We are all familiar with the phrase “buyer beware.” Nowadays it might be even more applicable to invoke this common advice. For instance, you make a purchase many times with price as the ultimate deciding factor, and unfortunately wind up not getting what you think you paid for. Maybe it’s a coffeemaker, a toaster oven or a child’s toy that didn’t perform or function the way you expected it would.
Frustration aside, faulty products oftentimes pose no more than a passing inconvenience for consumers. But for installing security and fire/life-safety contractors who are entrusted to provide systems that safeguard lives and property, the stakes are infinitely higher. Case in point: communications cable.
The cable you depend on daily to transmit your customers’ data and other vital information may not actually perform as intended. Moreover, let’s not overlook the potentially disastrous effect a cable constructed of inferior raw materials would have on a building or dwelling when exposed to a fire.
This is exactly why installing contractors must be aware of the cabling and wiring products they are providing to their customers each and every day.
TIA, NEC Helping Inform Industry
Installing contractors can go a long way in building and maintaining their customer’s inherent trust by ensuring they only use quality products at every level of an installation. Wire and cable are no exceptions.
On the surface it may be difficult to determine if a cable will perform as intended. The twisting of the wires, the materials used for the jacket and insulation, as well as any fillers will all play an important part in determining a product’s safety and performance.
Communications cable needs to perform as intended, transmitting data and/or information, whether under normal operational conditions or even under fire and smoke conditions. Fortunately there is help for those who purchase, specify or install cabling for security and life-safety projects. It is highly recommended installing contractors become familiar with the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and National Electric Code (NEC). The research and educational resources they provide can be an invaluable tool to inform you and your technicians.
Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) — This Arlington, Va.-based trade association represents the global information and communications technology (ICT) industries through standards development, government affairs, business opportunities, market intelligence, certification and worldwide environmental regulatory compliance.
TIA develops the specifications for communications cable marked and designated as Cat-5, -5e or -6, etc. The association consists of representatives from leading communications cable and connectivity manufacturers. Some of these folks represent the best minds around in developing performance-level requirements that provide consistent transmission of data.
Visit www.tiaonline.org to access the association’s research and resource offerings.
National Electrical Code (NEC) — This is a standard for the safe installation of electrical wiring and equipment. As part of the National Fire Code series published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), NEC designates the flame ratings for communications cable.
Cable intended to be installed in building plenums, risers, etc., each have a unique flame-spread rating. Additionally, some cables are also required to limit the amount of smoke produced should a cable become engulfed in a fire. Flame-spread rating is important to limit the amount of damage during a building fire. Limiting the amount of smoke produced during a fire also provides occupants critical time to locate exits to evacuate a building.
To learn more about NEC, visit www.nfpa.org.
Role of 3rd-Party Test Labs
It’s well established that the TIA and NEC do an excellent job in providing industry and consumers the necessary requirements and ratings for cable manufacturers and suppliers. But how does one know if the cable YOU purchase meets these requirements and ratings?
Do you take the manufacturer’s claims of performance and fire safety at face value? Perhaps. Or do you more likely look for an independent, third-party certification voice to help provide an added level of confidence to the ongoing performance and safety claims of a cable manufacturer?
This is where Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and other global third-party test and certification organizations come to the fore. UL, for example, has one of the most comprehensive cable testing and market surveillance programs in the industry today. Not only does UL conduct initial testing on a representative sample of a product to determine that it complies with published requirements, but once in production UL will make unannounced factory visits.
During these visits, UL will verify that a current box or reel of cable coming off the production line is being made in the same way, with the same materials, as it was when initially tested and certified for UL Listing. Randomly selected product from the supply chain is retested as well.
UL undertakes rigorous processes to help provide confidence in the consistency of products bearing its certification marks.
Products that do not meet or maintain these standards may use other less-stringent agency marks or, in some instances, may appear in the marketplace with no marks at all. That’s partly why building awareness on how to recognize inferior cabling products is so important.
It’s worth recapping some simple steps to become better informed. First, recognize that there are well-established requirements to determine performance as well as safety of communications cable. Second, when a company correctly shows its product is UL Listed that company is giving you a reasonable level of confidence that its product meets applicable safety (and if stated, performance) standards as determined by the industry.
Importantly, as the installing contractor, you have a responsibility to your customers to only use products that have been properly tested and certified for their intended use by a reputable third-party conformity assessment company. Be on guard against counterfeit product!
Hologram Helps Thwart Fraud
To help combat counterfeit products, UL introduced a holographic label requirement in October 2010 for communications cable. The new label includes the use of secure golden holographic material and color-shifting inks to prevent unauthorized label reproduction.
This type of label has been proven as an effective tool in deterring counterfeit products - oftentimes made of substandard materials and not meeting code requirements - from entering the marketplace. Although the UL holographic label is new, the remaining engineering marking information, including the Category and NEC-type designations on the cable tags or reels (and the methods for applying these markings), remains unchanged.
It is important to understand that surface printing of the letters “UL” on the cable is only permissible when the accompanying tag, reel or smallest unit container is also provided with the UL holographic Listing Mark.
The letters “UL” on the wire/cable itself is only a supplemental method of identifying a UL Listing and should not be considered primary evidence of a UL Listing. A combination of the two steps above is the only method provided by UL to identify products manufactured under its Listing and follow-up service.
Code authorities have already begun to see cables with the new holographic labels during their inspections and will see an increasing number of cables with these markings in the future. Although manufacturers can no longer add nonholographic labels to cable, it may still take a few months for cable with the nonholographic Listing Marks to be cleared from the supply chain.
Steven Galan is General Manager of Underwriters Laboratories’ Wire and Cable Services Strategic Business Unit. He can be contacted at (631) 271-6200.