The cable has a UL stamp, but is it really up to snuff?

CCCA says the market is flooded with sub-standard cabling, asks UL, ETL to do more
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Thursday, November 5, 2009

WASHINGTON—You’ve just bought a roll of cat-6 cable from your local distributor. Man, it was cheap. A real lifesaver for increasing the margin on the current job. It almost seems too good to be true, but it’s got the UL mark on it, so you know it’s good product, right?

Wrong. At least according to the Communications Cable & Connectivity Association. The CCCA says the cabling market is being flooded by manufacturers, largely based overseas, who have a UL listing, “but once the listing is achieved, lower cost materials are used for the mass-production run,” said Frank Peri, CCCA executive director. “The UL label is still on there, but the quality is not.”

“Once they get their approvals,” said Kevin St. Cyr, president of cabling manufacturer Berk-Tek, and a past chairman of the CCCA, “either through sloppiness or through planned intent, they substitute the cheaper materials in, but they still have the listing, and it still winds up in the U.S. market.”

Neither Peri nor St. Cyr would name specific manufacturers who engage in this practice. However, the CCCA recently completed tests on after-market cabling for the second year in a row that found a significant number of overseas cabling manufacturers could not meet NFPA safety regulations.

Further, “the testing we did was by an independent agency,” Peri said. “It’s not us doing the testing. We used an independent agency that runs the same tests on our members’ stuff.”

UL says they’re listening to CCCA’s concerns. John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, said UL has opened a field report upon hearing of the CCCA’s findings last year and initiated its own global review of communications cabling. Following that review, UL “decided that we would like to come up with some new elements to put in place to evaluate the cable in an after-market fashion,” Drengenberg said. For example, UL is in the process of initiating new “fingerprinting” tests on communications cabling, whereby, in addition to manufacturer site visits, samples of cabling coming right off the line will be sent back to UL labs for testing to make sure the product is the same product that was submitted for initial testing. Further, UL will be instituting a holographic label for this product category now, instead of the paper UL label, making it harder for purely counterfeit cabling to enter the market.

In the meantime, however, how can installers be confident in the UL mark? “Right now, it’s a tough question,” said St. Cyr. “If I saw a really cheap product with a UL mark on it and it was cat-6, and had a plenum rating [meaning it’s designed for enclosed, between-wall spaces] and was maybe 50 percent less, I would think it’s got to have a material problem with that cable. It’s got to have the wrong materials in that design. There’s a certain angle of buyer-beware. If the cable is extremely cheap, or you’ve got five companies bidding and four of the five are within the noise and then a fifth is 30-35 percent off, there’s either an error in the project cost-estimate or an error in the cable design.”

“My message to the installers,” said UL’s Drengenberg, “is that you can and should rely on the UL mark. UL has a 115-year history, we’ve got the most robust follow-up system that we are even now enhancing. So trust the UL mark. We are committed to making sure that that continues to stand for the safety of that product.”

However, he said, he agrees with St. Cyr about the buyer-beware warning: “We’ve said that for years in other categories. If you find a nightlight that is so cheap and it’s just such a great bargain, it’s too good to be true, and you might be jeopardizing your safety. And if you see cable that’s 30 percent cheaper than everyone else, I would consider myself a wise installer if that raised a red flag.”