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Buyer Beware: Counterfeit, Substandard, Inferior

Be aware of the quality and origin of your metal construction materials

S 5 Feb18 2

Everyone has heard of fake Gucci bags and knock-off Rolex watches. But more and more, counterfeit, substandard and/or inferior materials have been infiltrating the metal construction market, and not much is known about it. It is a worldwide problem  that can put construction workers and public safety at risk.

Counterfeit materials are imitations passed off fraudulently or deceptively as genuine, and are often produced with the intent of taking advantage of the imitated product’s superior value. Unauthorized factories, especially those in China and India, use low-grade steel and weak manufacturing standards to cheaply produce convincing copies of authentic construction products. Using low-grade steel in place of structural steel cuts costs in half, effectively boosting profits and allowing the counterfeit manufacturers to undercut authentic competition. There have been no reports of this steel being sold under another name, which would make it counterfeit, but it is trying to imitate existing materials.

Construction material quality and sustainability have a significant impact on critical parameters such as time, cost and quality of a construction project. Using counterfeit materials may cut costs, but not without seriously risking negative consequences such as loss of reputation, legal sanctions and/or extra costs. Counterfeit products from China pose an enormous threat to intellectual property rights because of the Chinese government’s failure to protect and enforce these rights. To further complicate this problem, it’s difficult to monitor how widespread the counterfeit syndrome is because few in the construction business want to admit they have been fooled into buying counterfeit products.

Rotton Eggs and Failures

Items produced under fraudulent circumstances are seldom manufactured to conform to industry standards. For this reason, those items may be a threat to public health and safety. Without their relied-upon and specified safety standards and strengths, substandard construction products can reduce operational reliability, increase maintenance costs, and endanger workers and buildings. A recent example of how inferior building products hurt buildings was the well-publicized Chinese counterfeit toxic drywall event. This environmental health issue involved defective drywall manufactured in China, imported to the United States and used in residential construction between 2001 and 2009 in an estimated 100,000 homes in more than 20 states.
In samples of contaminated drywall, laboratory tests detected off-gassing of volatile chemicals and sulfurous gases including carbon disulfide, carbonyl sulfide and hydrogen sulfide.

The emissions worsen as temperature and humidity rise and give off a sulfuric (rotten egg) odor. Homeowners reported health symptoms including respiratory problems such as asthma attacks, chronic coughing and difficulty breathing, as well as chronic headaches and sinus issues. The initial lower purchase price of the Chinese counterfeit products wound up costing more in the long run. Most of these inferior products had to be replaced (many affected buildings had to be destroyed) and there is also the hidden cost to time and the environment.

Counterfeits can kill. In 1987, counterfeit bolts appear to have been tied directly to the death of a worker at the Saturn automobile factory under construction in Spring Hill, Tenn. The worker was tightening a bolt when it cracked and caused him to fall to his death. Total structural collapse could be an outcome too. In February 2017, a multistory building in Kanpur, India, collapsed and killed three people. According to officials, the building collapsed under its own weight and the cause was indicated to be substandard construction materials.

Photo courtesy of Dynamic Fastener

Fastener Quality

Fasteners are a mainstay of the metal construction industry, but so is the potential for them to be affected by poor quality and counterfeiting. Prior to the signing of the Fastener Quality Act Amendments on June 8, 1999, fasteners were being counterfeited with mismarked and misrepresented information, which could be a potential hazard to the integrity of the industry, not to mention endangering lives and properties. The amendment states that all graded fasteners must pass all ASTM and Industrial Fasteners Institute (IFI) specifications set forth and pass an A2LA lab test(s) before being used.

“Unfortunately, the smaller fasteners (screws and rivets and the like) have not been included in these guidelines,” says Keith Self, metal building product manager, Birmingham Fastener and Supply, Birmingham, Ala. “Due to these items not being addressed, it is left to the specifier to make recommendations as to what parts to use, on some occasions it can be written into the specs that a certain size and material must be used. An important factor to remember is the Fastener Quality Act covers all graded fasteners; screws and rivets are not covered in the ASTM specifications. So choosing proper fasteners is vital to the overall success of the project. Although counterfeit and imitation parts have been greatly reduced since the signing of the Fastener Quality Act, even quality parts can be compromised by being exposed to the elements prior to installation.”

What Can You Do?

George Hedley, columnist, licensed professional business coach and author of “Get Your Business to Work!,” was a general contractor and subcontracted sheet and metal construction. He says the threat of counterfeit, imitation and substandard metal construction materials is real, and that he never trusted out-of-state or out-of-country subs or suppliers because other states didn’t have the rules California had.

“As a general contractor, metal subcontractors often tried to sneak in cheaper materials than specified,” he cautions. “Also doing business in California, we have tough standards for metal, fabrication and welding. To eliminate this we wrote very strict specifications and detailed subcontracts to the metal contractors. Also, we demanded we see the bill of sale for the metals to make sure they were what we were paying for. Plus, we hired inspectors to ensure the work was per code and specs.”

Mark Graham, vice president of technical services at National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA), Rosemont, Ill., feels the metal fabricator (e.g., metal panel manufacturer) bears some responsibility for properly sourcing, procuring and documenting the metal stock used in fabrication. This ensures it complies with the physical properties and standards applicable to the specific project.

“NRCA suggests metal fabricators include in their purchase orders or sales contracts with metal suppliers any specific physical property or standards that are applicable to the project,” he explains.“Metal fabricators can also request mill certifications or certifications of compliance documenting physical property or standard(s) compliance of metal stock. Such documentation should specifically indicate product lot numbers that can be used to correlate the documents’ data to the specific metal stock. As an added step, a thirdparty certification of compliance can be sought, where the metal supplier retains a third party (e.g., UL or other recognized agency) to document compliances with applicable physical properties and standards.”

Washington, D.C.-based American National Standards Institute has been very active in examining issues surrounding global counterfeiting. It contends that fighting counterfeiting is a war on all fronts, and that traditional methods of oversight and enforcement are simply not enough. To address counterfeiting across industry sectors it suggests:
• standardization of supply chain procedures
• strengthening compliance
• supporting law enforcement
• increased education
• greater public-private collaboration

Quality Comparison

Self believes the biggest concern today is the simple choice of products. He contends most comparable parts are of comparable quality; however, he stresses to make sure that what you are trying to accomplish is always vital. He also believes aligning yourself with a good supplier is paramount to success.

“Although parts may be similar, they very well may have some critical differences,” he adds. “A lot of people feel that all fasteners are created equal; not so. Although a lot of metal building screws are self-drillers, not a lot of self-drillers are metal building screws. Much like everything else, corners can be cut, in many cases offering a cheaper price, but this cheaper price in the short term could very easily be much more expensive in the long term. Metal building screws are very unique in what they are designed to do, and extensive testing has gone into the parts for that particular application. The choice of substandard parts is foolhardy, as the average cost of fasteners on a project is usually less than 2.5 percent of the total job; this is not where you want to save money. If you are not familiar with a particular item, ask someone you trust. Never be afraid to ask a question, the sake of the job and your workers may depend on it.”

Self advises to ensure the quality of structural fasteners, request a material test report (M.T.R.), a certificate of conformance (C.O.C.) or a Rocap Test (rotational capacity test). “The best way to prevent bad materials is simply partnering with a reputable company with a good track record,” he adds.

If you become a victim of counterfeit construction materials, immediately report the incident to the appropriate authorities and law enforcement officials. This will slow the spread of additional inferior construction materials.