A somewhat savvy citizen examines the Building and Organic Farming Codes

When I built my house several decades ago, I noticed that the demand water heater had an 89,000 BTU per hour input and the heating requirement for the entire house was only 30,000 BTU per hour at thirty below zero.  It seemed unfair to ask the subcontractors to take my word for the feasibility of using the water heater for a furnace, so I studied the electric and plumbing codes to do the work myself. 

 

The plumbing code was unnecessarily complicated, dogmatic, and arbitrary.  I remember getting a waiver from the building inspector for the requirement that a bathroom sink had to be closer to the plumbing stack than the toilet.  Presumably this was to avoid needing an extra air vent to prevent flow through its discharge pipe from sucking water out of its trap and thus permitting sewer gas to enter the living space.  The reason must be that the toilet requires a larger diameter horizontal (really slightly sloping) discharge pipe than the diameter pipe required for the sink; and the drop from the appliance to the plumbing vertical stack must be no more than the diameter of the pipe—solution, use a larger than required diameter pipe for the sink discharge.  This option, however, was not mentioned in the code.  The waiver permitted me to avoid some really obtrusive pipes visible, and attracting dirt, in the house’s clerestory space.  When the inspector realized that I had done some homework, he simply stated, “I’m an electrician, just fix the plumbing so it works and I will pass it.”  (An interesting finding from my homework was some research demonstrating that sewer gas is not a health hazard—only an aesthetic one).

 

Later, I mentioned my adventures with the plumbing code to a steam fitter from American Motors.  Apparently steam fitters look down on mere plumbers—his response, “The plumbing code intentionally contains inconsistencies so they can always flunk you if they want to.”

 

I found only one inconsistency in the electric code.  Household 110 volt circuits require a separate ground wire from the neutral wire even though both are connected to the same ground in the circuit breaker box, but a 220 volt clothes drier needs only two hot wires and ground even though the electric motor that turns the basket is only 110 volts and uses the common ground for its neutral (return) circuit.  Theoretically there is a voltage drop in a neutral /ground wire when any current is flowing.  I have heard that this inconsistency has been corrected, but I have seen no four conductor plugs and sockets for electric driers in hardware stores.  Perhaps there is no important inconsistency since the maximum current for the motor in the clothes drier is less than 5 amperes and the maximum in a household circuit may be 15 to 20 amperes resulting in a proportionately larger voltage drop. 

 

When I was on the county board I was permitted to audit a course put on for farmers wanting their farms to qualify as certified organic—the farmers paid tuition.  I had no interest in getting our backyard garden certified organic, but was permitted to attend.  Many of the requirements are dogmatic and arbitrary like what I remember of medieval theology ala Saint Thomas Aquinas.  I wouldn’t remember medieval theology except that Saint Thomas turned up in all three years of the Great Books courses that I took to make up for all math and science in college.   An example of complexity, organic criteria had originally permitted genetically modified crops, and many other new regulations turn up annually, some relaxing the rules and others tightening them.  Another example, antibiotics may be permitted for treatment of infection in farm animals and the animal may or may not be permitted to resume milk production and may or may not be used for meat even after the antibiotics are long gone depending on the details of the Byzantine regulations.  My daughter had a certified organic farm but elected not to continue all the required bookkeeping and documentation.  Another dimension of the complexity, agribusiness is continually lobbying, with some (intermittent?) success, for changes in these rules in order to cash in on the price premium enjoyed by the organic label.  Is this like making the plumbing code so complicated that a motivated inspector can usually find some excuse for disapproval?  

 

John A. Frantz, MD

August 21, 2009