misinterpreted as allowing an existing unsafe condition to exist. The code official must recognize old two-handle shower valves as a safety hazard, and start enforcing this language in order to make a difference.

A code change could be submitted to specify that that non-temperature or non-pressure compensating shower valves are unsafe and should be removed. For existing buildings, the code official does not get to re-inspect an existing condition to enforce this language. But, if the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC)is adopted in a jurisdiction and an inspector declares a two-handle non-compensating shower valve as a safety hazard, then they can require them to be replace the property maintenance code inspections. Then, hopefully one day my phone calls will be good news instead of bad news.

The excerpts from the 2012 (IPC) are:

• 101.3 Intent. The purpose of this code is to provide minimum standards to safeguard life or limb, health, property and public welfare, by regulating and controlling the design, construction, installation, quality of materials, location, operation and maintenance or use of plumbing equipment and systems.
This section sums it up. The purpose of the code is to provide minimum standards and safeguard.

• 102.2 Existing installations. Plumbing systems lawfully in existence at the time of the adoption of this code shall be permitted to have their use and maintenance continued if the use, maintenance or repair is in accordance with the original design and no hazard to life, health or property is created by such plumbing system.
The key wording in this code section is “and no hazard to life, health or property is created by such plumbing system.” The older, two-handled Non-Temperature or Non-Pressure Compensating shower valves create a serious scalding hazard and should be recognized as a serious hazard with respect to the above code section.

• 102.3 Maintenance. All plumbing systems, materials and appurtenances, both existing and new, and all parts thereof, shall be maintained in proper operating condition in accordance with the original design in a safe and sanitary condition. All devices or safeguards required by this code shall be maintained in compliance with the code edition under which they were installed. The owner or the owner’s designated agent shall be responsible for maintenance of plumbing systems. To determine compliance with this provision, the code official shall have the authority to require any plumbing system to be re-inspected.

• 102.4 Additions, alterations or repairs. Additions, alterations, renovations or repairs to any plumbing system shall conform to that required for a new plumbing system without requiring the existing plumbing system to comply with all the requirements of this code. Additions, alterations or repairs shall not cause an existing system to become unsafe, insanitary or overloaded. Minor additions, alterations, renovations and repairs to existing plumbing systems shall meet the provisions for new construction, unless such work is done in the same manner and arrangement as was in the existing system, is not hazardous and is approved.

The following is code language from Section 504 “Plumbing Systems and Fixtures” in the 2012 IPMC:

504.1 General. All plumbing fixtures shall be properly installed and maintained in working order, and shall be kept free from obstructions, leaks and defects and be capable of performing the function for which such plumbing fixtures are designed. All plumbing fixtures shall be maintained in a safe, sanitary and functional condition.

504.3 Plumbing system hazards. Where it is found that a plumbing system in a structure constitutes a hazard to the occupants or the structure by reason of inadequate service, inadequate venting, cross connection, backsiphonage, improper installation, deterioration or damage or for similar reasons, the code official shall require the defects to be corrected to eliminate the hazard. It should be understood that an old two-handle non-temperature or non-pressure compensating shower valve presents a hazard to the building occupants, therefore the international property maintenance code language above should authorize a code official to require building owners to replace non-code shower valves with pressure or temperature compensating type shower valves that have maximum temperature limit stop adjustments that can be set to limit the hot water temperature flowing from a shower to a safe temperature at or below 120°F.

Ron George is president of Plumb-Tech Design and Consulting Services LLC. He has served as chairman of the International Residential Plumbing & Mechanical Code Committee. Visit, e-mail or phone 734/755-1908.

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