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Cable Cowboys

Simon Hopkins, FP Product Manager at Prysmian Cables and Systems investigates the problem of unsafe, counterfeit and non-approved cable, in particular the associated risks for electrical wholesalers.

Cable Cowboys

The Electrical Wholesaler is an integral cog in the supply chain of cables from the manufacturer to the installer, dealing with a multitude of different cable types and brands for a range of different applications on a daily basis. But, do you ever give time to think about the possibility that cable products you buy and supply to customers via may not be what they seem?

The UK market for electrical cables and systems is worth a massive sum, in fact around £2 billion. Worryingly, the International Authentication Association (IAA) recently estimated that as much as 20% of cable products in the supply chain are unsafe, non-approved or even counterfeit. They also suggest that the majority of these potentially dangerous products come from overseas.

The IAA believes that a minority of unscrupulous importers bring in cable products that do not comply with UK regulations and in the process break the law. Once these unsafe, non-approved cables get into the supply chain they are very hard to root out, even resulting in potentially dangerous installations.

This is undoubtedly a problem as it exposes everyone in the supply chain to health and safety risks and the potential legal ramifications should cable products be the cause of the problem.

This does not just apply to one type of cable either as any cables can be made to a poor standard. Consider fire resistant cabling: In the event of fire, fire resistant cables fulfil a vital role preserving human life and protecting property by maintaining power to essential life safety, fire detection and alarm systems. As buildings become larger, taller and ever more complex we need to be sure that the integrity and safety of electrical systems employed are not compromised. It is crucial that cables perform as intended.

Consequently, because of their importance to safety, fire resistant cables must meet specific international and national industry standards. Contractors, installers and wholesalers need assurance that the cables they use and supply are fit for purpose and are certified to meet all the required industry standards for a particular application.

If the fire alarm system in a building ceased to work lives would potentially be put at risk. If this was due to cable malfunction then everyone in the supply chain could find themselves open to scrutiny and serious penalty under the UK Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 or the Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act of 2008. The supply route of the cable would be investigated thoroughly.

Unfortunately not all decisions are always based on quality and a search for cheaper products can often turn up with something that may appear to satisfy the market. However, sacrificing quality and reliability for short-term gain is ill-advised.

Cutting corners

It is possible that the tough market conditions today and the drive to cut costs have directly contributed to increasing the problem of faulty and substandard cable products in the electrical industry. In particular, volatility in the cost of metals including copper, aluminium and lead can tempt some manufacturers to take shortcuts. This can include reducing the amount of copper in the conductor or using poorly recycled copper, copper-coated aluminium or even substituting steel wire instead of copper. The effect is to dramatically reduce cable conductivity and potentially cause overheating and fire.

Some of these substandard cables may also use inappropriate insulation and sheathing materials, this can lead to not only poor electrical performance but also ineffective smoke, halogen and fire performance in supposed smoke or fire rated cables. This is perhaps of most concern, as these cables are designed specifically to last as long as possible in the event of fire, providing support for life safety and fire fighting systems or enable safe evacuation along escape routes.

There have been instances where supposed fire resistant cable from overseas has been discovered claiming to comply with BS 5839-1. Subsequent testing in the UK revealed the cable to be in fact, fake offering no fire resistance or low smoke/low halogen performance whatsoever.

The recent news on Turkish cable manufacturer Atlas Kablo is a case in point. In this instance it was discovered that batches of the company’s ‘2010’ dated cable had excessive conductor resistance, insufficient copper was used to manufacture the conductors. BASEC subsequently suspended their license and are working with the industry to try and quarantine and remove the affected cable from the supply chain.

Whichever way you look at it, this is a difficult task. The affected cable could have penetrated all levels of the supply chain before anyone becomes aware the cable is not up to task. Furthermore, the Atlas Kablo incident is just one that has come to light. Based on the estimations of the IAA it most likely is not an isolated case.

What can you do?

So what are the consequences if you suspect you have been supplied or sold such cable? There are of course the legal ramifications mentioned but perhaps of more immediate concern is the amount of time and effort required to locate suspect stock, inform customers and then possibly replace this cable with the real thing. In today’s tough economic environment this is going to cost time and money and would be a very unwelcome distraction to business.

Thankfully, there are ways to make sure this does not happen to you. Supply cable from a source you trust and use a brand with a solid and well known reputation, one that understands UK regulations . Ensure the cable also carries appropriate third party approval: BASEC or LPCB and be sure to ask for the approval certificate to confirm this.

Some manufacturers such as Prysmian subject their cables to more rigorous tests so that products are designed to go beyond the criteria set in British and European standards, providing customers with the best quality available. Companies such as this also manufacture in the UK, eliminating the risk of supplying imported cable that may not be what it seems. This offers the benefit of accountability being closer to home, further lessening the risk of dealing with sub-standard products.

Wholesalers also have the opportunity to check packaging and labelling for all cables, not just fire resistant ones, as this is usually the first tell tale sign that something is amiss. According to the IAA, misspellings, lack of labels like CE markings and packaging that looks like it has been tampered with should have you asking questions.

Even handling a product directly by hand can give the game away. The wholesaler can also make a point of checking cable reels and make sure markings match those given by the manufacturer. This will enable you to trace the origins of any product back up the supply chain if you suspect something isn’t right.

It may be that the difference in cost between a cable from the reputable manufacturer and one from the unknown source is not that much. An unscrupulous manufacturer could be making more money than you thought, in effect short changing others in the supply chain and leaving you and your customers to pick up the pieces. Therefore, paying the extra cost for reputable cable in the first place is a small price to pay to ensure it is fit for purpose.

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