South Africa

Critical electrical protection devices in SA found to be dangerous counterfeits

By Chris Yelland 22 June 2012

CBI-electric, a member of the JSE listed Reunert group and the only manufacturer of miniature circuit breakers (MCBs) and earth leakage protection units (ELPUs) in Africa, has reported that dangerous counterfeit copies of its electrical products are being manufactured in China, imported into South Africa and sold by unscrupulous distributors, wholesalers and retail outlets to the unsuspecting public. By CHRIS YELLAND. 

The counterfeit MCBs and ELPUs illegally bear all CBI’s brand markings as well as its SABS, VDE and CE marks of approval, and are virtually indistinguishable from authentic CBI-electric products. 

However, while they certainly look the same, the counterfeit MCBs and ELPUs fail in almost every aspect of safety performance, including overheating, melting and igniting under normal load conditions, failure to trip as required under prescribed overload, short circuit and earth leakage conditions, and difficulty in resetting the devices after trip-out.

In South Africa, CBI-electric has a market share of greater than 50% for MCBs and ELPUs in low-voltage residential electrical installations. Consumers rely on these critical safety devices to protect electricity distribution circuits and appliances from dangerous overload, short circuiting and earth-leakage conditions that would otherwise cause serious damage, including fire and lethal electric shock.

The fake products came to light a year ago when faulty MCBs and ELPUs returned to CBI-electric for repair or replacement under guarantee were found to be carefully reverse-engineered counterfeits that succeeded in looking almost identical to the real thing, but being seriously technically deficient.

After the matter was reported to the relevant authorities, search and seizure raids on the warehouses and stores of a number of importers, distributors and retailers were initiated by the department of trade and industry and the customs and excise department of the South African Revenue Service. This has been followed by criminal prosecution of the offenders by the state, which is currently in progress. 

However, the counterfeit MCBs and ELPUs have started appearing in other Southern African Customs Union countries such as Botswana, as recently as last week.

CBI-electric is not the only manufacturer of MCBs and ELPUs affected by fake counterfeit products – in fact, all major global brands are affected in one way or another. But South Africa is perhaps considered to be a soft-target country, with weak policing of compulsory national specifications and a dysfunctional regulatory environment.  

“Counterfeit fashion items made in the East are commonplace and cause serious financial losses to manufacturers of the real thing. The critical difference here, however, is that MCBs and ELPUs are essential safety devices that protect property and lives from electrical overload, short-circuit and insulation failure. Thus, in addition, fake, non-compliant MCBs and ELPUs place the health and safety of the unsuspecting consumer seriously at risk”, says Coen Esterhuizen, corporate advisor at the CBI group.

The use of MCBs and ELPUs in electrical installations in South Africa is prescribed in the Code of Practice for the Wiring of Premises, SANS 10142-1, which has legal force and effect through the Electrical Installation Regulations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. 

Furthermore, in South Africa, MCBs and ELPUs are products regulated by the National Regulator of Compulsory Specifications and must comply with the mandatory national safety specifications VC 8036 and VC 8035 respectively.

In tests conducted recently at CBI-electric’s laboratory at its Germiston factory, witnessed by representatives of the South African Bureau of Standards, every single sample of the 16 counterfeit units tested failed to meet significant requirements of the relevant mandatory national safety specification. A similar demonstration of non-compliance was given to me this week.

Though not easy to identify, the counterfeit MCBs and ELPUs may be identified as follows:

  • The individual digits in the product date on the side or underside of the fake MCBs and ELPUs are machine printed and therefore perfectly aligned, whereas the individual digits in the product date of the authentic products are hand -stamped and therefore may appear somewhat misaligned.
  • The rivet heads in the sides of the casings of the fake MCBs and ELPUs are approximately 3mm in diameter – somewhat smaller than the 4mm diameter rivet heads of the authentic products.
  • The metal line terminal of the fake MCB has an approximately 0,5mm diameter hole in it, while the line terminal of the authentic MCB does not have this hole.
  • The metal load terminal of the fake ELPU has does not have the approximately 0,5mm diameter hole in it, while the load terminal of the authentic ELPU unit does have this hole.
  • The fake MCBs and ELPUs exhibit significantly reduced wholesale and retail prices compared to the authentic products.

If any doubt exists as to the authenticity of an MCB or ELPU product, contact CBI-electric: Low Voltage on (011) 928-2000.

Chris Yelland is managing director of EE Publishers

 Second photo: Counterfeit MCB undergoing short circuit testing at CBI-electric.



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