AGA Labs: The UL of Gas Appliances
AGA Labs is the premier certifier of gas appliances in the country. Best known for its Blue Star Certification Seal—which appears on furnaces, ranges, and virtually all other types of gas appliances—AGA Labs tests these products for compliance with so-called voluntary safety standards. These standards are not actually voluntary, since many jurisdictions require compliance with them through building or related installation codes. AGA certification is also required by many utility companies as a condition of providing service. As a practical matter, then, it would be almost impossible to market a gas appliance in this country, at least one requiring professional installation, without complying with the "voluntary" AGA standard.
Other labs test gas appliances for compliance with the same standards as AGA Labs, but AGA plays a unique role in this private regulatory scheme. It is both the oldest and the best-recognized organization in the field. Some people refer to it as the "UL of gas appliances." The description accurately conveys AGA's stature, but not its mission or method for writing standards. AGA Labs is devoted solely to testing gas appliances, while UL's interests have branched out considerably, and somewhat controversially, over time. As the creation of a trade association, AGA Labs is also looked upon with more suspicion than UL by those concerned about anticompetitive motives. The "trade association mentality," as a government attorney describes it, fosters in organizations such as AGA Labs a "bias toward protecting members of the trade" that does not, in his view, characterize "the purists, like UL."
AGA Labs stresses that it does not actually write the standards it uses to test products. "Our job at the Labs is policeman, not judge," explains the Labs' director for product certification. The safety standards that AGA Labs uses to test gas appliances, including the unvented heater, are the product of the Z21 committee of the American National Standards Institute. The unvented gas-fired space heater is a distinct species in the American Gas Association's taxonomy of gas appliances. It has its own safety standard, numbered Z21.11.2—the "Z21" denotes gas appli-
ances, the "11" is for room heaters, and the "2" signifies unvented equipment. The Z21 committee, with approximately thirty-five members, is "balanced" in accordance with ANSI requirements. Nine members represent AGA, nine represent the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association (GAMA), and one or two members come from each of eighteen additional organizations, including the American Insurance Association, Consumers Union, the National Safety Council, the Southern Building Code Conference, UL, the General Services Administration, and the CPSC. The Z21 committee meets annually and has jurisdiction over the forty-seven standards. Some of these standards cover gas appliances; others, component parts.
AGA Labs is an unusual policeman; it is directly involved in writing the "law" it enforces. AGA Labs is the official "secretariat" of the ANSI Z21 committee. The arrangement is confusing, particularly to those who know that AGA wrote these standards before the American Standards Association (predecessor to ANSI) was formed in 1930. As recently as 1969, the year ANSI was formed, AGA Labs was recognized as the author of these standards. Many existing Z21 standards, including the unvented heater standard, were first developed under the old system. Since the power of precedent carries significant weight in most standards-writing schemes, the trade association of old may really be the co-author of any long-standing AGA standards.
Parties disagree about the extent to which standards are influenced by AGA Labs under the current ANSI system. Officially, AGA prepares meeting agendas and minutes, circulates draft standards for comments, and occasionally provides "technical input" to the subcommittees. These subcommittees, consisting primarily of utility representatives and appliance manufacturers, are responsible for proposing the actual standards and any revisions to the parent committee, Z21. There is a technical subcommittee for every standard.
The Standards Department at AGA Labs provides the secretary for each subcommittee. Other lab personnel attend subcommittee meetings to provide "technical input" and, in some instances, to draft language or proposals. Lab personnel, however, are not voting members of these subcommittees. The only decisions made explicitly by lab personnel concern the date when a standard will take effect. Decisions about content are made in the first instance by the subcommittees. Those decisions must be ratified by the Z21 committee. "If somebody wants to grumble," as an engineer at AGA Labs puts it, "they can go to the Z21 committee." Evidence of conformance to ANSI's procedural cri-
teria is subsequently reviewed by the ANSI Board of Standards Review in the same cursory fashion as most UL and NFPA standards.
The ANSI Z21 committee is not a meddlesome parent. The subcommittees normally send what one AGA staff member termed "very polished documents" to the parent committee for "rubber stamping." The Z21 committee almost never overrules subcommittee actions. Most of the Z21 committee decisions are made by letter ballot. When the committee meets in person, very few people come to grumble. Occasionally the Z21 committee raises concerns or requests "further consideration" by a subcommittee. Like many parental pleas, however, these requests are often discounted, if not entirely disregarded.
The Z21 standards differ from other ANSI standards in one important respect: AGA, as secretariat, has its own elaborate procedural requirements for approving standards at the subcommittee level. These requirements are similar to ANSI's public review process. Actually, they steal the show. AGA circulates "review and comment texts" of all proposed changes in standards to a diverse group of manufacturers, gas companies, and state and local officials, as well as to interested federal agency representatives. This process generates far more interest and participation than when it is publicized later by ANSI. In March 1982, for example, AGA Labs sent draft revisions of Z21.11.2 to 7 gas appliance manufacturers, 4 manufacturers of decorative appliances, 185 gas companies, and 220 state and local officials and other miscellaneous organizations. Numerous comments were sent back to AGA. When ANSI repeated the process, notification was through Standards Action, and only one party responded.
AGA Labs maintains that these gas appliance standards are ANSI standards, not AGA standards. The organization frequently asserts its "independence" from the standards-writing process. This position is weakened by admissions that AGA provides financial support for the standards-writing activity. (The official line is that standards-writing is financed solely by fees for service.) Critics go much further, charging that Z21 standards are simply the product of two large trade associations—AGA and GAMA, organizations that were one and the same before an antitrust decision in 1935.
Neither "independence" nor "collusion" seems an appropriate characterization in the case of the unvented space heater. The AGA and GAMA did not agree, let alone collude, on the content of the standard. The AGA at large was split over the issue, and there were disagreements within AGA Labs.