Winning the Bid the Wrong Way: The Danger of Using Counterfeit Electrical Products

0519 Fire Focus
Image credit: Shutterstock / Bogdan Vija

You sit in your office estimating a fire alarm system installation project. The design calls for a large number of smoke detectors. You received bids from your fire alarm equipment suppliers, and their numbers appear high—way too high. Based on the large quantity of smoke detectors, you have asked for a discount, but you still think you will lose the installation bid because the discount does not reduce the price enough.

You decide to look online to see if you can do anything to reduce your costs. You stumble on a website that offers what seems like the exact same smoke detector manufacturer and model number for half the cost of the devices in the quotes from your standard suppliers. To clinch the deal, these smoke detectors display a UL label. At least it looks like a Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) label. It gives you confidence that the nationally recognize testing laboratory (NRTL) has assured the reliability of these smoke detectors. If you carry the published cost for the smoke detectors on the internet, you will surely win the job!

Before you hurt your arm patting yourself on the back for your estimating prowess, ask yourself if the internet offer sounds too good to be true? Do you need to worry about the quality or reliability? Based on the description, it appears to be the same product. You have heard something about counterfeit electrical products, but you have never come across any issues in the field. After all, you did dig a little deeper. You saw the equipment’s label indicating UL approval. Do you need to have any further concerns about this opportunity? The short answer: Yes! Whenever the price seems too good to be true, it is!

First of all, we all know UL has dedicated personnel who strive to make the world safer through product testing, certification and follow-up. How can we tell if a UL listing mark is genuine? Is there something we should look for? In its “UL Question Corner” of the IAEI News, UL provided an answer:

Each year, over 17 billion UL marks appear on products that UL has evaluated for safety from fire, electric shock, and physical hazards. UL is totally committed to aggressive anti-counterfeiting activities. The UL listing mark always includes as one element, the familiar UL symbol (the UL in a circle) or other specific formats authorized by UL.

A legitimate listing mark also contains three additional elements: the word “LISTED,” the product identity, and a unique four-character alphanumeric control number UL has assigned.

The following warning signs may indicate a product does not have a legitimate UL listing:

  • A label that does not contain the four elements outlined above
  • A carton or product that references UL but has no company name or address
  • A carton that references UL but the product does not
  • Cheap, low quality workmanship and/or packaging
  • Marks with the letters “UL” side by side instead of staggered, the lack of a control number, or the words “Approved” or “Pending” instead of “LISTED” or “CLASSIFIED”

The product identity, as indicated in the Guide Information—found in UL’s General Information for Electrical Equipment Directory, “the White Book” for each product category—generally becomes a part of the UL mark. However, sometimes UL omits this when it deems the use of the product identity unnecessary and the product includes the UL mark directly and permanently applied to the product by stamping, molding, ink-stamping, silk-screening or similar processes.

The complete four-element UL mark will always appear on the product unless the product has such a size, shape, material or surface texture that UL believes the manufacturer cannot include the complete marking to the product legibly. In these cases, the complete UL listing will then appear on the smallest unit container of packaging for the product. Therefore, you must also check any packaging and boxes in which the product came. UL may authorize the use of the UL symbol on the product, in addition to the complete UL mark on the package.

UL has taken many steps, including introduction of holographic labels, color schemes specific to each product category, and overt/covert security coding, to maintain the integrity of the UL marks. Furthermore, UL has an anti-counterfeiting operation team specifically dedicated to protection of UL’s marks. For nearly 25 years, UL and U.S. Customs have partnered in extensive and unprecedented nationwide anti-counterfeiting efforts that have resulted in the seizure of millions of products bearing counterfeit UL marks.

Example of an authentic UL label:

UL Label

In a genuine product, the “XXXXX” represents the product-specific identity code.

Despite UL’s efforts, counterfeit electrical products continue to present a growing problem. Investigators have found non-listed smoke detectors on sites as prominent as Amazon.com. These detectors offered an exact replica of the listed smoke detector from the U.S. manufacturer.

Despite the initial financial savings, if the product you buy turns out to prove unreliable or fails, you must replace it and maintain the system as you installed it. What if the installed system produces false alarms daily? What will your customer think of your estimating and buying prowess then?

To help ensure product operational reliability, consistency and safety, NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, requires all fire alarm and mass notification system products to receive testing and listing by a NRTL.

Although I directed my example at online marketplaces, a strong possibility exists that a fire equipment distributor could either inadvertently or purposefully purchase counterfeit equipment. Even manufacturers have a risk of buying counterfeit electronic products to include in their equipment that you ultimately purchase.

No company anywhere in the supply chain has immunity from counterfeit products. It appears that companies that manufacture in China remain especially at risk. So, you may want to ask your equipment sources where they manufacture their products.

Given the apparent extent of the counterfeit problem, stay vigilant and ensure your suppliers remain vigilant as well to prevent counterfeit electrical products from entering the supply chain.

The bottom line with all fire alarm system installation equipment purchases: they must maintain a high level of reliability so your customer will value you as a trusted advisor and installer of their fire alarm systems.

One last caution. Your customer may find a good deal on the internet for equipment that they will then ask you to install. If you install their chosen counterfeit equipment, you have the responsibility to continually repair or replace defective items in the system—all because the owner thought they found a good deal.

It remains tough enough to get ahead in this business. Getting potential business-threatening equipment does not seem like something you want to be a part of. Understand that customers should always look upon you as the expert in these matters. Your customer counts on you for advice. In that regard, if you lack certainty about a product’s viability and do not know whether the product has a proper UL listing, contact Brian Monks at Underwriters Laboratories in Melville, N.Y., at 631.271.6200, ext. 22856 or by email at brian.h.monks@us.ul.com.

Don’t try to win the bid the wrong way!

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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