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Engineering Subject Guide

Terminology: standards, regulations, IBR, and codes

Standards are sets of technical guidelines published by standards-developing organizations (SDOs).

Regulations (such as the Code of Federal Regulations) are administrative laws of regional and federal government agencies of the United States or other countries.

When a government regulation requires a certain standard be followed, that standard technically becomes a law. SDOs tend to refer to these standards as incorporated by reference (IBR). Other people more commonly refer to IBR standards as codes.

So a code is very much like a standard, except that is has been officially adopted by a governmental body. Following regular standards may be expected, but is ultimately voluntary. Following codes is legally mandatory.

Note: Although there are many publications called codes--such as The National Electrical Code and the ASME Boiler and Pressure Code--not every legally-mandated standard is called a code or exists as a stand-alone publication.

Finding codes

Codes, like regular standards, are published by standards-developing organizations (SDOs). When a standard is becomes a code, though, the SDO has to make it "reasonably available" to those who are impacted, which can include designers, manufacturers, and consumers. So codes can sometimes be read online for free. Downloading, printing, or ordering a paper copy will still have a cost involved.

Some SDOs have special sites to view their standards that have become codes. Below are a few examples.

American National Standards Institute (ANSI): Incorporated by Reference Portal

  • Like the regular ANSI standards site, this is the largest catch-all for codes.
  • View and read codes from ANSI, ISO, IEC, and others. Requires a special document viewer called FileOpen

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Incorporated by Reference Standards (registration required)

  • UL develops standards related to the safety of electrical equipment, food safety, water quality, and more.

National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) (registration required)

  • All the NFPA codes have a "free access" option.