Posted 2016-12-26 14:20 in by Hadley Markoski
People are buying more and more technology online these days, and given the time of year, I think the topic of this article will be very timely. It also has to do with many of the things I’ve been writing about regarding electronics and electrical safety. In recent years there’s been a proliferation of tech companies (and random people on sites like ebay.com and amazon marketplace) selling all kinds of electronic devices. Many of them appear quite sophisticated and are offered at extremely cheap prices, but the reality is often not so great. Here are some things to look out for in cheap, poorly constructed products.
One of the biggest ways manufacturers cut corners to save money is by using materials that are insufficient for the task. The most critical and dangerous way this shows up in electronics is insufficient insulation. If insulation breaks down, short circuits can be created resulting in catastrophic failure of the device. This failure can cause fire, electrocution or other damage. Under normal use, the device will probably be ok, but well-constructed devices are often built with excess for those unforeseen situations. Another shortcut is good old poor construction. This could be anything from skipping solder points on PCBs to poor component choice. Depending on the device, these shortcuts can create very dangerous situations.
Fortunately, there’s a very simple way to identify a product that’s safe. Almost all devices that use or create electricity will have a label on them with electrical properties of the device. Take a look at Apple’s own iPad charger. The writing on it is in tiny grey letters, but if you look at it, you’ll see many things including a number of symbols. There are two that you really want to look for: a “UL” in a circle and “CE”. The UL symbol stands for Underwriters Laboratories. Founded in 1894, Underwriters Laboratories is a certification company in the US that certifies the safety of electrical devices. They provide certification services for many organizations including OSHA. The CE symbol stands for Conformité Européenne (European Conformity). All products sold within the European Economic Area must have this symbol. We find the symbol on products even in the US because companies generally make one version of their products that will pass regulations in all markets. A CE label means the device complies with all relevant safety directives as declared by EU legislation.
A few years ago when I was building my photovoltaic power station, I was looking for a high quality pure-sine inverter. This class of device is notorious for being produced cheaply and unsafely. Any time you have something where the promise of results is high (power 120V appliances from the 12V socket in your car!) and the cost is relatively low, you should be extra cautious. Obviously, buying from a reputable manufacturer is one good way to get a safe, high quality product, but if the product is UL-certified, you can rest easier. I ended up purchasing a 300-watt Samlex pure-sine inverter. If you look at the specifications tab on the product page, you can see that it’s ETL and UL certified. ETL is a competing testing laboratory based in London. Having two certifications including UL means this device is likely very safe. Samlex is also a large, well-established and known manufacturer.
It’s just not worth saving a few bucks on a product that could be dangerous. Many retailers won’t necessarily list on their websites the safety certifications of products, but they can be easily found on the packaging. This is something I’ve gotten into a habit of doing, much like reading the nutrition facts label on food I buy. Typically, retail stores (including Small Dog Electronics) only carry devices from well-known, reputable manufacturers. These items will virtually always bear the CE or UL label. Also remember that I’m speaking of these certifications from an electrical safety perspective. UL and other organizations also certify safety of other things like fireproofing materials and certain plastics. Again, I treat looking for these signs of quality workmanship the same as reading nutrition facts on food I buy. It’s a great habit to get into. Be safe out there with all your electrical gizmos!