I carry a “LifeHammer” in the front passenger foot well of my car. In case you’re unfamiliar with the device, it’s a small tool with conical hammerheads for breaking the tempered glass of side windows, a razor blade for cutting seat-belt webbing and a luminous dot to make it easy to find in the dark. It’s popular in the Netherlands, where it’s made, because cars there sometimes wind up in canals. I’m really not too worried about finding myself submerged in the car. However, some highway accidents can lead to jammed doors and seat belts; so, spending a few dollars for a LifeHammer seemed prudent — plus I like tools.
I could have bought a Chinese-made version for less than half the price. But, as Amazon’s Amapedia cautions, a car side window is extremely difficult to break even with a conventional hammer. I didn’t want to risk that the knock-off couldn’t do the job when needed — and I wasn’t about to check beforehand whether it could.
However, the prospect of saving money may be prompting some process plants to take unwise safety risks by buying off-brand equipment or purchasing genuine goods via unconventional channels such as eBay.
R. Stahl, a manufacturer of explosion-proof and explosion-prevention electrical products, based in Waldenburg, Germany, and Houston, recently issued a press release warning about counterfeit hazardous-area equipment. In part, it says:
“The suppliers of these knock-offs claim to have developed their products themselves and refer to various certificates from testing laboratories. In fact, even a quick comparison often shows that these devices are replicas of brand products. Moreover, R. Stahl has carried out various tests with such knock-offs that have produced alarming results: due to the inferior materials and sub-standard manufacturing technologies, many replicas fail to meet the required explosion protection standards even under light stress. Deploying such components in hazardous areas can therefore lead to disastrous failures that threaten the health and life of employees and may result in the destruction of machines and plants.”
“Those who regard counterfeit products as a welcome opportunity to lower their costs, thinking they can purchase the equivalent of brand-name products at an attractive price should consider the risks… ‘Knock-offs can cause a great deal of damage, especially in hazardous areas…’ explains Dr. Thorsten Arnhold, [R. Stahl’s] vice president product management and marketing… ‘Product pirates do not offer safe products, and neither do they provide adequate, professional user guidance and consulting, safe product solutions, quick and reliable supply of spare parts, or accurate technical documentation.’”
Of course, while you can treat such a warning as a self-serving ploy by a vendor to disparage competitors, it does highlight the issue of possible false economies with safety-related equipment.
Even facilities leery of off-brands and knock-offs face potential dangers. For instance, many plants seem to be turning to eBay and other Internet sites as a way to save money on parts.
A quick search on eBay turned up dozens of R. Stahl components such as intrinsic safety barriers, both new and “takeouts,” offered by third parties. Some came with a warranty — from the seller, not R. Stahl, though. All probably cost far less than ones obtained through regular channels.
It’s unlikely that such components are counterfeit. However, improper storage and handling can undermine performance and service life of genuine parts, new or used. How much is a warranty from a small third-party seller really worth if a component failure compromises hazardous area equipment?
Let’s take this up a notch. Consider the safety instrumented systems (SIS) that many plants rely on as their last resort against catastrophic events.
Out of curiosity, I also checked eBay for “Triconex.” That unit of Invensys Process Systems, London and Plano, Texas, specializes in SIS. My search turned up 65 listings of Triconex components from third parties. Again, some of these were described as working takeouts while others were labeled “new in box” and came with a warranty from the seller.
Could such components jeopardize the performance of a SIS? Who knows? But why take the risk? Now, there may be some situations when you don’t have a choice — for instance when you can’t get a crucial item fast enough through regular channels. Otherwise, though, be wary of safety-related-equipment bargains. After all, falling for a false economy is bad enough but winding up with a fatal economy is far worse.
Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.