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Focus on Cable Testing and Certification

While the cable industry has stringent safety standards across the world, pockets of poor professional practice in cable manufacturing, trading, specification and procurement are at large in many areas of the marketplace.

Unfortunately, there are a number of factors that can lead to this. The fact that any cable manufacturer can self-declare its product in some territories means safety and quality are interpreted differently. For example, if a cable is marked with only a standard number or product code, there is a high probability that nobody other than the manufacturer has examined that cable.

When copper prices shoot up, manufacturers may be tempted to save money by making cables as close as they can to the minimum requirements. In some such instances the copper conductor may be deliberately undersized. Other common problems include non fire-resisting sheathing, short life materials, insufficient or poor quality armouring and low insulation resistance.

This urge to cut corners then pervades across the entire supply chain.

Those specifying cable will often work to the tightest size tolerances and the customer will shop around for the cheapest price. With everyone trying to save their few per cent, when the end user finally gets the cable product in their hands, they could be looking at a serious problem without realising it.

This has been the case in a recent multi-million dollar cable recall in Australia. A taskforce comprising of 21 consumer agencies and regulatory bodies has been put in place to source, destroy and replace around 2,500 miles of potentially hazardous cable across five states before it becomes a fire or electrocution threat. The distributor of the cable product, which originated in China, is now facing criminal proceedings and installers may have to foot the bill for rework. In this case, when the cable was first supplied to the hardware chains and electrical wholesalers it came with declarations that it met Australian standards, but later testing found that it did not.

The repercussions of using faulty cable can have devastating consequences. It could be the cause of a building fire for example, or when in a fire, faulty cable could fail to manage power supplies and control circuitry for the emergency systems, preventing a successful evacuation. Under cable test conditions, these types of fire cable should remain operational for a maximum of 120 minutes. However, some of the fire cables BASEC has tested lasted only two minutes.

So, why would cable buyers take such a risk?

The main issue is cost. What may seem like a small price to pay for reassurance, when bottom lines are squeezed there is always the temptation to go for the cheapest option.

Image courtesy of BASEC

Image courtesy of BASEC

Insist on independent third party testing and certification
BASEC works across the globe to educate regulatory bodies, utilities, civil and defense authorities, specifiers, contractors and the public on the dangers of using unsafe, non- approved or counterfeit cables and why third party assurance is vital.

Any third party conformity assessment, such as testing, inspecting and certification, of cable products, manufacturing processes and factory surveillance is ultimately about protection – to minimise the threat or harm to society and the environment. It also provides a level of reputational and commercial protection for manufacturers and traders.

Unlike many commercial certification bodies, BASEC only tests and certifies cable. BASEC has its own world-class cable testing laboratory, and as a non-profit organisation it is primarily concerned with actively educating the marketplace about the dangers of faulty cables.

Type testing isn’t on-going quality assurance
One common misunderstanding among fire engineers is that when cable product is type tested, it doesn’t mean that it is an independently approved cable. All that type testing confirms is that a particular cable sample met the test requirements on a particular day, but this doesn’t give assurance of ongoing production or production quality. There is nothing stopping a manufacturer from producing a ‘golden sample’ to get a favourable type test report. It is recommended that a manufacturer has type testing repeatedevery three years, however BASEC has seen type test reports being touted round that are many years out of date. The advice is to make sure a cable product has ongoing third party approval, not just a type test report, and to make sure this is no less than three years old.

Also in terms of Quality Management Systems, BASEC’s view is that general management system certifications don’t provide sufficient scope or detail to ensure ongoing quality in cable production, something that only product certifications can provide. So management system certification on its own does not result in BASEC approval of any cable, as no testing is involved. Manufacturers with only these certifications are not permitted to mark their cable with the BASEC mark.

These stringent rules ensure the BASEC mark is synonymous with safety. To gain the BASEC mark, cable is approved to a full suite of manufacturing standards rather than just to one particular test. To initially gain product approval the manufacturing facility must be successfully assessed with samples of the cables in question subjected to the full range of tests specified in the standard including the dimensions and materials of a cable, and specific tests to prove the construction and performance. Not until all tests are passed, and the manufacturer’s production facilities, processes, and their own testing capabilities have been verified, is a product marking license awarded, permitting the manufacturer to display the BASEC mark on their products.

Image courtesy of BASEC

Image courtesy of BASEC

Consistent surveillance is key
Each approved cable is then regularly retested up to four times a year by BASEC to ensure ongoing conformity. Manufacturers have to adhere to strict certification rules and all cable produced must be tested by the manufacturer before release for sale. If there are any problems or changes that might affect cable quality the manufacturer is obliged to notify BASEC immediately.

BASEC approval also incorporates surveillance testing where assessors visit each manufacturer several times a year to select samples for surveillance testing (up to 200 per year) for testing which is done in parallel with the audit of production processes and management systems.

Many unannounced full factory audits are conducted on BASEC clients each year and if we find anything suspicious, investigations will be launched and certifications will if necessary be revoked. It is important to highlight, we are not there to catch anyone out. We are working with manufacturers to ensure the quality of their cables and the responsibility is on them to make products that meet and conform to a standard. We maintain a professional relationship with them, which also involves complete confidentiality. Our assessors meet a lot of people and see a lot of manufacturing processes in markets around the world and at all times we are representing BASEC as an independent approvals service maintaining an international reputation.

Our message to cable buyers is always specify an independently approved cable and check the cable markings on delivery and before installation. If suspicious cable is found, contact BASEC or your local regulatory authority for advice.

Public warnings
If a suspect cable product is found in the marketplace, BASEC will test the it for faults. The manufacturers and companies involved in the supply chain are then contacted to ensure they are aware of the faults and if necessary the product many be recalled by the manufacturer and destroyed. Any manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors or installers who persistently sell or use dangerous, non-approved cables, will have their details passed to the relevant trading standards or health and safety regulatory bodies for that country, and public warnings will be issued to the media. However, BASEC hopes that by highlighting third party assurance issues to the industry, companies will voluntarily use safe and approved cables. The primary objective is to spread our message widely so that everyone in the supply chain can make an educated decision on which cable products they use.

For further information, go to www.basec.org.uk

Glynn Stainthorpe is Director of Business Development at the British Approvals Service for Cables (BASEC).

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