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 xkcd​.com 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!