Skip links

The Numbering System in NFPA Codes and Standards

Please Share

Considering the business that I’m in is involved with technical details, for all communications, it is best to avoid bad habits and be accurate when referring to requirements from codes and standards, etc. However, recently, I have become aware that I have a very bad habit. I have not been properly identifying the references that I make, when I am citing various provisions from the NFPA codes and standards.

My first introduction to the NFPA codes and standards started with the 1972 edition of NFPA 13. A lot has changed since then, for example:

  • The book would fit in your back pocket, and we referred to it as a “pamphlet”.
  • Examples were illustrated in the body of the standard.
  • The numbering system used for the various provisions was very simple.
  • You could find the words “should” and “may” in the body of the standard. Sometimes “should”, “may” and “shall” would be found in the same provision.

Here is a snapshot from NFPA13-1972, to illustrate the last two of the above examples:

3200. Drainage.

3210.   Pitching of Piping for Drainage.

3211.   All sprinkler pipe and fittings shall be so installed that the system may be thoroughly drained. Where practicable, all piping should be arranged to drain to the main drain valve.

I added the underlining, to highlight that last example, but please look at the numbering of those provisions. I am almost nostalgic for its simplicity. Everything in the standard is represented by a simple four-digit number. (The first digit represents the Chapter for the text.) When reading through the book, each of those numbers was interchangeably referred to as either a “section” or a “paragraph”, for example:

1201.   … The types of automatic sprinkler systems are listed in Sections 1210-1271, inclusive.

3022.   …  the pipe schedule provisions of Paragraphs 3020 through 3051 do not apply.

From this, I started to always refer to requirements from NFPA standards as “sections”, to the point where it has become a bad habit, considering the numbering system that is now in use in the current standards. This is the habit that I need to break.

The system used in our Canadian Fire and Building Codes is fairly well known, because the system is described at the beginning each document, but NFPA does not follow a similar practice. Instead, the NFPA system is only described in the NFPA’s “Manual of Style”, Section 1.8, which is not in everyone’s library. This decimal numbering system is similar to the Canadian Codes system, but it uses different phraseology. For example, it does not use terms such as “clause”, “article” or “sentence”.

To keep things simple, the following is an illustration from NFPA 13-2022 of how the various provisions are broken down with numeric digits and the names of the parts of that system in the various breakdown levels:

Subdivision        Title                                     Example

9                            Chapter                               Chapter 9   Sprinkler Location Requirements

9.5                        Section                                9.5   Position, Location, Spacing, and Use of Sprinklers.

9.5.4                     Subsection                         9.5.4 Deflector Position.                 Paragraph                 *   Distance Below Ceilings.              Subparagraph             For ceilings that have insulation installed …          Sub-subparagraph     For insulation that is installed in a manner that …

And when the numbering of sub-subparagraphs using additional division is necessary, one additional level may be used incorporating capital letters in parentheses:     Sub-subparagraph       If the deflection or sag in the insulation …     Sub-subparagraph       The deflector shall not be positioned above …

Also, please note that an asterisk (*) following the number or letter designation indicates that explanatory material on the provision can be found in Annex A. In conclusion, using proper terminology and maintaining consistency are part of the essential rules concerning technical writing. Therefore, it is important for professionals such as Fire Protection Engineers to maintain accuracy and avoid bad habits when referencing the requirements from codes and standards.

The evolution of NFPA codes and standards over the years, from the simplistic four-digit numbering system to the current decimal system, highlights the need for updated terminology and precise referencing. By understanding and adhering to the current decimal numbering system outlined in the NFPA’s “Manual of Style,” can ensure clear communication, maintain consistency, and help to achieve intended purpose(s).


NFPA 13              Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, 1972 Edition

NFPA 13              Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, 2022 Edition

MOS                     Manual of Style for NFPA Technical Committee Documents, 2004 Edition

How Can We Help?

We’d love to understand your fire and life safety needs to see how we can help. Please reach out to us to schedule a conversation.

    Return to top of page