Don’t be caught out by the harmonised European standards that are replacing the UK’s specifier-friendly national standards.

Never mind hugging a hoodie. What we need is more people snuggling up with a standard, particularly the newly harmonised European ones.

Designers often quote standards in their specifications – “Product compatible with standard xyz” – but so few copies of standards are sold that the return doesn’t cover the cost of producing them, which suggests that few specifiers and producers actually refer to them.

This is a concern, because understanding standards is vital. They provide a common understanding between maker and user of what is being asked for, and this requires more than just the mechanical pasting of a BS reference into a specification.

This is increasingly important as national standards are replaced by harmonised European standards, and those who do not understand them run the risk of not getting the product they think they are specifying.

National standards have been specific and prescriptive, so specifiers have been able to get away with cutting and pasting them into their specifications. European standards, which allow a product to carry an EU-approved CE mark, are much more general. They simply show that the manufacturer is declaring certain performance characteristics in a standard way, according to harmonised European testing. It should not be assumed that a CE mark is some kind of quality guarantee.

Take the European standard for reinforced bitumen membranes for roofing. Standard BS 747 was withdrawn on 1 September and has been updated to BS EN 13707:2004. The old standard gave advice on what to use in particular situations – so a specifier might ask for a BS 747 Type 3 membrane for a shed and a Type 5 membrane for an office. The new European standard gives no such advice. It merely lists characteristics and the manufacturer declares the membrane’s performance level for each of them.

However, help is at hand. To assist UK specifiers to decide on what level for each characteristic is needed for, say, a membrane for a shed and an office, a national code of practice, BS 8747, is being developed. This is presently out for public consultation.

The replacement of a national standard with a harmonised European standard and a national code of practice or application guide is becoming common. For safety glazing, for example, BS 6206 was once the national standard but now BS EN 12150-1 is the product standard, BS EN 12600 is the classification standard and BS 6262-4:2005 is the advice. New national codes of practice are also being published in the insulation sector to explain the new European standards. So, rigid PUR and PIR insulating foam boards carry BS EN 13165 for the product and the BS 4841:2006 series explains the specification for typical end uses in the UK.

In some cases, such as BS EN 1344: 2002 for clay pavers, the standard writers have decided that the changes between the old national and new European standards are less vexing.

You will find a national annexe at the back of BS EN 1344 explaining the differences and how to specify for typical applications.

It may seem the new standards have been created just to make us buy twice as many standards (the harmonised European one and new national guidance). But specifiers, designers and users should ensure they understand the European approach and any national documents. Talk to the relevant trade association first and get copies of the necessary standards and guidance.

European standards may not be cuddly but understanding them is likely to help you sleep better at night.

What is the BSI Group?

BSI Group comprises BSI Management Systems (certifying companies’ management systems), BSI Product Services (certifying products) and BSI Standards. In 2005, the group had a turnover of £235m and an operating profit of £17m. A full breakdown of divisional performance is not published, but BSI Standards is estimated to turn over about £40m and to break even. It operates independently and gets no financial support from the group. Details can be found in the 2005 Annual Review at News/Finance/AnnualReview2005.pdf or in the full statutory annual accounts.

More information on standards

The European commission’s online database (Nando) lists the harmonised standards, dates for implementation and test bodies. See Among the new standards are:

  • BS EN 1504-1, 3:2005 - Concrete repair
  • BS EN 8443:2005 - Establishing suitability of concrete mixture
  • BS EN 15167 - Ground granulated blast furnace slag