"As I mused, the fire burned"

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“Approved by a certification agency…” a question of safety

Our electrical system in Canada is highly regulated. From the rates that may be charged, the routes that power lines may take, right down to the $4 charger you plug into the wall there is a web of legislation, regulation and code that controls all aspects of electricity. This is a good thing, as one of the principle goals of that framework is to protect those who use electricity. Specifically for consumers, there is an absolute requirement to have electrical devices approved by a certification agency before they can be sold.

This is enacted on a province-by-province basis. There are minor variations, but the entire framework rests on the back of the Canadian Electrical Code (CEC). That code is published by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) every four or so years, and is adopted on a provincial basis. Once adopted, the CEC becomes like a regulation in terms of standing…the adoption brings the independent standard into the framework of laws.

In Alberta, the Safety Codes Act sets out the authority to make this happen. Notes bringing the Alberta-specific application into being are published by the Department of Municipal Affairs. For the approval process, this is what is set out:

Rule 2-024 of the Canadian Electrical Code (CEC) requires that electrical equipment be approved. The CEC defines “approved” in Section 0.

In Alberta, section 2 of the Electrical Code Regulation prescribes the conditions for the use of equipment related to electrical systems and applies these requirements to the term “approved” as referenced in the Code. Section 2 of the Electrical Code Regulation reads as follows:

2(1) If a code, standard or body of rules declared in force under the Act with respect to electrical systems requires approved equipment, that equipment must meet the requirements of this section.

(2) No person shall manufacture, install, sell or offer for sale any equipment related to electrical systems for use in Alberta unless the equipment has been

(a) certified by a certification body in accordance with the certification body’s terms of accreditation with Standards Council of Canada, or

(b) inspected by a inspection body in accordance with the inspection body’s terms of accreditation with Standards Council of Canada

(3) Subsection (2) does not apply to electrical equipment of an electric distribution system or transmission lines as defined in the Hydro and Electric Energy Act.

The regulation defines “certification body” and “inspection body” as follows:

“certification body” means an organization accredited by the Standards Council of Canada as a certification body.

“inspection body” means an organization accredited by the Standards Council of Canada as an inspection body.

Products certified by an accredited certification body are approved; also, products deemed acceptable by an inspection body through a field evaluation process are also approved.

Now, this is all much hand waving that leads to the question – what’s the point?

First point – notice that it is against the law to sell un-certified electrical equipment in Canada (I bolded the definitive words above).  That shop that has brought in an Asia electrical product to sell cheaply, if that item is not approved, is committing an unlawful act. There is also the possibility of civil liability – if you’re selling unapproved electrical devices, and someone is killed or injured as a result, or a building burns down, you can be sure the people that broke the law will be involved in the lawsuit.

In my hobby-job as a forensic engineer, I come across lots of different types of electrical equipment in all areas of use: industrial, commercial and residential. One of the trends I have noticed over the past decade is a literal explosion in the amount of un-approved electrical gear coming up for sale.

This started with the higher-end electrical components such as industrial circuit-breakers, which are being counterfeit overseas and distributed into the North American market place. The high cost of these items make them attractive items to fake.  The problem – none of the fake breakers have been through a test process, so there is no guarantee that they will function when required.  If you’re talking about a 1,200 amp 3-phase breaker in a large industrial complex, and it doesn’t remove the electrical source when a fault happens, you’re talking about a really, really bad day.

Now, I see all sorts of consumer electronics that are not certified.  There have been a number of stories circulating about people electrocuted by unlicensed, un-certified iPhone chargers.  This is a huge problem overseas, and we are starting to see hints of it here.  A report from the UK documents literally tens of thousands of these chargers that are being sold in discount bins.

From the consumer’s point of view, you can understand the attraction.  Do you buy the name-brand Apple charger for $25, or get the much cheaper one you found at an online site?  We live in an era when there is not a huge amount of understanding of the technical complexity of electronic devices, so if it looks ok, and seems to work, why not accept the $5 version?

