Blown Fuse - Luis Vuitton circuit breakers anyone?

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Each month, Electrical Review's resident grumpy old man, writer and industry commentator  John Houston, explores a hot topic of the day and lets us know his views in no uncertain terms

Anyone who has ever knowingly bought a fake product - think long and hard about this one - has probably at some time paid the price. Perhaps it was a branded tee-shirt that faded after three washes, the trainers whose sole departed prematurely or perhaps a Rolex that was dead accurate at least twice a day. The damage is usually to the ego of the buyer, but commercially very damaging to the original manufacturers both in lost sales, but more significantly potential "cheapening" of their hard earned brand's reputations.

It's easy to dismiss such practices with a wink to the cheeky, chirpy Del boys and Arthur Daleys of the world, but counterfeiting is serious and can undermine everything honest businesses work for. Moreover, in our world of electrical engineering the outcomes from using illegal copies can be fatal.

I think it's fair to say that if we're honest, one generally knows when one is buying fake clothing, watches and luggage. That is not always so with electrical equipment and worryingly this is especially true of the smaller safety devices. I have seen first hand a circuit breaker that looked like an absolutely perfect example of a well known maker's moulding. Only when the case was broken open was a crude single copper braid revealed bridging the two poles - it was barely even a switch, let alone a device to prevent injury or death! The legitimate manufacturer couldn't tell it was a fake without breaking it open and it was the weight of the product rather than its appearance that had raised alarm bells.

So where do such potentially lethal products come from? Well, unfortunately and with no hint of jingoism, China bears the brunt of responsibility for the worst fakes. It's perhaps ironic that Western electrical equipment companies increasingly manufacture in China and one has to wonder if this does not make life a little easier for the copyists. The point is that exports from China are difficult to regulate and this is only exacerbated by easy trade via the Internet.

To test my assumption, I recently joined a "club" online where one could openly buy just about anything in fake form. The organisers even kindly mail me the latest fakes I can buy. Among such working replicas are almost any kind of electrical device you could need - many under famous brand names or carrying original manufacturers part numbers. Such sources however, are easy to guide legitimate businesses away from.

Less easily controlled are grey imports. How does one know if imported machinery is equipped with legitimate components?  The short answer is to only buy well known branded machinery, but it's not that simple. It's also impossible to properly assess equipment until something goes wrong. One case I heard of involved decent machinery, equipped with well known components, but in the event of a breakdown, no source for the components could be identified and the manufacturer of those goods denied responsibility for them as a result. The presumption was that the machinery manufacturer had sourced components (albeit genuine parts) via the Internet and therefore no local suppliers would take responsibility. Global industry still presents gaps in the responsibility chain.

All of our industry's representative bodies have addressed the issue of counterfeiting to some extent, but most see education of potential buyers as the only short term solution. I once tried to report a fake breaker and ran immediately into a brick wall. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has no power in the case of industrial or professional equipment. The Trading Standards body seems to me to be too overwhelmed with pursuing teddy bears with daggers for eyes or toasters that electrocute the breakfast cook to be able to intervene. Someone has to be seriously injure3d or even killed to raise any specific issue it seems.
As a final word, Emma McCarthy, COO of the NICEIC, has just raised publicly the problem of electricians passing themselves off as NICEIC registered when they are not. At least a quick telephone call can sort that one out.