Why counterfeit cables could be hurting your business

Oct. 7, 2015
How to navigate the minefields of fraudulent wire and cable

You may not know it, but there’s a reasonably good chance that you’ve installed counterfeit and/or non-compliant wire and cable. If you know it, then you’ve also probably found out the hard way that counterfeit cables can be poor performing, present fire hazards and represent great safety and financial risks for you and your customers.

While cables are often thought of as commodities, even in the professional trades, the truth is that the cables that tie your complex systems together are one of the most important components of the project. When a cable fails, the system fails, and serious damage may result leading to possible financial liabilities and loss of property and lives.

The problem of fraudulent and non-compliant cables being imported isn’t just about cables with the wrong labels on them. It’s also about poor construction, and use of materials that present performance and safety risks. Even the wrong packaging for cables can present work and performance issues.

What’s a Counterfeit Cable?

Structured cable and wire used in security and AV projects must adhere to a number of safety standards. Specifically, the National Electrical Code (NEC) has strict standards for communications plenum cables (CMP) and communications riser cables (CMR), because cables installed in building plenum spaces or floor-to-floor riser shafts can contribute to fire spreading if the cables are improperly constructed or improperly labeled.

Troublesome cables can come in many forms. Improper jackets (of the wrong thickness or without the use of flame-retardant compounds), smaller than stated diameter, use of copper clad aluminum and absent or fraudulent labeling are some of the problems with counterfeit cable and wire.

Cabling for commercial and residential use requires certifications, depending on its use, and those certifications are designed to protect both the professional installer and the customer/end user. Without the proper labeling, you can’t know what you’re putting in the walls and ceilings, and you can’t guarantee the system’s performance and safety. In addition to UL certification and NEC standards, newer technologies hitting the market, such as HDBaseT, require that the cables used meet stringent standards in order to ensure the components they’re connected to work as designed.

What’s at Stake?

According to Brian Rizzo, president of ICE Cable Systems, purchasing inexpensive or knock-off cable means the installer is taking a substantial risk because the only effective way to build cable cheaply is for the manufacturer to skimp.  In fact, says Rizzo, some companies go to extremes to reduce costs, including shaving copper and even changing foot markers. Both of these can lead to a real disaster on the job.

To illustrate his point, Rizzo recalls a security system project wherein the surveillance cameras that were specified required long runs of camera cable. However when the integrator went to activate the cameras, a number of them would not power-up. Rizzo’s company helped the integrator identify that the manufacturer of the cable had been shaving copper wherein the 18/2 gauge cable actually proved to be 22/2. Not only was the reputation of the installer compromised, but the job needed to be rewired, which cost both money and time.

It’s not an uncommon story.  Underwriters Laboratories regularly releases warnings about fraudulent and noncompliant wire and cable products.

According to the Communications Cable & Connectivity Association, the liability of using product fraudulently labeled as UL or NEC-certified is a significant safety and liability issue that can prove very costly. The CCCA is a strong voice in the structured cabling industry, and publishes many whitepapers and case studies on the topic.  This CCCA whitepaper addresses contractor liability, which could be a huge financial implication.

A recent CCCA case study describes how fraudulent cabling cost a company $30,000.  When Mark Rewers, vice president of operations for BN Systems, Inc., a New York-based contractor, was informed that his customer had purchased some low cost twisted-pair category for an upcoming project, he wasn’t immediately suspicious. He assumed they had purchased the cable from an industry distributor. That soon changed when it came time to install the cable.  “Our crews showed up to do the prep work and realized that the cable the customer was supplying was not the well-known brand that had been specified for installation and warranty,” said Rewers. “We examined the box and had never heard of the brand before. We couldn’t find any specifications or verification of the UL number. After a little more research, we realized that the cable was constructed with copper clad aluminum conductors, which is actually banned in New York City for use as communications cable. ”

Rewers informed his customer that the cable they had purchased did not meet code and that they would not receive a warranty. At first the customer was not swayed, convinced that the apparently authentic UL mark meant that the cable was listed.

“Our cable rep found several articles about copper clad aluminum cable from the CCCA, and another online article from a different source indicating that the brand in question was under investigation for UL fraud,” said Rewers. “We provided the information to the customer, and once it reached higher level executives within the company, the customer decided not to use the cable they had purchased.”

The CCCA developed an app to help users identify counterfeit cables. The app allows you to look up the UL code and also walks the user through the identification process. It’s available for free for both iOS and Android mobile devices. Click here to learn more. 

“My word of warning to others is to not accept any substitutes unless you are 100 percent sure it is UL listed. And I personally will no longer let my customers buy their own cable,” said Rewers.

How to Detect a Suspicious Cable 

Counterfeit and improperly-labeled cable can be tough to identify at a glance, especially since many use labels and packaging that looks nearly identical to the legitimate product.  The most obvious sign of a legitimate cable is to make sure that each and every box of cable has an authentic UL holographic label, along with a verified UL file number.  Counterfeiters have perfected the art of faking labels and hiding poor construction.  Checking the UL number with the CCCA app described earlier is one way to ID cables. Scraping the surface of the cable with a blade can reveal if the wire is solid copper or copper clad aluminum. A micrometer can be used to determine the wire’s gauge.

Another useful way to spot suspicious cable is by looking at the box. Bulk wire cartons used by security and AV professionals for structured cabling use a winding and feed method that can be revealing. Most legitimate cable manufactures use a patented pull box packaging system from the company that invented it. A REELEX box will have a payout tube of two inches or larger, while knock-off packages often use a box with a hole barely larger than the cable itself. The large tube in genuine REELEX packages accommodates a larger payout hole wound into the coil, allowing the wire to feed from the box without kinks (which could damage the cable), twists, knots or tangles. Manufacturers that use the certified REELEX system also wind their cable in a neat figure 8 pattern with clear Vs that can easily be observed by opening the box. You’ll also see the REELEX logo printed on the carton, but the logo alone shouldn’t be enough to convince you, because counterfeiters have printed that without permission. To be sure, observe the tube diameter and the wind. If you find a cable box with a small diameter payout tube and a sloppy wind, you’re probably looking at knock-off cable.  You can view a video explaining the packaging method here. REELEX is so serious about defending its trademark system, that it’s taken legal action against offenders.

When in the market for bulk cable, it’s a good idea to talk to the company and learn about its manufacturing standards. If it’s a legitimate vendor, then they’ll understand that their job is to earn your loyalty and trust. “Talk to a company rep, visit their website to see what their message is,” says Rizzo.  “Are they talking about their product being really inexpensive or are they talking about innovation? If they’re talking about “less money” then you have to ask yourself “What are the hidden costs of low quality cable and packaging? Their ‘narrative’ is the best telltale sign of what they are all about and what kind of product you’re going to get.”