Overlapping standards: Why do we have so many ??

This post was updated on 13-Jun-16

If you’re one of my reg­u­lar read­ers, you know that I make heavy ref­er­ence to tech­nic­al stand­ards in my posts. One of the ques­tions that is often asked, par­tic­u­larly by those new to the stand­ards world is “Why are there so many com­pet­ing or over­lap­ping stand­ards??” This is usu­ally asked with a lot of frus­tra­tion behind it, and usu­ally at a point where they have just dis­covered that they chose a stand­ard that was not applic­able for some reas­on, or missed an import­ant one alto­geth­er. The web­com­ic xkcd gives a great explan­a­tion of this phe­nom­ena:

XKCD comic 927 "Standards"

You can see the ori­gin­al com­ic at by click­ing on the com­ic.

How Standards are Developed

Ser­i­ously, it falls to the Nation­al Stand­ards Bod­ies, like the Stand­ards Coun­cil of Canada (SCC) up here in the Great White North, or ANSI in the USA, and the Stand­ards Devel­op­ment Organ­iz­a­tions (SDOs) that they accred­it to con­trol the stand­ards devel­op­ment pro­cess. The old-school approach of con­sensus stand­ards devel­op­ment is lengthy, and in some areas, espe­cially web devel­op­ment, not fast enough to keep up with devel­op­ments in the field. It’s prob­ably fair to say that that is often true, but there tends to be a lar­ger gap in the web devel­op­ment area than in oth­er tech­nic­al fields. In the web devel­op­ment area, there are a num­ber of less form­al stand­ards devel­op­ment ini­ti­at­ives on the go, includ­ing the devel­op­ment of HTML5 and CSS. The one big cri­ti­cism of these inform­al pro­cesses is that they do not con­trol con­sensus as well, and there is no guar­an­tee that all stake­hold­ers are rep­res­en­ted on the Tech­nic­al Com­mit­tees.

The Role of Standards Development Organizations

Tra­di­tion­al SDOs are usu­ally also mem­bers of Nation­al Stand­ards Bod­ies like the Stand­ards Coun­cil of Canada (SCC). These bod­ies help to make sure that with­in a single coun­try, only one SDO has author­ity to cre­ate stand­ards in a cer­tain area or field. e.g. In Canada, the Cana­dian Stand­ards Asso­ci­ation (CSA) has author­ity to cre­ate Eng­lish and French stand­ards in the elec­tric­al field (among many oth­ers). That author­ity is gran­ted by SCC, which gets its author­ity from the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment of Canada.

Inter­na­tion­ally, ISO and IEC have sim­il­ar author­ity to the Nation­al Stand­ard­iz­a­tion Bod­ies, with ISO devel­op­ing mech­an­ic­al and mater­i­als related stand­ards and IEC devel­op­ing elec­tric­al related stand­ards. Their Author­ity comes from the United Nations and Inter­na­tion­al Treat­ies that provide the basis for their oper­a­tions. Much of Europe’s stand­ard­isa­tion work, which was being done by com­mit­tees at CEN, CENELEC and ETSI, is now being done, by the same experts in most cases, through ISO and IEC, using a treaty called the Vienna Agree­ment which allows this to hap­pen. A wise move on the EU’s part, and one that Canada should con­sider for many CSA stand­ards in my opin­ion.

Check out Dogbert’s “Stand­ards Com­mit­tee Meet­ing” for a light­er (but not neces­sar­ily com­pletely incor­rect) look at stand­ards work!

Down­load IEC Stand­ards

Down­load ISO Stand­ards

Apparent Overlaps

CSA has developed a com­plex set of elec­tric­al safety stand­ards in the 100+ years that they have been in busi­ness. That set is based in CSA C22.1, the Cana­dian Elec­tric­al Code, which deals primar­ily with build­ing and install­a­tion require­ments, although it does have some sec­tions for par­tic­u­lar types of equip­ment like motor-gen­er­at­or sets. “The Code” as it’s called, or “Part 1”, is the basis for all elec­tric­al install­a­tions in Canada.

Then there’s Part 2. Unlike Part 1, which comes in a single doc­u­ment, Part 2 is a series of roughly 300 spe­cial­ised stand­ards that deal with vari­ous spe­cif­ic top­ics. Some are broadly gen­er­al, like CAN/CSA-C22.2 NO. 0, Gen­er­al require­ments – Cana­dian elec­tric­al code, part II, or C22.2 No. 0.4 on Bond­ing of Elec­tric­al Equip­ment, and then there are stand­ards like C22.2 No. 14, Indus­tri­al con­trol equip­ment, and C22.2 No. 286, Indus­tri­al con­trol pan­els and assem­blies, appears to be con­fus­ingly sim­il­ar, at least based on the title. Even read­ing the scope of the stand­ard doesn’t really help, although it does tell us that No. 286 is a deriv­at­ive stand­ard from No. 14, and is inten­ded to sim­pli­fy the applic­a­tion of The Code to products covered by the scope of the stand­ard.

To make things a bit more dif­fi­cult, or sim­pler from a CSA per­spect­ive, a NEW Part 2 stand­ard is in the works: CSA C22.2 No. 301, INDUSTRIAL ELECTRICAL MACHINERY. I’ve been a part of the Task Force work­ing on the devel­op­ment of the draft of this doc­u­ment, which is sup­posed to be a fur­ther focus­ing upon the needs of indus­tri­al machinery. I can tell you that we did not restrict ourselves to “just” CSA C22.2 No. 14 as the basis for the doc­u­ment, nor is it strictly a refine­ment. I am too close to the doc­u­ment to know if we have achieved what we set out to do in the first place, but I look for­ward to see­ing the res­ults of the Pub­lic Review. I will announce that on the blog as soon as it hap­pens. The doc­u­ment is planned for pub­lic­a­tion in the fall of 2016.


So why do we have so many over­lap­ping and com­pet­ing stand­ards? Because humans are very cre­at­ive creatures, who are also very hard to con­trol! We have some struc­tures in place to try to keep a handle on this, but for now, we will con­tin­ue to have many over­lap­ping and com­pet­ing stand­ards. That’s a good thing for me, because if there were only one stand­ard for each area, I’d prob­ably be out of busi­ness. Until then, call me if you need some help.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this top­ic. Feel free to com­ment below. I read them all!

4 thoughts on “Overlapping standards: Why do we have so many ??

    1. Thanks PET Pre­forms, it’s always good to hear back from read­ers. If you have spe­cif­ic ques­tions that you would like answered, please feel free to post them as com­ments or con­tact me dir­ectly through the Con­tact Us page!

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