Substandard cable steroids and sour milk

Just a few days after we heard about the latest round of testing the Communications Cable and Connectivity Association (CCCA) commissioned on "no-name-brand" twisted-pair cables, we also heard about a price increase on the materials that are used to make the outside jackets of communications, electrical and other cables.

From the October 2012 Issue of Cabling Installation & Maintenance Magazine


Just a few days after we heard about the latest round of testing the Communications Cable and Connectivity Association (CCCA) commissioned on "no-name-brand" twisted-pair cables, we also heard about a price increase on the materials that are used to make the outside jackets of communications, electrical and other cables. The relationship between the two stories cannot be overlooked.

I know it's the fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP) insulation around the copper conductors of a twisted-pair cable that has the most to do with whether or not the cable will pass the flame-spread and smoke-generation tests that determine a plenum rating. The material that is used on the cable's outer jacket is a lesser factor in that regard.

But there's a larger theme at work. We've reported on it before as the price of copper cable has vacillated. When the price of plenum-rated copper cables in particular peaks, it's often because of the "triple whammy"-when costs of copper (for conductors), FEP (for conductor insulation) and petroleum-based products (for cable jackets) all climb.

That's why the two happenings are related. Any cost increase for any cable material can serve to remind us why the influx of substandard cable does not appear to have subsided. Manufacturing cable is a business of tight tolerances and low margins. It is too easy for an unscrupulous party to cheat and offer cable at a lower price than those that stay above board. For many purchasers, cabling contractors and end-users alike, it is too tempting to go with the cheaper option and not want to know the truth about what's in the cable. We've shown copper-clad aluminum cable can be detected easily enough by visual inspection.

But how will anyone ever know if the material compounds used to create the cable jacket, or the conductor insulation, really are the types and amounts required to achieve the riser or plenum rating that is claimed? In an overwhelming majority of cases, once a cabling system is installed it is tested to ensure its electrical-performance specifications meet or exceed those established in industry standards. No such testing takes place to ensure the cable meets riser or plenum flame- and smoke-performance requirements. All consumers of cable have to go on are the markings on a package/box/reel of a cable and/or the markings on the cable jacket. If it says CMP, it goes into a building's plenum space. Where I come from (up here in the puritanical northeastern part of the United States) we call that the honor system. Also where I come from, we're seeing examples all the time of that system's failings. Even the prestigious learning institution Harvard University is not immune, as we found out recently when news broke of students collaborating on a take-home final exam.

As a sports fan I cannot help but make the analogy to Major League Baseball's steroid era. Everybody involved ignored the problem for years. When some very public admissions/accusations by well-known former players forced everyone's collective head out of the sand, the United States Congress entered the battle over whether or not to test players for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). I suspect I'm like a lot of fans in that what frustrated me more than anything else during that steroid era was the notion that there were some clean players who banded together with the cheaters, unified against the idea of PED testing. I couldn't understand it. And I also couldn't fathom (and honestly, still cannot bring myself to believe) that there were no clean players at all.

Switching back from the sports world's performance-enhancing substances to our industry's performance-degrading substances, I read with great interest CCCA executive director Frank Peri's statement: "The CCCA has taken the position that this serious problem will not go away until quality assurance procedures include testing of samples of finished cable procured directly from the marketplace." In other words, it's not going to be good enough for a cable manufacturer to send its "golden reel" of cable-one (perhaps the only one) that it produced above board-to be tested, then once a certain rating is achieved, use substandard materials in the product produced thereafter. That's like testing baseball players for PEDs in spring training then letting them juice up all season. But that's not how it's done in baseball. Just as Melky Cabrera or Bartolo Colon. And that's not how it should be done with cable either.

There is one "minor detail" in this perfect-world scenario, in which test labs shop for cable the same way you do and test what they buy to see if it's on the up-and-up. That is, these testing programs are not free. And to implement them as they're described here, they would not be even close to inexpensive. So am I really suggesting that we pile further costs on cable manufacturers who already are in fierce competition with each other and who face substantial price pressures from their customers? It sounds like I am. But wouldn't these added costs have to be passed on to cable purchasers, further widening the gap between the cost of a cable from an above-board manufacturer and one from a cheater? Unfortunately, the way I see it, yes. It would. If this problem was easy to solve, it would have been solved long ago. But it's not easy. And I have the luxury of sitting at my desk up here in my ivory tower, spouting off about the way things ought to be. Easy for me to say what should happen. Very, very difficult for anyone to actually do it.

So rather than being someone who only curses the darkness, here's my attempt to light a candle. And if I can take that analogy one step further, in much the same way a candle turns darkness into the visible, how about some enhanced visibility into the "freshness" of a cable manufacturer's testing program? Another recent bit of news from the CCCA, in conjunction with Underwriters Laboratories, was the release of a mobile app that can help users identify suspect cable as legit or not. Among the features of that mobile app is access to UL's online certifications directory, where users can verify that the cable they're looking at is in fact certified by UL. As far as I can tell, that directory is the deepest visibility there is into the extent to which a cable actually has met the performances it claims. Wouldn't it be reassuring if other test agencies developed this depth of visibility? Furthermore, I think it would be helpful for the end customer to know just how recently any brand of cable passed performance testing, based of course on a random sample taken from the supply chain. I'm envisioning some cross between the "born-on date" initiated by Anheuser-Busch for its beers, and the signs we see inside industrial facilities that count up the number of days that operations have carried on without a workplace-safety incident. The information could state the most recent date on which a sample was purchased that passed the required tests, along with pertinent information about the sample used. Whether this information would exist in a central database accessible to cable customers, on cable manufacturers' websites, at online and brick-and-mortar distributor sites, some combination thereof, or wherever, I don't see how it could be anything but an asset to the industry as a whole.

And assets don't just materialize out of nowhere. They require investment. That brings us back to, "This would be a costly endeavor, which would actually increase the price of cable and further tempt users to go with a lower-priced, illegitimate alternative." All I can really say to that is that my fantasy-world "cable-sample-passed-the-tests-on-this-date" information would have to become the equivalent of the date stamped onto a carton of milk. By that I mean, it is universal, expected by the customer without fail, and nobody buys the product without such a date. Imagine even seeing a gallon of milk without an expiration date on it, much less buying one. Even if I'm in a supermarket where I've shopped for years and I have a level of trust in that retailer, and even if the brand of milk is one that I consume regularly, I'm not going to purchase a gallon without that date on it. And I'm certainly not going to walk into a store I haven't been in before, see a container without a brand name that says only "MILK," notice that the container has no date on it at all-then buy that milk and give it to my family.

As an industry, it is evident that we have a long, long way to go before some users are unwilling to purchase the cable equivalent of undated milk. But I maintain both optimism and confidence that we do not face the situation Major League Baseball did, in which the cheaters were the popular superstars exhibiting the best performance and resisting a rigorous testing platform. One player I remember distinctly from the steroid era was a fourth outfielder named Gabe Kapler. He looked like a bodybuilder and was exactly the player some would point to and say, "It's obvious these guys are on steroids." But Kapler made his stance clear. He would say (and I'm paraphrasing), "Test me. Test us all. I'm clean and have nothing to hide." He wanted to compete, literally and figuratively, on a level playing field with others who believed in fair play. If all the players in our industry embrace that attitude, with an eagerness to verify their clean records, we'll all be better off. I'll drink a glass of fresh milk to that anytime.

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