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I often field questions on products that are not specifically covered in the codes and standards, and it’s not always possible to point to evidence in the model codes or referenced standards to “prove” that these products are acceptable. But the absence of a specific reference in these publications does not mean that these materials are prohibited.
For example, NFPA 80 – Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives does not specifically mention whether terminated stops (AKA hospital stops) or delayed action closers are allowed to be used on fire door assemblies. Code change proposals can be submitted so these products are eventually addressed, but with a code-development cycle of 3 years, this is a long-term strategy.
Even if a code change is approved on the first try, it can be many years before the new language is officially adopted in any given jurisdiction. The 2016 edition of NFPA 80 included paragraphs which address new products that have been listed to fill holes in fire doors, and others which are listed to bring a fire door with an oversized undercut back into compliance. However, this standard was not referenced by the model codes until the 2018 editions, so in some states it has taken years to be adopted by reference.
So what happens between the time when a new product is developed (or someone notices that a material or method is not addressed) and a code change goes into effect? The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes and standards cover this situation in a section called “Equivalency.”
In NFPA 80 and NFPA 101 – The Life Safety Code, the Equivalency section states that the NFPA codes and standards are not intended to prevent the use of new/improved devices, systems, or methods that are superior to the prescriptive requirements of these publications. It is the manufacturer’s responsibility to provide information to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), which demonstrates equivalency.
This technical documentation could include testing laboratory results based on fire tests and engineering studies, descriptive information about the products, installation methods, required maintenance, and any limitations on the use of the material or method. The equivalency process ensures that the continuous process of product development does not conflict with the current standards.
If the information provided is in order and demonstrates equivalency, the system, method, or device is typically approved. The term “approved” is defined by NFPA as “acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction.” When the material or method is approved as equivalent – meeting the intent of the code or standard, it is recognized as being code-compliant. An equivalent protection method is intended to provide a level of safety that is greater than or equal to the requirements of the code or standard.
The International Building Code (IBC) addresses this situation in a section called Alternative Materials, Design, and Methods of Construction and Equipment. Again, the code is not intended to prohibit new materials and methods for which the code does not include prescriptive information, as long as it has been approved. The IBC defines the term “approved” as “acceptable to the building official.”
The IBC lists research reports and test results as potential evidence that the proposed design complies with the intent of the code with regard to quality, strength, effectiveness, fire resistance, durability, and safety. If the building official does not approve a submitted design, the IBC requires the building official to state the reasons why the alternative was not approved.
The term “building official” used in the IBC is defined as “The officer or other designated authority charged with the administration and enforcement of this code, or a duly authorized representative.” Because the NFPA codes and standards are enforced by a wide range of jurisdictions and approval agencies the term “Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ)” is defined by NFPA as “An organization, office, or individual responsible for enforcing the requirements of a code or standard, or for approving equipment, materials, an installation, or a procedure.”
An AHJ may be a federal, state, local, or regional department or others having statutory authority, including a fire chief, fire marshal, or other fire prevention personnel, a building official, a labor or health department, or other inspector. An AHJ could also be an insurance inspector, accreditation or certification agency personnel, commanding officers or departmental officials for government facilities, or even a property owner or the owner’s agent.
The committees responsible for the model codes and referenced standards attempt to address the most current industry standards, practices, and technology. However, this is an ever-evolving industry, and it’s impossible to ensure that every product, assembly, or practice is addressed. To manage this potential time lapse, the codes and standards give the power to the AHJ or building official to evaluate and approve the alternate arrangements. Although a proposed installation may not meet the exact criteria in a code or standard, it will often be approved if the proper documentation of equivalency is provided.