Do You Know Who Made Your Valves?

Counterfeiting is a slippery business. Here’s how to minimize the risk and danger of fake process controls.

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Pauley adds that Schneider estimates there are hundreds of thousands of counterfeit devices presently in use worldwide. “This is what we know, and there are probably more,” he says. “Customs usually inspects about 2% of all cargo, and the rest can’t all be crystal clean.” 

Retesting Recommended

Though it does add an extra step, users can get questionable or salvaged/refurbished/remanufactured devices recertified through inspection and testing. “Most end users and process suppliers don’t understand the issues and NRTL approval status of such equipment, so we’re trying to make them more aware of what they can and should do,” says Baker. “For example, anyone who specifies or buys electrical process instrumentation for use in hazardous locations should require the seller to provide proof that its salvage/refurbish/remanufacture facility is approved by the appropriate NRTL for the specific brand and model of the used device being purchased. If the facility is not NRTL approved as noted, then the end user should require that the original OEM nameplate be removed, or that all NRTL approval certification marks or descriptions be removed.”

Regardless of the above safety and regulatory compliance issues associated with pressure integrity of valves or NRTL approvals of instrumentation, Baker adds that end users can assume risk, and purchase any type of devices they want, whether certified or not. “However, in light of today’s litigious society and the availability of OEM-aligned facilities that offer certification to OEM design standards, they can perform appropriate supplier due diligence, and reduce such risk. Engineers are typically very attentive to codes when specifying valves and instrumentation for new plants, but something just seems to get lost when in the small project or maintenance areas that may turn to salvaged/refurbished/remanufactured equipment. “Sure, the salesman says a valve or instrument will look and operate as good as new when it’s refurbished, but you just don’t know if the equipment is safe (meeting all original OEM valve design specifications or instrument NRTL approvals) until it’s tested and certified. The crux of all this is getting buyers to ask for salvaged/refurbished/remanufactured valve or instrument certifications, and for sellers to provide it or acknowledge to having the capability to provide it.”

Unfortunately, most buyers still don’t ask these questions, and still rely on mostly visual inspections. Given the increasing use of salvaged/refurbished/remanufactured equipment, this logically means that thousands of such devices are being reinstalled without securing valve integrity/pressure class certification and/or ensuring instrument NRTL approvals for use in hazardous locations. 

“It’s sad that the marketplace tends to overlook the above issues, and focuses on prices of such equipment that typically cost only 40-50% of he cost of new,” adds Baker. “Still, there are a lot of OEMs doing the right things, and end users—just by asking the right questions—can find and buy rebuilt devices (at comparable savings) from qualified suppliers that are doing the proper testing and certifications. You can get the savings you need, and still reduce risk and increase plant safety by appropriately qualifying your supplier base. Just ask a prospective supplier if you can have the valve tested, and certified for both wall thickness and hydro. If not, find someone who can. Or, with electrical devices for use in hazardous locations, ask to see the suppliers’ facility records, showing approved audits by the appropriate NRTL (for brand and model instrumentation). If not, find someone who has them.”  

Stay Close to Suppliers

Perhaps the best way to avoid counterfeit devices is to buy from manufacturers and distributors that are well known to your own company and its engineers. However, it’s also vital to maintain frequent personal contact with authorized suppliers because counterfeiters can set up false representatives and corporations to support their fake products and documentation.

“We buy directly from distributors and manufacturers we know well, and this forms a closed-territory network, so here’s really no way for a counterfeiter to get into that chain,” explains Rick Caldwell, a system integrator at SCADAware Inc., Bloomington, Ill. “Now, if we decided to buy a new PLC on eBay, there might be a problem because the seller could be a trunk slammer or some other fly-by-night supplier.

Rick Pierro, a system integrator with Superior Controls, Seabrook, N.H., says the process control field’s culture is very careful, and that its engineers don’t buy components based on price. “We see a lot of emails from China offering very inexpensive flowmeters and other components, but we’ve never bought them,” says Pierro. “These days, we often have to validate and confirm our software licenses, and I think these kinds of certification are going to find their way into hardware, too.”

When eBay Works

Despite all the criticism against using eBay to buy process control devices, some users report that it’s worked well for them, though they add caution, due diligence, testing, validation, certification and documentation are even more crucial in any online marketplace.

“We know an older foundry that recently needed some old Modicon components and bought them on eBay,” adds Caldwell. “However, these were very simple parts, and the foundry’s engineers knew that what was being offered was exactly what they needed. Even so, they checked out the components before buying them, and everything worked out fine.”

Pierro adds that one of his New York-based firms recently had a contract for a project with a large pharmaceutical manufacturer, but this contract couldn’t be altered once it was validated. Unfortunately, the contract also referred to a pump that was needed by model number instead of function, and faced renegotiating the contract when the precise device couldn’t be found. “They found the pump on eBay in the U.K., and got it shipped to them in two days, which saved a lot of time and expense,” says Pierro. “So, eBay really helped in this case.”

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