Can counterfeit cables kill?
The cabling industry has recently warned its practitioners and the general public about the dangers of fake cables, but what exactly are the risks?
The travails of the average sparky are often overlooked in the engineering sector. However, the success of just about any engineering project, large or small, hinges on the abilities, tools and materials of the on-site electrician.
The on-site electrician, however, is facing a threat, and it's a threat that could put thousands of lives at risk: an upsurge in the availability of counterfeit cables in existing supply chains.
While very few electrical professionals would deliberately supply or install sub-standard electrical systems, anyone can do it inadvertently if they handle counterfeit electrical accessories.
When one thinks of counterfeit goods, it is usually fake baubles such as Rolex watches and Gucci handbags that spring to mind. People are less aware of the proliferation of counterfeit electrical products – and a poor standard in these products carries a far greater danger.
Recent statistics published by the Office for National Statistics in the UK for 2010-2011 point to 785 non-fatal casualties from electrical-related fires. In homes, there were 4,006 electrical distribution related fires. In other buildings there were 3,000 – a 23 per cent increase on the previous year.
The Approved Cables Initiative (ACI) is warning contractors and the general public to take care when making Internet purchases of cable. This follows a recent discovery of electric cable from China which failed to comply with the requirements of British Standards. The three core cable failed initial tests carried out by BASEC (British Approvals Service for Cables) last year. The cable was also fitted with non-compliant UK plugs and has a non-compliant core colour scheme.
The cable, which is marketed as laptop power cord, was purchased through Amazon's online marketplace and both Amazon and Trading Standards have been made aware of this issue. The cable was brought to the attention of the ACI by a campaign supporter but similar cable was also the subject of a recall notice in 2010. Sadly, a great number of counterfeit electrical goods still end up installed in homes and businesses. The electrical industry itself – electrical wholesalers, retailers, contractors, electricians and consultants – needs to be particularly vigilant.
Overseas Certificates of Approval and approval marks are not accepted in the UK and items bearing such marks, with no additional UK approval markings, will be considered non-compliant.
Such problems pose serious risks to both the personnel working on the electrical installation and the general public.
The ACI has also recently issued a warning about the growing practice of misselling data cable (Cat/Cat 6) products with Copper Clad Aluminium (CCA) which are non-compliant with published national and international standards
Counterfeit electrical products are generally inferior to genuine products and have much higher failure rates. They are typically designed only to the materials' limits, meaning that if put under load they may overheat and possibly burn out. Genuine products, on the other hand, are specifically designed for purpose with applied research and knowledge developed prior to manufacture.
"This is an extremely important issue and while the dangers associated with CCA products are not life threatening, as with faulty electrical cables, they can have a disastrous affect upon a company's reputation and livelihood, says Iain Ballingall, a spokesperson for the Approved Cables Initiative.
"Squeezed by competitive pressures, a number of wholesalers and distributors are demanding increasingly lower cost products from their supply chain which in turn forces further compromise in terms of product quality and ultimately the most expensive element of the cable, the copper conductor," adds Ballingall.
The price of copper, like many other commodities, has shot up recently. One unfortunate result of this has been that unscrupulous manufacturers have been cutting down on the amount of copper in cabling.
As a consequence, the resistance of the wire has been increased considerably which has led to overheating and, in some cases, fires breaking out and considerable damage done to property. Much of this cabling carries counterfeit marking, which makes it indistinguishable from the genuine article without laboratory testing.
At a time when electrical fires caused by distribution (cabling) is increasing, the addition of deliberately substandard products into the market is extremely worrying.
A great deal of substandard product has been prevented from entering the EU and the UK but much has already got through. It is hardly practical for builders, whose margins are already under considerable pressure, to go to the extent of having cables tested before fitting them.
Cabling is almost invariably built into a property, running within walls or behind plasterwork, so the cost of taking out defective goods and replacing them will be many times the cost of the cabling itself. So, apart from the huge risks of loss of property and even loss of life, the financial costs of putting right an installation of defective cabling could be enormous.
