The Approved Cables Initiative (ACI) was established to raise the profile of non-certified, substandard and unsafe cables. In just over three years the organisation has recognised profile within key Government circles as well as within industry and a clear aim to take its message to the wider construction industry.
Here Peter Smeeth of the ACI answers some key questions.
1. Why was the ACI set up?
The Approved Cables Initiative (ACI) was established in response to the growing problem of substandard and defective cables in the UK. Since its inception many examples of defective cables – electric and data – have been exposed and although it focus is primarily a communication role it has more recently raised the bar and brought these problems to the attention of Government Ministers.
2. What kind of products are commonly causing concern within the cable industry?
In particular issues of compliance with British Standards, lack of appropriate cable markings (affecting traceability) fraudulent markings or no markings at all present concerns within industry and with the ACI.
Affected products include armoured cables, house wiring, arctic grade flex, flexible cords, fire-performance cables and the misselling of data cable (Cat5e/Cat6) with Copper Clad Aluminium (CCA) Issues with these types of cables have been widespread over the past three years.
3. How big an issue is the problem of substandard cabling – and is it on the increase?
Although the ACI has come a long way the problem is far from going away. When faced with the opportunity to purchase cheap cable products, often manufactured outside of the UK, some distributors are prepared to ignore whether cable meets all the requirements of the necessary British Standards or Low Voltage Directive to gain a product sale.
Since 2010 millions of metres of cable has been identified as unsafe or inappropriate for the application for which it has been purchased.
4. What kind of problems can these cable products cause?
Cable products which do not meet specified British Standards, don’t carry independent third party approval and are unmarked present a major risk to contractors. There is obviously the issue of safety which cannot be ignored but contractors should also consider the damage to their reputation by using substandard cabling. The ACI is aware of several cases where product has needed to be removed and reinstalled at the contractor’s expense.
BASEC (British Approvals Service for Cables) has recently toughened up its regime with a risk-based assessment system, additional audits, unannounced audits and sample picks, additional production and testing audits, capturing design data regularly from manufacturers, and enhanced investigation and recall systems. It has also introduced specific technical rules banning various practices and more changes are in the pipeline.
Contractors should check their cables for manufacturers and 3rd party approval markings. Most cable manufacturers place their markings on their cable but not all and in order to conform to cable standards specific marking is required, including the manufacturer’s ID on the cable. Unmarked cable, with no manufacturer’s name or details should give rise for concern.
The ACI has recently updated its cable reference guide which explains the latest requirements for cable marking and is available to download at www.aci.org.uk
Fraudulent markings present a particular challenge, as it is often difficult to tell that a cable is not manufactured to the appropriate standard for its use merely by looking at it. So much so that many organisations throughout the supply chain are not even aware of the seriousness of the problem.
5. How different are substandard cables to authentic products – could you provide an example?
The majority of problems encountered in defective electric cable relate to a reduction in the amount of copper used in production. The price of copper, the main cable ingredient, has steadily risen in price since 2004 although 2013 has seen some fluctuation in price.
That aside with such a substantial rise in this base metal price over time it is easy to see why reducing the amount of copper in a cable can produce significant savings – while at the same time generate some healthy profits for those trading in these cables. Some manufacturers have been found to reduce the copper content in cable between 15-50%.
In addition to this, cable with smaller cores and thicker sheaths have also been found, thereby giving the unsuspecting the impression they are buying the right cable when they are clearly not.
Examples of ACI investigations include:
- a UK distributor selling overseas manufactured fire performance cable that is not to the standard required in the UK
- a UK distributor that has supplied a faulty batch of cable produced by an overseas cable manufacturer, and which has not informed customers of a product recall
- a UK cable manufacturer’s self-declared fire performance cable which is still being installed in public places despite having failed tests in two cable testing laboratories fraudulently marked cables showing standards and approvals they don’t have – intended to mislead distributors, wholesalers and installers
- misselling of data cable products as Copper Clad Aluminium (CCA) which are non-compliant with published national and international standards
- electric cables which don’t comply with British Standards
- electric cable fitted with non-compliant UK plugs or that have a non-compliant core colour scheme
- arctic grade cables with poor conductor resistance and sheathing/ insulation that is not fit for purpose
- recalled defective electric cable, on sale in DIY retailers
- the recall of 20 million metres of defective cable identified as under specified and unsafe
- unsafe, non-approved cables on sale with undersized copper conductors with low conductivity, non-fire resistant sheathing or insufficient or poor quality armouring
- fire performance cables that don’t perform to the standards and approvals noted
- the deliberate misuse of measurement – confusing metres with yards/packaging that carries no measurement – knowing the actual cable length is unlikely to be checked. Instances have been found where short lengths on cable drums have been provided – 95 metres against an ordered 100 metres
6. What is government and industry doing to counter the problem?
The ACI continues to lobby Government along with UK based cable manufacturers to change current legislation. It is currently in communication with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills to discuss Britain’s vulnerability to an influx of substandard cable. This is particular relevant in light of substandard cable being found in other parts of Europe, most notably France.
The ACI has also cautioned UK distributors following a call from Chinese authorities for its national manufacturers to focus upon improving cable quality and not just expand quantity – a warning for many UK cable distributors who currently source cheap cable imports from China.
That said, many of the issues the ACI has dealt with involve cables manufactured not just in China but also in Turkey, India, the Iberian Peninsula, Greece, Middle East and on occasions the UK.
We believe that Britain is still the main focus for distributors of substandard electric cable as the country has few regulations to stop the importer and the lack of effective safety regulation on cable installations makes it a profitable market for distributors of these cables.
7. What are the implications of substandard cables for electric contractors – do they or distributors have liability?
Responsibility rests with the whole supply chain, from manufacturers through to the contractor/installer. The electric contractor should cross check cable delivered against purchase orders and commission regular tests and cable inspections to check a cable before it is installed. If the contractor orders the correct British Standard cable then they have some protection.
8. How can contractors ensure the products they use aren’t unsafe or counterfeit?
More often than not defective cables cannot be spotted by the untrained eye and even then many may go unchecked unless they are subjected to routine tests as part of an installation process. The ACI recommends that contractors include the following written information when completing a purchase order:
- Type of cable
- BS or other standard number
- Cable reference number or UK cable code
- No of cores and nominal cross section
- Quantity and lengths of cable required
- Manufacturer’s details
- Traceability details
- Third party approval
- Technical options
- Delivery details
Better cable ordering needs to become best practice rather than an occasional activity. If contractors follow this process they stand a greater chance of receiving a cable product that meets the required specification and relevant standard and that won’t let them down.
There is a useful aide memoire template that can be downloaded from the ACI at www.aci.org.uk