"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Fake Cell Phone Chargers/Fake Electrical Components

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You may have heard this story out of Rimby last week, “Alberta teen suffers third-degree burns after cellphone overheats, catches fire”.  The initial cause of the fire was attributed to an after-market phone charger purchased at a gas station.  A search on “fake iphone charger” turns up many stories.

The electronics market in North America is becoming flooded with cheap copies of USB chargers for phones and tablets.  These third-party chargers are usually considerably cheaper than brand-name chargers, and are often purchased from discount websites or discount stores.  In the case of chargers, you really do get what you pay for.

These cheap chargers are manufactured off-shore, and are imported without markings or with counterfeit certification markings.  In Canada, such devices must have the mark of a certification agency like the CSA (Canadian Standards Agency) or UL (Underwriters Laboratories).  Even if the device has these markings, if you picked it up for a few dollars, it is likely a counterfeit.  Those stringent safety standards require that devices be physically tested to ensure things like adequate separation between low and high voltage components – something that can kill you.

Why is this a problem? After all, would you rather pay $25 for an Apple branded iPad charger, or US $0.99 for an authentic apple charger through eBay?  It’s not just the Apple products either, I can make the same point with any charger.

A few minutes on eBay turned up this ad, shipped direct to me from China (I know it’s the starting bid, the full cost ones are still less than $6).

 

 ebay ad
The text is hard to read, but the device is not certified for use in North America, and the European marks are not authentic.  On Ken Shirriff’s blog he offers a tear-down of an authentic and counterfeit iPad charger.  He provides a good comparison photo of the two chargers (these photos are from his very excellent webpage):

ipad chargers

 

Can you tell which one is real?  There are some subtle hints as to the external quality of construction, but at first glance these both look pretty convincing.  Looking more closely at the UL certification mark gives you a bit better clue.  The one on the left includes a number, E211458, which is missing from the right hand charger.  Also missing is the word “LISTED” which (or alternatively “Certified” or “Classified”) which must appear with the UL mark.  The fake is on the right.

left hand

right hand

 

 

 

 

 

The number is a link back to a specific UL certification standard used for a specific manufacturer.

Now, the problem is that often the counterfeits also have an E number, and sometimes include all the mandatory language.

What really tells the tale is the internal workings of the charger.  One more picture from Shirriff’s tear down – go to his blog if you want all of the gritty electrical detail.

ipad charger inside

Just looking at the complexity of the circuit boards, you can see why I say you get what you pay for.  That $25 charger easily triples the number of components in the $0.99 charger.  Note also the reddish insulating tape in the real charger (on the left) missing in the fake.  That’s a key part of the safety standard to stop the high internal voltages (up to about 300 volts) from either flowing through to your iPad (meaning a fire or explosion), or flowing through to you (meaning electrocution).  It also turns out that the fake will only supply half the power of the authentic charger.

The other thing the fake chargers give you is very poor quality output power.  The Apple charger uses most of the extra components to provide very clean, regulated power – something missing in the fake.  At best this will lead to some damage of the charging circuit inside your iPad, at worst it will cause a failure of the iPad.

The UK fire services are further ahead on this problem, as they’ve been flooded with fakes through Europe for longer than us.  Read through the article and take the test at the end to see if you can pick out the fakes.  One factor they identify is that the real chargers are much heavier than the fakes.

This is not to say that there aren’t good non-Apple replacement chargers available.  You’ll find those at Best Buy or other reputable dealers for several times more than my eBay bargain.  If the price sounds too good to be true…  Some of those chargers perform better than the Apple branded chargers, and there is a premium price associated with the name.  Purchase from a reputable dealer and you usually won’t go wrong.

Avoid bargain-hunting for phone chargers.  At best you’ll destroy your phone, at worst…well, ask the family in Rimby.

This is not just a problem with chargers…all sorts of electrical equipment is available that has not been through certification.  I purchased a hot-air solder station last year for what I thought was an excellent price…when it arrived I realized it was an un-certified device (I described this epiphany in a prior post).

This is also a huge issue with electrical components in general, both for residential and commercial applications.  The market is also flooded with counterfeit circuit breakers, that are so well done the only way you can verify they are fake is by entering the registration numbers into the manufacturer’s website.

Ken Shirriff’s website is one of the best I’ve ever found for getting into the inner workings of electronic devices.

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Written by sameo416

May 15, 2015 at 9:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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