Detecting Electrical Skullduggery: Protecting Your Customers From Counterfeit Products

0519 Residential
Image credit: Shutterstock / Shirstok

With the advent and ease of online shopping, many homeowners are purchasing their own products. But is a homeowner able to distinguish a safe product that is listed and labeled from a counterfeit product that has bypassed safety and performance testing? In many cases, homeowners don’t have the technical knowledge to establish whether the lighting unit or ceiling paddle fan they plan to purchase online and have installed is safe. Recently, I went online looking for a chandelier and found a series of chandeliers manufactured overseas. The advertisement stated these chandeliers created a sense of power and strength and were perfect for lighting your own personal castle! I could not find anywhere on the website that the chandeliers were listed based on the U.S. UL standards required for installations.

Are these luminaires and ceiling paddle fans, which often come with lighting kits, listed for the location where these items will be installed? Are they suitable for wet locations, damp locations or only dry locations? If a customer purchased a ceiling paddle fan online, can the electrical contractor install it on a patio ceiling that is partially exposed to weather? Electrical contractors and inspectors often are required to determine whether a luminaire or ceiling fan is listed and for what location. Counterfeit luminaires and ceiling paddle fans are even more difficult to identify since the manufacturer may have provided a counterfeit label that looks very similar to a legitimate one, and only a U.S. certifying company can verify a label’s legitimacy.

Unlisted and counterfeit electrical equipment installation has become a major problem and ECs should learn to recognize counterfeit products to combat it. Electrical contractors should take several steps to ensure electrical equipment is listed and not counterfeit.

First, the electrical contractor should install only electrical equipment purchased and provided by a verified source. Second, the electrical contractor should verify the presence of a listing label on the electrical equipment and that the label is intended for that equipment.

When I was an electrical inspector for an engineering company in the Phoenix area, I found a ceiling paddle fan without a listing label. The next morning, when I did a reinspection, I found a listing label, but when I looked closer, I determined the label was for a hydromassage bathtub unit. The label had mysteriously appeared overnight.

Third, the electrical contractor should study the listing label to ensure it contains the proper text based on the product; the color of the label is appropriate and consistent with other labels from the same listing company; and, if the product is from China, a holographic label is used. A special viewer can be obtained from UL that will identify a counterfeit UL holographic label from a real one.

Fourth, the electrical contractor should also look for labels on the electrical equipment that identify the equipment as overstock or if the electrical equipment was not delivered with instruction sheets or warnings.

Working as an electrical contractor in the Southwest, I specialized in commercial and industrial facilities, as well as large and very costly residential homes between 5,000 and 40,000 square feet. Many times, homeowners asked me to install customer-supplied equipment purchased while traveling abroad or ordered online, or they asked to install equipment taken from their former home.

For example, one large home I wired was built in the flat-roofed Southwest adobe pueblo-style design, and the owner ordered the luminaires from Mexico. When they arrived at the job site and I started examining them, I determined many of the luminaires were made from beer cans and none of the fixtures were listed, obviously. The owner wanted many of these luminaires to be installed outside in wet locations, but they were obviously not designed for a wet location, would not have lasted long in an outdoor environment, and would not have been accepted by the electrical inspector. The homeowner was not very happy that I would not install his “custom” luminaires.

As an electrical contractor, you and the electrical inspector are the first and often the last line of defense against nonlisted, unsafe and counterfeit electrical equipment. Double and triple check all electrical equipment, and if something doesn’t look right, start investigating.

About the Author

Mark C. Ode

Fire/Life Safety, Residential and Code Contributor

Mark C. Ode is a lead engineering associate for Energy & Power Technologies at Underwriters Laboratories Inc. and can be reached at 919.949.2576 and Mark.C.Ode@ul.com.

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