Automation Career Tip: Know the Codes

The following tip is from the ISA book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. This is Tip #39.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerNeedless to say, studying the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Codes and National Electric Code (NEC) is a wonderful cure for insomnia but they (and others like them) are important! Possibly the most useful course I have taken was a preparation course for an electrical contractor’s license. I actually took the course because I needed some PE credit hours, but after hearing how difficult the North Carolina test was and given my newfound understanding of HOW the code was put together, I decided to purchase the supplementary training materials and pursue the license. The test was distressingly difficult – essentially memorizing the entire National Electric Code – but the information has been invaluable on countless occasions. The codes are long and arduous to read, but correctly applied they can save people’s lives and prevent millions of dollars of equipment losses.

Concept: Reading and knowing national codes and technical standards is challenging, but a necessary task for a higher level automation professional. (For simplicity, “codes” means both codes and standards in this tip.)

Details: Engineers graduate from school and are thrilled with the prospect of having their studying behind them – but their effort in school is only the beginning. Most engineers will be studying codes and/or code updates for their entire career. The ones who do NOT know these codes will find their career stagnating quickly. Do NOT start this process by grabbing the nearest code book and trying to read it. Under such conditions the average engineer will either quit after a few days or soldier through it, never understanding the information or recalling any of what they read. Instead, try this process:

• Select a code that is the most useful to your current job description. It might be the ISA-88 Batch standard, the NEC, or one of the NFPA, UL, or ASME codes or ISA Standards.

• Once the code is selected, try to find a short class and/or book that explains it and its application. This information will be important as you begin reading.

• NOW read the code (or at least sections of it). Start with the parts that are most applicable to your present job description.

For example, in the specific case of ISA-88, consider reading an introductory book such as Applying S88: Batch Control from a User’s Perspective (Update: the reference “S88” has been replaced by ISA-88) about two guys creating a batch control system for an ice cream plant. The information in that book is easy to read and explains the application of the standard in an actual plant. (The book makes great sense; the ISA-88 standard itself is difficult to follow.)

If you are learning the National Electric Code, take a preparatory course for a state electrical contractor’s license. Even if you have no plans to actually get a license, the class will explain the often mystifying arrangement of the NEC and will help you quickly locate information. Do NOT try to read and/or memorize the code cover to cover. It is huge and covers a wide variety of specific situations that have little bearing on the average automation engineer’s job. DO read the early generic chapters on branch circuits, grounding, and conductors as well as the chapters on motors, and read the sections on hazardous area classifications if applicable to your situation. Make an effort to pick a code and/or code section and learn a new one every year. Most engineers will find the following codes particularly useful:

• ISA-88 Batch

• ISA-84 Safety Interlock Systems

• National Electric Code (certain sections)

• NFPA 85/86 (Boiler/Furnace controls)

There are countless others, each with its own purpose and application.

Watch-Outs: Beware of code “evangelists.” Occasionally you will encounter an individual who quotes codes by chapter and verse and uses this tactic to bend other, less knowledgeable people to their will. Some of these people ARE that knowledgeable, but others really do not know as much as they pretend. (Electrical contractors will occasionally use this technique to get lucrative change orders.) If a person demands that a major work scope change must be implemented to “satisfy the code,” it is worth getting a second opinion from a knowledgeable, but independent third party.

Exceptions: There is really no excuse to avoid learning codes. Do not rely on the knowledge of others to know and/or interpret a code. Most of the codes have gray areas instead of being strictly “black and white” and have “outs” that may provide alternate options for certain situations.

Insight: There are not many engineers with commanding knowledge of the codes, so they are often well paid and valued by a company.

Rule of Thumb: Try to learn at least one relevant code or one code section each year and seek to apply that knowledge often so that it is not lost.

Hunter Vegas

About the Author
Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University. His job titles have included instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he joined Avid Solutions, Inc., as an engineering manager and lead project engineer, where he works today. Vegas has executed nearly 2,000 instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms.
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