I recently completed a fire investigation where a number of electrical components being used were not approved for use in Canada.  These had been purchased through an Alberta hobby store for use by a technically-specialized group of hobbyists.  The lack of approval had nothing to do with the fire…but one of the things I discovered was that a power supply (a high-current power supply) in a metal case did not have the case properly bonded to the grounding wire –  a requirement of code in Canada basically forever.  This is a major safety issue – the case ground on a metal-cased device is intended to prevent electrocution if a live wire happens to touch the case, followed by a person touching the case.  The un-grounded case was also the mounting heat-sink for the power transistors (which I suspect is the reason it was left un-grounded).

Here is a recent, local example of unapproved equipment being sold in a local store.  This is obviously not only a European issue any longer.  This is now one of my first steps when I’m investigating – to determine if the involved components were approved electrical devices.

This really came home for me when I bought a hot-air rework station from a BC supplier.  The price was really amazing, considering most of these stations start around $700…and I should have known that a price that’s too good to be true, probably is.

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GQ5200FrontView_350 hot air station

When I set it up, my first look was to confirm there was a certification mark on the case…

…which there was not.  Much like what I saw in that fire investigation, the unit was marked with the CE symbol (a European marking, probably forged) that has no standing in Canada.  Even in Europe this is only a self-declared status, unlike the Canadian requirement which is for testing by an accredited testing agency to prove safety and compliance.

The rule in such dealings is really caveat emptor (buyer beware), and I make it a point to check for the certification symbols on anything I buy.  There are some things that don’t need those marks (a low-voltage device like a scanner may not have a mark, but the power adapter must).  Even the presence of a symbol can’t be a perfect sign, as the counterfeiters are now including phony approval symbols…but it’s the best we can do.  If you purchase through a known supply chain (an established store or web store) this helps, but even places like Amazon and Canadian Tire are not immune.

I’ll end this post with some examples of what approved device labels look like.  One other clue is the completeness of the label.  The rules require electrical devices also be marked with manufacturer’s name, the supply voltage and any caution statements.  Most approved items sold in Canada will have an extensive label (and no spelling mistakes, another sign of possible counterfeit items).

These two are adaptors, one for a camera, one for a scanner.  I’ve circled the certification marks in yellow – in both of these the certifying agency is Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the subscript ‘C’ and ‘US’ mean the certification is valid in both Canada and the United States.

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Note in both cases the presence of an ‘E’ number (E238403), which is the certification number – with this you can go to the UL website and look up the specific standard that was used to certify the device, and to confirm it is the correct manufacturer.  Note also each label has a ton of information about who made it, the input and output power and what type of device (ITE Power Supply).

 

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This next one is a Samsung harddrive from a different investigation.  The certification mark in this case is the reversed RU (standing for Meanwell, a Chinese company.  Note the ‘C’, ‘US’ and the ‘E’ number.

This label shows a number of European certifications (none of which have standing in Canada): the CE mark, which is self-declared unlike the Canadian remarks that require a device be proven safe by an independent test agency.  Just under the right side of my yellow paint you can see a German mark ‘TUV’.

 

 

This last pair are my Hakko solder station and a surge-suppressed power bar.  The Hakko station has a manufacturer’s mark ‘MET’ with the ‘C’ and ‘US’ marks, along with an ‘E’ number.  The power bar tag is a holographic tag (one of the steps taken to make counterfeiting more difficult) – there is a large listing of technical information marked just adjacent to the tag.mpany), again with the ‘US’ and ‘C’ marks.  Individual test labs can use their own logo, as long as it is approved and registered.

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Last word – the place you have to be most cautious is in purchasing the lower-cost consumer items like power adapters or Christmas lights.  Make sure when you buy such things that they have a visible certification mark, like shown above.  There’s a larger listing of marks here.  While I’ve focused on electrical items in this post, there are similar requirements for certification for gas appliances such as furnaces or stoves.

Particularly check when buying things like power bars and extension cords.  In these cases you really do get what you pay for.  If the dollar store has a big bin of power bars on sale so cheap you can’t believe it…look for that certification mark.  If you can’t find it, move on and pay a few dollars more.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the marks in use in Canada (note the use of the subscript ‘C’):

marks-4 marks-1

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Written by sameo416

December 21, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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