Counterfeit industrial products have been around a long time: the term “the real McCoy,” for example, comes from the self-regulating steam engine lubricator patented in 1872 by Elijah McCoy (right). The reason it was called “real” was that the device worked so well, customers demanded it by name over imitators.
There are two types of counterfeit valves: pure manufactured fakes and used valves that have been refurbished and resold by questionable suppliers. These are lumped together by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as Suspect/Counterfeit Items (S/CI), a classification that also includes mechanical fasteners, lifting equipment, pipe fittings, electrical components and more.
The NRC has released information on an incident at a nuclear power plant in Georgia where a counterfeit Ladish stop check valve was discovered, and on counterfeit 4-inch, 1500-psi, pressure-sealed Crane valves discovered at a chemical plant near Houston. In February 2008 the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory’s Particle Physics Division reported discovery of a large number of suspect/counterfeit small ball valves. Bob Baker, Independent Safety Consultant, tells of an incident in which a bogus rebuilt valve in a paper mill blew out and gushed a 6 to 8-foot stream of pulp.
Counterfeit valves can cause process upsets, downtime and accidents. They also hurt legitimate valve manufacturers by taking market share and by damaging reputations: a failed valve with a false trademark has the potential for giving the legitimate manufacturer a bad name.
The problem has become so bad — especially overseas — that at a trade show a few years ago, a Chinese company was showing exact copies of the products of a British manufacturer, reports VMA president Bill Sandler. “They had a little sign next to the copy, [indicating that] ‘parts interchangeable with the British company.’”
Bogus repaired valves have been around for a long time, says Greg Johnson, president of United Valve and former chairman of the Valve Repair Council. Companies would buy up scrapped valves, “rebuild” them, and put on bogus manufacturers’ tags. It was this that led in about 1990 to the formation of the Valve Repair Council, whose primary mission was to certify valve facilities working on manufacturers’ products, and which has made a great deal of progress, says Johnson, in reducing the number of bogus remanufactured valves that find their way into the marketplace. Yet the problem persists.
The most reported source of counterfeit valves made from scratch is China, but refurbished used valves can come from many places. Many — but not all — counterfeit valves can be found by visual inspection, but the person doing the inspection must be well trained. Companies that find a counterfeit valve should notify both the law enforcement authorities and the manufacturer that holds the trademark.
Probably the best advice to a user for avoiding counterfeit valves is simply to know the supplier, and not to just blindly go for the lowest price. It’s also a good idea to re-check suppliers periodically, adds Marc Tannenbaum, Project Manager, Plant Support Engineering, EPRI, and make sure they audit sub-tier suppliers. For example, a supplier might receive a large order for which they must go to a new source for the required quantity of raw materials. It’s important to know how that new source would be chosen.
“If you’re buying equipment, electrical or electropneumatic for hazardous locations,” adds Bob Baker, “then you should demand the documentation that the supplier’s facilities are being audited and approved by the NRTL.” You have to make sure that supplier “has maintained that equipment to what the original certification requirements were.”
A final word
As with many aspects of business, it’s often best to be suspicious if a price quote seems unusually low. The old adage still applies: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
This posting was excerpted from a major article on counterfeit valves that will appear in the summer 2009 edition of Valve magazine and will include detailed instructions on how to handle the problem.