Contractors see potential warranty changes coming

As PoE and VoIP go mainstream, many wonder about the warranty impact on cable solutions.

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As PoE and VoIP go mainstream, many wonder about the warranty impact on cable solutions.

New applications like Power over Ethernet (PoE)and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) are making their way into the mainstream network cabling. They are bringing with them the promise of easy deployment and more reliable, high-speed networks.

But as these applications become more popular, some contractors and manufacturers are beginning to wonder about the impact they will have on the lifespan of the cables and connectors that support them. Manufacturers wonder if they will soon be restructuring future warranty programs to reflect the impact of these devices. And if they do, will a 25-year warranty remain on their products, or will manufacturers begin to change the way their warranties work and shorten the length of time that they cover?

"These appliances are just coming out," says Michael O'Connor, director of technical marketing and services for Hubbell Premise Wiring (www.hubbell-premise.com). "Voice over IP is the most compelling operation. It hasn't been around long enough to test one of those warranties."

As the questions arise, most agree that end users need to educate themselves on potential changes in the industry, and the impact these changes would have on the warranties they have come to depend on.

Contractors see powerful applications like PoE and VoIP as becoming more commonplace. These are applications that can provide high-speed data and enable IP telephones to be stationed at employees' desks, and they are running over cabling solutions that carry a warranty that lasts for many years.

Warranties in the cabling industry typically cover a 25-year period. Manufacturers tend to offer long warranty coverage periods because they are not worried that the products will become faulty. Solutions that are made in joint partnerships, like the Netclear solution made by Ortronics (www.ortronics.com) and Berk-Tek (www.berktek.com) generally offer one warranty program that covers components and cables provided by each company. This landscape may be changing today, however, as newly-merged companies, like Belden Inc. (www.belden.com), based in St. Louis, MO, and Cable Design Technologies (www.cdtc.com), reconsider their plan of attack for warranty coverage.

"I can't say how we are going to do it," says Rod Sampson, marketing manager for Belden. "If I were an end user, I'd be asking, 'Who are my points of contact?' now that companies are being acquired."

Cabling products, which rely on passive components, rarely break down. Warranties are typically offered to end users if the systems are installed by certified installers who were trained on the installation of a given vendor's products. This lowers the likelihood for a potentially faulty installation. On the average, manufacturers say they are getting one to two viable claims per year. Other claims are not viable because parts were damaged by employees or were installed incorrectly.

Bob Zahr, systems engineering manager, AMP Netconnect (www.tycoelectronics.com), based Harrisburg, PA, for example, says his company rarely sees a warranty claim filed. AMP Netconnect products are covered by 25-year component, 25-year performance warranties. And Zahr guesses that perhaps five warranty claims are made on products each year. Of these, perhaps two are viable. Most of the faulty cable problems in these claims, he says, were traced back to end user employees who tampered with the cabling system.

"Once the systems are installed and everything has passed (tests), we almost never get any type of warranty claim submitted," says Zahr.

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This horizontal channel made by NORDX/CDT, if installed by a certified installer, will be covered by a 25-year warranty. If the end-to-end solution is not installed by a certified installer, the end-user is given a one-year parts warranty.
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Still, warranties can become invalid. Many high-tech end users tend to reconfigure or update their cabling solutions every three to five years, and this can potentially invalidate a warranty. Joe St. Pierre, telecommunications manager for Coghlin Electrical Contractors Inc. (www.coghlin.com), based in Worcester MA, is a certified installer for Ortronics. He recalls how he reinstalled a cable network at EMC Corp. in Massachusetts last summer. This meant that any warranty that was already in place for the network had to be updated as the new equipment was installed. This situation happens constantly, he says, as new applications make their way into the market and end users seek out the latest and greatest products.

"A good percentage of these things don't last nearly the length of time that they are warranted for," says St. Pierre. "If you don't replace a cable every 10 years or so, you're behind the technology curve. And what one guy does, everyone else seems to do. So realistically, every 10 years there ought to be new coverage for everybody."

Both contractors and manufacturers say they are wary of a wave of potential changes to networks. They say that questions are arising as more and more end users run new applications over products that are covered by old warranties. Consequently, they can also potentially put more stress on cabling solutions.

"I think some of these things are going to have an effect on the way warranties are structured," says Sampson. "If I am suddenly carrying high voltage over these cables, what impact will it have on that cable and the connectivity over 25 years to a lifetime? I just don't know."

New apps, old questions

Question about applications and the stress they will place on a cabling network are nothing new. Sampson recalls how when Category 5 cable first came out, there were ongoing questions about the impact evolving applications would have on that cable.

"It's like 10-Gigabit Ethernet. Not everyone's cable can support [it]," says Sampson. "It's always an issue as new applications come out about how the warranties are structured."

