Rahm Emanuel, the former Mayor of Chicago and former White House Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama, has a line that he often repeats: “Never allow a good crisis to go to waste.” When I first heard him make that statement, I thought this is what occurs in the codes and standards profession all of the time. Any crisis results in code changes. The bigger the crisis, the more code changes.

We are in the midst of one of the greatest crises in my lifetime, COVID-19. I thought by now, coronavirus would be on the downturn. Boy, was I wrong! Things seem to be getting worse rather than better.

The question is: “How do we address this crisis, and how do we not allow it to go to waste?” All of the codes and standards groups first came out with protocol for reopening buildings that have been closed because of the stay-at-home policies. IAPMO, ICC and ASHRAE all published requirements for reopening buildings. If you have not read any of them, I would suggest you check out these organizations’ websites. The protocols they have published are quite good. I will not list my favorite since I would prefer you check out all of them.


Sparking change

While my colleagues who write about air movement are having a field day, we also have to consider the plumbing and mechanical aspects of this crisis. Within the last three months, I have received many comments regarding changes that are needed in the plumbing codes. All the suggestions have been COVID-19 related.

The most repeated question has been: “Should the code be mandating touchless faucets for handwashing in public buildings?” It’s a valid point and needs to be considered. While there has been less emphasis on touching surfaces and more on breathing in the virus, there is still the fact that surfaces can contain the virus. Not having to not touch faucet handles makes perfect sense.

Following that theme, a number of comments were: “Do we need more handwashing stations? Should there be a handwashing station at the entrance to every building?” At first, I thought that was carrying things a little too far. Then, I thought about every building I’ve entered recently, which has not been many, since I’ve been quarantining. Every building had a hand sanitizing dispenser. Basically, you are asked to clean your hands before entering. Maybe a handwashing station could serve the same purpose but be even better than hand sanitizer.

While on a similar thread, “What about soap dispensers?” Currently, none of the plumbing codes mandate soap dispensers. The lavatory in public toilet rooms only requires you to clean your hands with water. Soap is not part of the equation. However, soap should be required.

Most architects and engineers specify soap dispensers for public toilet rooms. Same as most architects and engineers provide baby changing stations. But should soap dispensers be mandated? Should baby changing stations be mandated?

For public toilet rooms, the question became: “Should there be doors?” Without doors, the entry would have to be a “z” arrangement to block visual line of sight. My first thought was that you still have a door on a water closet compartment so what is the big deal? However, after using the water closet compartment, you wash your hands. The big deal is now your hands are clean and you have to touch a possibly contaminated surface. The other option could be to have automatic doors into public toilet rooms. That would be unique.

Another area that may require consideration are bars, restaurants and entertainment facilities. These locations are known for the highest possibility of spreading COVID-19 if proper protocols are not followed. Should there be more handwashing stations for the wait staff? Should the bartender have touchless faucets for washing the glasses and filling glasses with water?

The entertainment industry has been hit the hardest. Anything we can do to help the industry will be a major benefit. These are things we, as engineers, need to consider.

While none of these code changes have yet to be submitted (the deadline is January 2021), they may be coming. However, engineers and architects don’t have to wait for the code to be modified. There are many changes that can be incorporated into your current designs. While they may add some cost, these are easy changes that can benefit a building owner. 


2020 NEC GFCI change

On a totally unrelated matter, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the significant changes to the 2020 edition of the National Electrical Code regarding ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI). There have been significant changes regarding where GFCIs are required. The greatest change is to dwelling units.

As a plumbing and mechanical engineer, I have, in the past, always just given the electrical engineer the power requirements for my plumbing and mechanical appliances and let that engineer design the electrical system. I never wanted to know too much about electrical design, although I know more than I admit.

When I saw the changes to the GFCI requirements, my jaw dropped. The first thing I questioned was how we are going to deal with VFD motors and similar appliances that have drastic changes in power demand. A GFCI will trip anytime there is a change of between 4 and 6 milliamps. But that can occur constantly with certain appliances, such as fans and pumps.

For dwelling units, anything in a basement or crawl space will require GFCI protection. That includes sump pumps, furnaces, boilers, pumps and circulators. For dwelling units and non-dwelling units, all outside appliances require similar protection.

I first received a call when outdoor equipment started to trip the GFCI following the new 2020 NEC. That is never good when it shuts off important building systems. What all this means is you need to better coordinate with your electrical engineer to have GFCI protection that is designed for the power demands and fluctuations of plumbing and mechanical appliances. When providing this added protection, you need to be assured that it doesn’t result in false activation of essential equipment. 

Note: The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily represent PM Engineer or BNP Media.