The electrical product recyclers and aftermarket dealers who gathered in Atlanta last weekend for the 12th annual Electrical Safety and Reliability Conference and Exhibition - the annual meeting of the Professional Electrical Apparatus Recyclers League (PEARL) - were upbeat despite the economy, and optimistic about their continued progress in gaining recognition from the rest of the electrical industry.

The group was formed a dozen years ago to raise the stature of recyclers and aftermarket dealers in the electrical industry by defining ethical standards, testing and maintenance standards, and best practices for reconditioning and remanufacturing electrical products.

Presentations by two major electrical products manufacturers offered evidence of the organization's growing recognition and credibility with manufacturers who for years had been antagonistic toward all in the surplus market. Some manufacturers continue to portray surplus dealers as junk dealers and pirates, and warn their authorized distributors against purchasing anything in the aftermarket.

Many PEARL members expressed continued consternation at this stance, in part because for many PEARL members, the manufacturers saying these things are also among their best customers. When an end-user comes to a manufacturer or authorized distributor to get a part for discontinued transformer or control center, it's the surplus dealers who get the call.

The negative perceptions are beginning to change due to PEARL's work, said Tom Grace, manager, anti-counterfeiting and brand protection, Eaton Corp.

This was Grace's second PEARL conference. “Tom came last year for the first time, with an olive branch in one hand, and a badge in the other,” said Bill Schofield, president of Circuit Breaker Sales, Gainesville, Texas, and PEARL's outgoing president, in his introduction of Grace.

Grace has been traveling around the country visiting surplus dealers at their locations to go through their inventory and help them identify suspect equipment from Cutler-Hammer and other Eaton brands, and to train the dealers' technicians in ways to spot a fake.

“It's very easy to become an unwitting accomplice to counterfeiting,” Grace told the PEARL audience. He described how as a direct result of attending the PEARL meeting in 2008, Eaton had been able to identify a shipment of counterfeit breakers. “We found them in the inventories of surplus and gray market dealers, as well as one authorized distributor, who was promptly terminated.”

Representatives from Siemens Energy & Automation, Alpharetta, Ga., and Underwriters Laboratories, Chicago, also gave presentations about their fight against counterfeiting. Kevin Yates, vice president of the residential products division for Siemens, told PEARL members to be particularly wary of discounted AFCI breakers right now.

“Electrical components like circuit breakers, due to their technology, are among the easiest to fake,” Yates said. “The rise in prices due to AFCI combination breakers raises the attraction to knock off these products because the counterfeiter can can leave out the circuit board intelligence, label it as an AFCI and still get a higher price.” He also pointed out that the firmware in the AFCI circuit has details that make the breaker fully traceable back to the point of origin.

Other presentations focused on forensic engineering and recycled products, OSHA standards and legal advice for collecting from customers in a down economy.

The conference featured concurrent technical training sessions devoted to proper testing and rebuilding practices for circuit breakers, starters, switchgear and other equipment. Exhibitors included manufacturers of test and calibration equipment, safety equipment and retrofit kits, and providers of maintenance and safety training.

A growing share of the group's 51 voting members are providing reconditioning and remanufacturing services, either on the products they stock to resell or on products customers bring in to extend their service life.

“You could make the argument that product you buy from us is even safer than new product purchased direct from the manufacturer,” said Schofield of Circuit Breaker Sales. “The manufacturers test an actuarial sample of their production runs, but we test every single product we sell.”

This penchant for testing has proven valuable, even for the original manufacturers. Brian Corekin, president of Monster Fuses, Portland, Ore., who is also PEARL's incoming president, described a situation where his company's technicians kept seeing an anomaly in tests on a particular line of fuses. They alerted the original manufacturers of the fuses, who investigated and found that one of the crimping machines on their production line was malfunctioning and needed service. “They said without us telling them, they would have kept putting out this product without knowing there was a problem.”

In his year as president, Corekin said he hopes to drive home the service PEARL members provide as the “need it now” source for slow-moving products.

The mood at the PEARL conference was light-hearted - perhaps surprisingly so, given the state of the economy, except that the market niche occupied by these companies doesn't respond to the economy the same way the rest of the channel does. The impact of the recession seems to be falling differently on different parts of the country and different product categories. In some areas, there is a surge of new material coming available from contractors unloading excess inventory or in some cases closing their doors, from assembly lines going idle or closing down. But the bigger purchases typically come from large government or industrial construction projects where products are liquidated due to change orders or over-purchasing, and those large projects are fewer and farther-between than they have been in years.

Nonetheless, attendance at the conference was up 20 percent over the previous year and set an attendance record for the organization. PEARL officials attributed the growth in attendance in part to the technical training tracks on low-voltage motor controls.

The organization's executive board reviewed 23 proposed standards for reconditioning electrical products. Among the proposed additions to PEARL's existing 137 product reconditioning standards were disconnect and safety switches, relays, and circuit breakers. All the organization's standards are freely available on the organization's website at www.pearl1.org. The standards — all of which are based on the original equipment manufacturers' operating and repair manuals and must pass a stringent review process by third-party engineers before being approved — won't be officially adopted by the organization until its next board meeting this fall.