By Jean Whatley, tED magazine staff writer

The aftermath of back-to-back hurricanes is driving high demand for electrical supplies. Increased need creates the perfect climate for fraud—either in the form of outright counterfeit goods or refurbished products flooding the market. While trade associations such as the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) are educating and promoting smart buying and installation, the manufacturers whose brands and reputations are being compromised have some advice of their own.

"In these times it is essential that, when sourcing electrical products, contractors purchase products that can be traced to the original manufacturer," said Tom Grace, Brand Protection Manager, Eaton. "This means purchasing from distributors or resellers who can demonstrate a relationship to the original manufacturer."

Brandon Castro, Manager of Business Development, Circuit Protection at Siemens concurs. "The only way to be sure a product is 100 percent new, genuine and direct from the manufacturer is by ensuring that your installing electrical contractor has purchased the product from an authorized manufacturer-specific distributor. Buying a Siemens breaker from a non-Siemens distributor is a surefire way to get a breaker that could be counterfeit or used."

Whereas "most counterfeits come from China," according to Tom Grace at Eaton. "Eighty to ninety percent if you include Hong Kong and mainland China," it's the homegrown refurbishing with counterfeit parts and labels that's currently on the rise, often sold in online auctions or through breaker brokers.

"Generally, refurbishing and reselling circuit breakers is done within the United States by various companies," said Castro, with Siemens. He urges distributors and contractors to explain why this is a dangerous proposition. "Take the time to explain to the customer or user the risk involved, specifically the safety risk involved with buying and installing potentially counterfeit or used equipment, specifically circuit breakers. They aren't intended to be refurbished and re-used. Helping the customer understand the potential safety risk can lead to a more responsible and knowledgeable decision."

To aid in this education, Siemens has produced a thorough and highly informative video, "Understanding the Gray Market," which is posted on a company sponsored site as well as YouTube.

While concise demos such as the gray market video help prevent risky purchases in the first place, some suppliers, like Eaton, provide extra assurance in the field through the use of manufacturer-issued tools to authenticate their products once purchased. Eaton's Molded Case Circuit Breaker Authentication tool is available via a mobile app called PowerEdge. The app allows contractors and distributors to scan the barcodes and QPC codes on circuit breakers to confirm authenticity.

Brand degradation notwithstanding, Grace said, "We frequently lose sight of the fact that counterfeiting, whether newly manufactured or altered by a counterfeit label, is a financial crime. The goal of counterfeiters is to create a product they can pass off and sell as identical to the real thing. Regardless of the country of origin or the original manufacturer, counterfeit products are an industry issue that is being tackled by careful coordination from organizations such as the NAED, NEMA, ESFi, and third-party certification organizations like Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and Canadian Standard Association (CSA.)"

Trade associations, testing labs, video tutorials and technology are mere add-ons to what, ideally, is the cornerstone of the product-to-market cycle: trusted relationships.

"Distributors play a critical role in ensuring new and manufacturers' warranted products are used and sold into our market. Installing electrical contractors are trusting their strategic vendors to get them the right products," said Siemens' Castro. "If a distributor makes the conscious decision to sell a breaker purchased from a non-authorized channel, such as a breaker broker, this not only puts the end customer at risk but also the installing contractor and distributor making the sale. In the event a catastrophic event occurs where one of the breakers was installed, the manufacturer has no liability."

"Know your source," said Grace. "Distributors are often the last line of defense before the product reaches the contractor's hands. Because of this, it is critical that distributors take the time and care to make sure the products they source and sell to contractors can be traced directly to the original manufacturer, as well as take every possible step to verify that they are genuine and safe for use."

At the end of the day, and before the installation, perhaps the ultimate test should be, "Would I install this in my home?"