Substandard flex cables are putting lives at risk as foreign manufacturers cut corners and seek cheaper alternatives to copper, which has soared in cost this year.
Copper used in the cables on home appliances and extension cords is being padded out with plastic or replaced with cheaper metals such as steel, which do not conduct electricity as well and are prone to dangerous heating, according to the manufacturer Ducab, which has surveyed the local market.
"What's happening is [as] soon as you start putting it on load, it's getting really hot," said Colin McKay, the head of sales and marketing at Ducab, a cable-making joint venture between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. "And it's causing fires. A lot of the wholesalers that stock this stuff keep a magnet on their desk now to check. The steel sticks and they know the cable's not safe."
Although copper prices fell sharply last week, the metal has been trading at record highs this year. Aluminium is about a third of the price, while steel is even cheaper.
"If [a cable manufacturer] is going to pass specification on a cable, he has to put a certain amount of copper in. He has to buy PVC from pretty much the same place as everybody," said Andrew Shaw, the managing director of Ducab.
"The equipment is quite expensive. You need the facilities … You have to buy copper, and that's set externally, and your raw materials are all set, so there is a temptation, particularly in smaller grades of cable, for people to start to cut corners," he said.
Ducab conducted the survey after distributors asked its salesmen whether the company would make substandard flex.
Staff from Ducab bought samples of appliance cable at electrical-supplies souqs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai made by manufacturers with European-sounding brand names that were found to be bogus. All 20 samples in the first test failed. "We have seen no examples of products manufactured in the UAE. It's all coming from abroad and outside the GCC, and it's coming in at the request of the importers who are in the UAE," said Mr McKay.
Ducab estimates that 80 per cent of the flex for sale in the UAE is substandard in some form. "I have seen the experiments conducted [by Ducab], and I have also seen some samples, and as an electrical engineer I agree with [Ducab]," says Ravinder Bhan, the principal consultant for TPS Management Consultants and a representative of the International Copper Association.
He says "strong and sensible" regulation is required to monitor imported flex.
Ducab has raised the issue with various government authorities, including Civil Defence. "There is not a big problem, but some people bring cable that is not approved or not good quality … from outside, because we have a free market," said Major Jamal Ahmed, the director of the Preventive Safety Department of Dubai Civil Defence.
Maj Ahmedsaid a number of authorities must work together to solve the problem.