The problem of counterfeit electrical equipment has spread beyond basic accessories to safety gear such as circuit-breakers.
Counterfeit electrical equipment originating in the Far East has long been flooding in to the UK. Last year the DTI felt sufficiently worried to issue warnings to trade associations and trading standards officers about the masses of fake plugs and fuses reaching these shores.

In excess of 10 million counterfeit or poor quality fuses are thought to have reached the UK market. The dodgy products are often found inside plugs, which are often counterfeit themselves, attached to imported appliances.

Enter the dragon
The war against the counterfeiters stepped up last year with the Electric Dragon initiative. This collaborative effort by UK manufacturers, co-ordinated by the Electrical Installation Equipment Manufacturers' Association (EIEMA), netted over three-quarters of a million fakes in raids in China. The raids were carried out by the Chinese authorities after receiving intelligence from EIEMA. In two operations, no fewer than 25 Chinese factories were busted. As well as the counterfeit products, the authorities destroyed tooling and moulds and arrested factory owners.

The bad news is that the Chinese are not stopping at basic plugs and fuses. Evidence suggests that safety equipment such as miniature circuit-breakers (mcbs) are now being targeted. EIEMA's latest video "Counterfeit kills" highlights the risks to contractors inherent in failing to ensure the authenticity of the products that they buy. The video shows short circuit tests carried out on both a genuine and counterfeit mcb; the resulting explosion on the latter graphically illustrates the potential risk of fire, damage to property and even loss of life that could arise from not checking that the product is for real.

"Most industries suffer from counterfeit imports but the safety aspect means that this is a different ball game from fake perfumes," says Paul Martin, product marketing manager for Hager's commercial and industrial products. Hager is one company that has suffered at the hands of the fraudsters, and its own tests of the fake mcbs on sale in the UK show that the bogus products would provide little in the way of short circuit protection. The top picture shows the counterfeit item (on the left) alongside the genuine product from Hager (on the right). A close inspection reveals that certain parts are clearly not as they should be – if they are there at all. "There is a fundamental lack of understanding as to why the components are there," says Paul Martin. "And if the fundamentals are not understood, the counterfeiters may cut corners to reduce their production costs, which have an impact on user safety."

Manufacturing mishaps
The key item offering the short circuit protection is the coil. But as the photograph shows, the fake item contains simple copper braid rather than a coil. In the event of a short circuit, this could have disastrous consequences. The horror story doesn't end there. The arc generated during a short circuit has to be distinguished quickly and the sacrificial silver plates are crucial. However, with the effort to cut costs, raw copper has replaced silver in the counterfeit version.

The arc chute marked in the photograph doesn't appear to have sophistication but its design is critical; the arc has to be drawn into it and the speed of withdrawal is very important. The fake shown has less than half the splitter plates of the Hager mcb and they are of a different thickness and material. "This is one of the areas that receives most development with mcbs," says Paul Martin. "If there is a gas build-up there is the potential for an explosion."

A further problem with the fake is the increased percentage of regrind plastics. Obviously, the more reclaimed material that you use, the cheaper are your costs. The fakes push this to the limit. "We would only use about 5% regrind. It's much cheaper if you increase that percentage but you compromise the integrity of the product if you do," says Paul Martin.

The counterfeit product also displays drag marks which is a tell-tale sign that the tooling has been modified to allow the mcbs to be made faster. With injection moulding, the parts need to be allowed to cool consistently, but the fraudsters use injector pins to split the tooling quickly, which means the mcbs are still hot when they come off the tooling and could distort on cooling.

Put all the above shortcuts together and you have one big problem. "This is a safety issue first and foremost," says Paul Martin. "In making a quick buck, the Far Eastern manufacturers are placing users in danger. These devices may look simple, but there is a lot of r&d investment in to the optimum arc angles and so on."

Luckily, this particular product won't be putting anyone at risk: "We were able to stop this from sale in the UK," says Paul Martin, "the threat was enough." Trading standards officers are also helping to stop these products reaching UK outlets but their departments have limited resources and they are very often not familiar with mcbs. The Health and Safety Executive is also taking an interest.

The message to contractors is clear: "Go with a reputable name that you're sure will give you a quality product that will prove reliable and safe," says Paul Martin. "If you cut corners, these are some of the consequences."

With this particular example, the fraudster had attempted to label the fake goods as authentic Hager products, even going to the lengths of photocopying the instruction manual. However, there was no attempt to use the CE Mark, which normally would be applied by Hager under the Low Voltage Directive.

Of course, it is not enough simply to look for the CE Mark. Contractors need to be sure of the source of the products they are buying. Not all Chinese equipment is bad and the problem lies in working out which is which. Hager has taken steps in this regard with the introduction of holograms onto its products. "If the price seems too good to be true, then it probably is," advises Dave Dossett of EIEMA. "Do not assume that product is genuine and make sure that you check your sources."

Initiatives such as the action by Hager and the wider Electric Dragon programme have so far limited the numbers of fakes entering the country but "these are trickling into the UK and someone is going to get killed," warns Paul Martin. "You can't have an uncontrolled influx of products whose primary function is safety."

There are signs of a brighter future. EIEMA is working closely with the Chinese authorities, and if China is to be admitted to the World Trade Organisation it will have to clean up its act. In the meantime, make sure that all of the installations that you are working on boast products from a known source and of known quality – somebody's life may depend upon it.