Buyer Beware

Months after the devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the flooding that followed, cleanup efforts in New Orleans and Gulf Coast areas slowly continue. In many areas, rebuilding has yet to begin. The electrical industry is heavily involved in recovery efforts.

At the beginning of the new year, many areas still do not have electrical power. Utility providers, assisted by crews from power companies and contractors from across the nation, work every day to repair damaged distribution networks.

However, simply restoring power isn’t the only issue. Floodwater can compromise the integrity of electrical components—insulation can be destroyed, metals can rust, trip units in molded case circuit breakers can be impaired, and filler material in fuses can degrade their insulation and interruption capabilities. In addition, motor circuits, power equipment, transformers, wire, cable, flexible cord, ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), surge protectors, lighting fixtures, cable trays and electronic devices can be affected.

Electrical systems in thousands of homes and businesses must be inspected, and many systems will have to be repaired or replaced before they can safely activated. Manufacturers are making every effort to expedite needed electrical components.

With all this activity on such a broad scale, it is easy to overlook the hidden danger of water-damaged electrical components being cleaned up and re-entering the marketplace at bargain prices, cautioned Jim Pauley, P.E., vice president, industry and government relations at Schneider Electric, manufacturer of Square D electrical distribution and control products used in all types of residential, commercial and industrial construction.

According to Pauley, the availability of salvaged and unsafe electrical components is a continuing problem, comparable to flood-damaged cars and trucks that are cleaned up, shipped to other parts of the country, and resold to unsuspecting buyers.

“The wary buyer can quickly investigate the history of a car through its VIN (vehicle identification number), but electrical components are not so easy to track,” Pauley said.

Unsafe electrical goods can originate not only from structures damaged by storms and water, but from flooded supplier and contractor warehouses.

Whatever their source, Pauley said the chain of events usually begins after damaged components are scrapped—either by owners or insurance companies.

“However,” he said, “rather than scrapping damaged electrical components, the dealer resells them to third parties who attempt to clean up evidence of water exposure and then sell them as low-priced bargains.”

In some cases, attempts are made to recondition equipment, while other sellers may simply clean them and offer for resale.

“Unsuspecting buyers can end up purchasing the ‘discounted’ equipment without knowing that it has been subjected to water damage that can render it unusable and, more importantly, unsafe,” Pauley said.

Topping the list of popular resale items, Pauley said, are electrical distribution panels, circuit breakers and fuses.

“These devices are the heart of an electrical system, providing protection necessary for electrical wiring and equipment. They also are products that are the most susceptible to floodwater. Water and debris enter the enclosures and immediately begin the corrosion and deterioration processes,” he said. “Circuit breakers and fuses cannot be ‘cleaned up’ after a flood and should never be reused.”

Water-damaged equipment usually enters the market through independent sources, not from traditional suppliers. Pauley said used electrical components and equipment are widely promoted on the Internet, direct mail and by fax.

“As a distributor, Graybar avoids purchasing from such sources,” said Arnold Kelly, Graybar director of construction markets. “We have a very structured approval process that suppliers must follow in order to sell products to Graybar, and our concern as a distributor is to protect our customers. Water is just one potential hazard that can damage electrical equipment—there are many issues that are of concern.”

Codes and standards published by industry organizations and recommendations of manufacturers clearly advise against attempting to refurbish specific types of equipment components after exposure to water.

In a number of sections, the National Electrical Contractor Association’s (NECA) National Electrical Installation Standards state that electrical equipment and inside wiring are not intended to get wet. Wiring and equipment that has been submerged in water, and especially dirty water, should be replaced, said Brooke Stauffer, executive director for standards and safety.

The National Electrical Code (NEC) states that equipment cannot be exposed to agents, including fumes, vapors and liquids that can have a deteriorating effect on the equipment.

The issue of safe use of equipment exposed to water is complicated by the fact that some electrical components exposed to water can be reconditioned and reused if properly done by qualified technicians so they meet manufacturer standards (for more on this topic, see sidebar on previous page).

Because of the scope of destruction in the Gulf Coast states, it is unlikely that damaged goods from those areas are surfacing in the marketplace. Pauley said education is the key to raising industry awareness of the problems and action taken now can help avoid the problems from Katrina and Rita as well as future disasters.

Industry organizations and suppliers are taking the initiative.Guidelines for Handling Water Damaged Electrical Equipment, a brochure published by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), is one of the best, easiest-to-understand references, on the safe handling of water-exposed electrical equipment.

It outlines which items will require complete replacement or can be reconditioned by a trained professional. Equipment covered includes electrical distribution equipment, motor circuits, power equipment, transformers, wire, cable and flexible cords, wiring devices, GFCIs and surge protectors, lighting fixtures and ballasts, motors, and electronic products including signaling, protection, communication systems, industrial controls, and cable trays.

According to NEMA, the brochure is incorporated into the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) manual, Principles and Practices for the Design and Construction of Flood Resistant Building Utility Systems.

NEMA field representative John Minick went to Gulf Coast area soon the storms and, despite early difficulties in access, has distributed more than 1,000 brochure copies and made computer files available to agencies for reprinting. The brochure may be downloaded from the NEMA Web site,

Another good source of information is the Square D Data Bulletin, Water Damaged Electrical Distribution and Control Equipment. Square D has a toll free hotline to answer questions about safely restoring electrical systems and is expediting orders for use in the storm affected areas.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is offering assistance to authorities having jurisdiction for evaluation of industrial and commercial equipment that was water damaged and may have been reconditioned. For information, contact is Chuck Mello at 360. 817.5578 or by e-mail at

Immediately after the storms, Eaton Corp., a leading manufacturer of electrical control, power distribution, and industrial automation products and services, sent teams to affected areas to assist in assessing condition of equipment, said Dan Hartnett, marketing manager for electrical services, Eaton Corp. Many customers arranged to have Eaton recondition their equipment in nearby centers in Baton Rouge and Houston.

Because water-damaged equipment does not enter the marketplace through conventional sales channels, Pauley said buyers can avoid the dangers from water-damaged electrical equipment by only purchasing product through reputable wholesalers and retailers.

“If you see a deal on electrical equipment that is too good to be true, it probably is,” he said. “Be especially cautious of Internet auctions and reseller sites.”

He adds that the electrical industry must do its part.

“Electrical wholesalers, retailers and contractors need to make a concerted effort to make sure that damaged product is properly destroyed and not resold to an unscrupulous dealer who will attempt to resell the product for use” he said. “Insurance companies need to be encouraged to take action to have the damaged product destroyed.”

Hartnett said electrical contractors are a key partner in preventing installation of unsafe components sold as reconditioned.

“There are electrical codes and regulations that apply, and the licensed electrical contractors who do the work are reputable and want to do quality work and use quality parts. Very few try to shave corners, and the industry does not condone those who do,” he said. EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or





About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Griffin, Oklahoma City, is a construction journalist specializing in the electrical, telecommunications and underground utility construction industries. Contact him at .

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