You and the Search for ‘E’

So how can you tell if a particular manufacturer is a hole-in-the-wall or a serious player?
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There are lots of manufacturers of wire and cable, something like 170 companies in the United States alone, including my employer, and more than a thousand in Asia. Then there are “manufacturers” that don’t actually make anything. They have products made for them by other manufacturers. Some of them put the connectors on the cable and call that manufacturing. I think the correct term for that is assembly house.

Then again, you can twist wires together, and even extrude plastic over them. And you could do all that in your garage or your basement and truly call yourself a manufacturer. But ask about quality control, or just basic testing of the cable, and you’re liable to get a blank stare.

So how can you tell if a particular manufacturer is a hole-in-the-wall or a serious player?

Well, you can always ask questions. I go to a lot of consumer and “home theater” trade shows, and I talk to a lot of people who say they “manufacture” wire and cable. My first question to them is “Do you melt plastic?” Many of them give me a surprised expression and then think for a minute and say, quietly, “No.” The technical term for melting plastic onto a wire is to “extrude” the plastic.

If you don’t do lots of trade shows, then most of the time someone just hands you a roll of cable and you’re supposed to install it. How do you know if this is the real deal?

I supposed you could Google out the manufacturer and give him a call. But there is an even more elegant way to find out and that is to read what it says on the cable.

The “print legend” can tell you a lot. It usually contains the name of the manufacturer (or “manufacturer”), their part number, sometimes an abbreviated description of what the cable is or what it’s made of.


(click thumbnail)The table shown is a short list of some of these abbreviations you might see and what they mean:

So a cable that is labeled, in part, 1C20AWG is a single-conductor of 20 gauge. A cable that is printed HDGIFPE is made of high-density, gas-injected foam polyethylene. Of course, then you need to know what all those words mean, and that’s another column right there.

Many manufacturers will include a number on the cable, an “E” number.

This indicates that the manufacturer is registered with Underwriter’s Laboratory. If the cable was made for someone else, the E-number will tell you who the original manufacturer is. Just go to the UL Web site (www.ul.com) and click on the “certification” section. Where it says “UL File Number” put in the E-number from your cable, click on the “link to file” and, bingo, there is the name address, phone and other data for the actual manufacturer.

Of course, there are a few companies who have caught on to this and had a few cables “tested” by UL, or some other work done, so they have a file number but still do not melt plastic.

More than a few times, I have taken a piece of cable that said “Made in the USA” and put in the E-number, only to find out that the cable was made in Guangdong. Hmmm. Reminds me of the (apocryphal?) story of the town in Japan that changed its name to Usa (MADE IN USA).

And, I would guarantee you that the guy with the “extruder” in his garage did not draw his own copper wires (i.e., turn big wire into smaller wire). So we’re back to the whole subject of quality control.

If a company draws its own copper wires, formulates its own plastics, extrudes those plastics on the wires, tests the construction when they’re done, now we’re talking about a real manufacturer. And by testing, I mean some industry standards, not just continuity. Now we’re down to a handful of manufacturers worldwide.

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