Imagine, for a moment, a nightmare coming true. Imagine your home or business in flames.
Inside, familiar rooms and corridors are obscured by shimmering waves of heat and flames lapping at the walls, while outside dark clouds billow overhead, ash-black and heavy with soot. Amid the smoke and the sirens, first responders cordon off the area and you can only watch helplessly as your business and all the hard work it represents burns away to nothing.
For many business owners, a fire is a worst-case scenario. Heavy damage to the structure and contents, potential harm to employees or customers, and an overwhelming amount of work to get back up and running make fires the kind of disaster that many businesses never recover from. And one of the most common causes of fire is faulty electrical equipment.
A 2013 report by the National Fire Protection Association found that almost 50,000 fires are caused annually by electrical failure or malfunction. 2011 alone saw almost $2 billion in structural and property damage tied to electrical faults in homes and commercial spaces. It’s more important than ever to be sure that all components of your electrical supply system are safe and code compliant. One of the simplest ways to do this is with a quick glance at the electrical fixtures going into your building to make sure they bear a legitimate UL Mark.
What is a UL Mark?
The Underwriters’ Laboratory was founded in 1894, to establish consistent testing procedures for establishing the safety of products, and to verify the claims of manufacturers. Today they’ve become the de facto standard of proper manufacture, and a UL Mark is a simple way to know at a glance that a product will operate within acceptable safety boundaries.
The Underwriters’ Laboratory (UL) tests, inspects, and certifies products in dozens of industries, from children’s toys to pharmaceuticals. All told, over 22 billion devices bearing a UL Mark enter the marketplace each year.
But the industry where they’re perhaps best known is electrical equipment. A UL Mark on an electrical device means that it has a minimal risk of failure, and that if it does fail, the risk of damage will be as low as possible. In a world with no absolutes, the UL Mark is a sign of relative security. Products with counterfeit UL Marks prey on this sense of security and substitute materials of dubious quality, often manufactured below industry standards.
Why Counterfeit a Mark?
Counterfeit UL Marks began to appear in the mid-90s, mostly on low priced, mass produced items like Christmas lights. In the intervening twenty years, counterfeit UL marks have appeared on everything from solar panels, extension cords, and LED lamps. Counterfeit Marks were back in the news recently in relation to “hoverboards” – the trendy, two-wheeled transportation devices that suffered a rash of fires. Some of the problems were from foreign manufacturing, while others (such as Indiana-based Swagway) had issues with the type of UL certifications issued vs. the UL Marks used on their merchandising.
So why do manufacturers use faked labels? This kind of counterfeiting isn’t like printing money — the Underwriters’ Laboratory gladly hands out certifications for items that meet their specifications. If your product is fully compliant with safety standards there’s no added advantage to having a fake UL Mark. What this means is that every single electrical fixture with a counterfeit UL Mark has some kind of defect or shortcut in safety procedures. It may be the manufacturer uses quick-to-burn material in an effort to cut costs, or that they have insufficient quality assurance. Sometimes manufacturers don’t want to risk spot-checks of their facility by UL inspectors.
Regardless of their rationale, manufacturers who use a counterfeit Mark would rather go outside the law than address the flaws in their process. As a result, the electricians and consumers who end up handling these sub-standard materials pay the price. It’s true that not every electrical fixture with a counterfeit UL Mark explodes or combusts, but every one of them has the potential to do so.
How to Spot & Avoid Counterfeit UL Marks
When examining a UL Mark, the first thing to look for is obvious mistakes. Because many counterfeit UL Marks appear on products manufactured overseas, there are often typos or misspellings in the label. For example, if the word “Classified” is spelled wrong then it’s probably wise to avoid that product. Other tips are to make sure the UL logo is correctly represented, with the U and L offset and in a circle.
Some counterfeit marks are obvious, but others can be difficult to distinguish. And some manufacturers attempt to bend the rules rather than break them completely. (The Swagway hoverboards, for example, had legitimate UL approval for some of their electronics, but not for the overall safety of the device.)
Luckily, for items such as electrical equipment, the UL has more stringent labeling requirements. Most electrical devices now require a more complex UL Mark, incorporating holographic elements. The latest UL Mark for electrical devices is even more elaborate, matching the complexity found in currency watermarks.
Largely, use your common sense and listen to your gut. If something seems wrong, consider where the product came from, and reach out to the vendor if you have questions. A reputable dealer will be able to verify a product’s authenticity, while a fly by night organization will likely leave you hanging.
Real World Impact
One of the most heartbreaking stories about counterfeit UL Marks is that of the Atlanta smoke detector giveaway. As part of a public outreach program on fire safety the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department handed out over 18,500 smoke detectors over a five-year period. Sadly, it was later revealed that the smoke detectors were not UL certified. They had been made with faulty seals and shipped with “10 year” batteries that died after only one year. Every one of those smoke detectors carried a counterfeit UL Mark, and every one of them had the word “year” spelled incorrectly on their Mark. A simple glance at the label could have stopped the giveaway at any point.
It’s impossible to know precisely how much impact those faulty smoke detectors had, but in 2011 — the year the giveaways ended — Firehouse Magazine reports that the Atlanta metro area had 34,257 fire calls. One can’t help but wonder how many of those runs may have been prevented if the fraudulent smoke detectors had been caught sooner.
Commercial operations also are at risk from inferior products. Many commercial buildings have extensive cabling, hidden from plain sight, which can pose an especially high risk. In a 2014 test conducted on behalf of the Communications Cable & Connectivity Association, counterfeit materials were found to burn with a wider flame spread and with almost three times as much smoke as approved devices. A fire that reached such cables would do more damage than one involving approved devices.
There’s no way to completely safeguard your home or business from every possible danger. But there’s a difference between accepting risk and inviting catastrophe. Insist on quality, certified equipment on everything from extension cords to light fixtures. You’ll sleep better at night, and your bottom line will thank you.
With over a decade of construction experience, Dan Stout writes articles that help demystify the industry for both contractors and customers. Visit him at www.DanStout.com.