What the UK Government statistics do not state are the fatalities due to counterfeit installations. However, BEAMA (British Electrotechnical and Allied Manufacturers Association) runs the 'Counterfeit Kills' website.
However, there are no official statistics pointing to the death of any individual in the UK from counterfeit cabling.
That does not mean that it has not happened, but the consequences of no prima facie evidence means that the electrical industry is pretty much on its own in raising awareness with the general public.
This is in stark contrast the electrical industry faces when dealing with the international aviation industry. For decades, standards and certification has been strong.
However, in recent years, the enforcement of those standards have become even more stringent with the growth of counterfeit components.
This is mainly due to high-profile accidents and fatalities which have been blamed on faulty electrical wiring. When a civil aircraft crashes, millions of dollars are spent on finding out the cause. This has meant enforcement of standards are tight by the aircraft manufacturers and the operators. Unfortunately, for the most part, the construction industry cannot match these resources.
The blame game
On the other hand, if a property was damaged because of fire caused by defective electrical cabling, who would get the blame?
The costs of fires in buildings can often be indemnified by the owner's insurance company, but not the human cost. Without any proof of counterfeit products – and fires by their nature destroy evidence – the industry will struggle to raise awareness. Sparkies are on their own.
Case Study: Lessons from Swissair Crash, Nova Scotia, 1998 improves safety
Although officially there was no single factor for causing the fire that doomed Flight 111 within an hour of take-off in 1998, the spark that started to onboard fire was down to faulty wiring.
The official report by the Canadian government strongly suggested that a hastily installed entertainment system providing games for passengers in the first and business class sections was probably partly to blame for starting the fire.
The 338-page report prompted international airlines and regulators to improve wiring and maintenance and inspection standards, remove flammable insulation that remains in many aircraft, and upgrade fire detection systems in cockpits.
Sparks from chipped or otherwise defective wiring ignited a small creeping flame that grew as it burned through the thermal-acoustic insulation blankets housed above the cockpit ceiling. No electronic warnings alerted the pilot and crew of the blaze before it burned through flammable foam material at the top of the cockpit's rear wall, causing the fire to gather fatal momentum. The report found no fault with the flight crew.
The aircraft crashed nose-first at a steep angle into the cold waters off Nova Scotia just 20 minutes after the pilot first reported smelling the fire.
"There was no requirement to have smoke or fire detectors above the cockpit," Vic Gerden, the investigator in charge, said. "Such detectors could have provided critical information to the crew."
Gerden pointed out that the accident would never have happened if it had not been for the insulation blankets made out of metalised polyethylene terephthalate (MPET), which he said were "readily ignitable" from sparks created by power passing through bad wiring.
"It is important to emphasise here that without the presence of this and other flammable material, this accident would not have happened," he said.
Since the Swissair accident, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered that the MPET insulation blankets be removed from all aircraft registered in the United States.
Since the crash 14 years ago, the industry has stiffened testing for wiring and tightened up certification in supply chains.
The investigation was the most extensive ever in Canada for an air disaster, taking four years and costing $40m. Something like two million pieces of the aircraft were recovered and some 150 miles of electrical wire inspected.
Although the report was able to establish exactly where the fire began – on the right-hand side of the cockpit, a short distance in front of the rear wall – it didn't pinpoint precisely what ignited the initial spark.
Wire damage was found in one of the cables that supplied power to the in-flight entertainment system, which included video and gambling games and movies.
Gerden said that "it's important to emphasise here that it is unlikely that this entertainment system power supply wire was the only wire involved" in the ignition.
"We strongly suspect," he said, "that at least one other wire was involved, either an aircraft wire, or another entertainment system wire."
Swissair, which is now bankrupt, removed the gaming system, created by Interactive Flight Technologies, from all its aircraft after the crash.
Many family members of the victims have said they believe that the entertainment system was at fault for the crash and that US regulators should never have approved the system.
"There is a lack of individual and corporate responsibility," said Mark Fetherolf, of Palm Beach, Florida, whose daughter was on Flight 111. "There also remains deep concern whether the recommendations of the report are adopted enthusiastically by the industry and regulatory bodies."
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