And Hubbell's O'Connor warns that the real challenge for warranties may be happening right now, that this new, "compelling" technology has the potential to strain cabling solutions. End users want to use PoE and VoIP, running power over the cable, jacks, and patch cords designed for low-voltage signaling.

If VoIP telephones are located at each desk, some worry that this could lead to physical layer problems. They say that VoIP could strain the physical infrastructure of the cabling network—the cables, switches, ports and patch panels that underlie VoIP and all data services.

Adverse impact

While applications like Power over Ethernet are tempting for end users, O'Connor warns that such continuous power over cables could have an adverse impact on some components, such as circuit boards and patch panels. O'Connor points out that if an end user has fast Ethernet running to a desk, and then runs an IP phone to each desk, he could effectively be running 350 milliamps of current over the cable.

"With a 48-port patch panel, and 350 milliamps per port times 48, it's 15.5 amps on one patch panel," says O'Connor. "That is a lot more heat."

"It's possible that they will put increased stress on systems, and that some of the marginal stuff may have problems," agrees St. Pierre.

Such cable parts, according to most vendors' plans, were originally covered by a warranty that could last up to 25 years or more. Now there are questions as to whether those same cables and components will be covered by that warranty now that additional power is being applied.

O'Connor says he wonders if cabling systems will be able to withstand these changes, and whether or not more warranty claims will be made on cabling in the future because of it. "The connectors and the patch cords now have power on them, and the warranty does play into effect," says O'Connor. "But over time, is this really going to last a lifetime?"

O'Connor says manufacturers don't know exactly what sort of impact these applications will have on the networks. There is definite potential, he says, for circuit failure. And while the cable may be able to withstand the additional power, its components may not. O'Connor says this issue could be compounded by today's dense data centers, where there is a lot more heat being dissipated into racks and enclosures.

"Any time you put power over something that didn't have power on it before, there could be potential for circuits to fail," says O'Connor. "The cable won't fail, but the jacks and patch panels could, so the warranty will come into play."

"There are eight positions on a jack," O'Connor continues. "They are all wired back to the IDC, back to where the wires punch in. If you have an overseas jack or don't have the proper spacing, or if you installed it cheap and dirty and the circuitry opens up, now the warranty will play into it. Over time, if you truly have power there, that circuitry board may heat up."

For manufacturers, the mystery here involves just how quickly a cabling network could be impacted by these applications. But unfortunately, there really is no answer to this question. The impact may not be seen for years after the applications have been installed.

"If you truly have power over a device, we just don't know how long the (cable) power will last," says O'Connor.

O'Connor says these open ended questions are causing manufacturers to at least begin rethinking the way in which warranties are applied to cabling products. In the process, it is forcing manufacturers to consider the consequences of strained cabling systems, and perhaps come up with improved, more accurate ways of offering warranty coverage for them. It will also force them to consider ways of improving the cabling solutions that will be expected to support these applications.

"With VoIP and POE, it (warranty claims) may come six years down the line. We'll find that we didn't design products properly with the proper copper traits," says O'Connor. "How do we know there won't be another technology for a higher current that comes out that some manufacturer's product can't handle?"

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As a certified installer for Hubbell Premise Wiring, Carlos Ancira of Cabling & Wireless Solutions of Texas conducts an installation at the Heart of Texas that features a 25-year warranty.
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To deal with this situation today, however, O'Connor says manufacturers should be striving to make products that will go beyond recommended testing limits. He says, for example, that to be certified by United Laboratories, circuit boards must be able to withstand 48 volts. Hubbell is trying to make circuit boards that will be able to withstand much more, he says.

"We are doubling that," says O'Connor. "We are seeing if they can withstand multiple signal strength. If we don't do this, there is a potential for more claims in the future." St. Pierre says this plan of attack is wise, that new applications running simultaneously over the same cable can lead to noise: "This technology tends to evolve. It could cause problems that we didn't event think about five years ago when these guys came up with a warranty. The warranty is based on the technology at the time it was installed, and they may not have thought that everything would evolve in the next five-year period."

Sampson likewise says that manufacturers must structure their warranties in a realistic manner that covers the cables and components for existing applications, or applications that will run according to a particular standard.

"We will warrant any application that the IEEE says you can do over a Category 5e channel," Sampson says, noting an example. "Now they must try to determine that, according to the IEEE, what cabling infrastructure is going to support 10-Gigabit Ethernet."

The bottom line is that manufacturers need to revise the way they are looking at warranties, Sampson says.

"If someone says, 'I guarantee any application out there,' then that is unrealistic," says Sampson. "This is especially true if the guarantee comes before the ratification of a given application or standard."

Brian Milligan is senior associate editor for Cabling Installation & Maintenance.

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