Why is it risky to use counterfeit marine sewage treatment systems parts?
If you own and/or operate a United States Coast Guard(USCG) approved or Class Society-certified marine sewage treatment plant (STP) from any approved manufacturer, and you’ve installed unauthorized, non-original equipment manufacturer (OEM) components, you may be unknowingly at risk of losing your equipment approval/certification as well as the equipment warranty or guarantee itself.
Most sewage treatment systems installed aboard marine vessels and offshore industrial oil & gas (O&G) installations are typically approved or certified by a 3rd party Classification Society, or environmental-based governmental agency.
If that treatment equipment is to be operated in international or controlled waters, an association of twelve member-classification societies — known around the world as the IACS (International Association of Classification Societies) — verifies the STP’s compliance to both International Maritime Organization (IMO) standards and Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) guidelines.
Given the widespread availability of marine equipment sales channels, as well as internet parts sites, the potential risk of counterfeit parts entering your supply chain is undeniable. In fact, with so many non-approved, non-OEM aftermarket parts available on the market today, many STP operators have taken the extra step of creating a comprehensive detection and avoidance plan.
Look-alikes, deception and the real deal
Because of beaming advertising slogans and subtle “language tweaks” used to describe certain parts, many items offered in the marketplace appear to be exact copies of certified OEM’s parts, so much so that the unsuspecting marine equipment purchasing agent would rarely question their authenticity.
To appeal to the mass markets, many of these knock-off parts are marketed as “same as original” or “meets or exceeds OEM standards. However, the use of counterfeit or “copy-cat” parts very well could lead to operational equipment changes, premature breakdowns, and non-compliant effluent discharge values. The use of these non-OEM parts can also result in potential fines and poor environmental-impact reviews if the equipment is outside the type certified/approved design. Penalties that many mindful customers aren’t willing to pay.
The facts – from the authority’s mouths
In position statements recently received by De Nora Water Technologies (DNWT) regarding the use of non-approved parts on marine STPs, both the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and the classification society Bureau Veritas (BV) were very clear on how these authorities viewed the use of counterfeit parts:
USCG Marine Safety Center
…the Coast Guard issues a letter authorizing the manufacturer(OEM) to label each device with a Certification that the device(MSD) is in all material aspects substantially the same as the test device certified.” Also, “if a vessel operator decides to deviate from the certified parts and/or components specified by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), the device (MSD) is not in all material respects substantially the same as the originally tested and certified. Therefore, the equipment on board may be considered uncertified, and vessel operators will not be in compliance with the requirements of 33 CFR 159.7(a).”
Bureau Veritas’ (BV)
…under the conditions of the BV and MED Certificates of type approval, only original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) parts, or those parts the OEM authorizes to be sold by their approved representatives or distributors, should be used as replacement parts, or spare parts, as these specific parts indicated in the OEM Bills of Materials (BOMs) are considered certified together with the originally tested OEM equipment.” BV goes on further to say, “Otherwise, the installed equipment/treatment plant is not considered as originally tested and would be uncertified and not be in compliance with the BV or IMO requirements.”
Also, a recent USCG Maritime Commons blog post from the USCG’s Marine Safety Center further clarifies that; “All equipment manufactured during the validity of the type approval certificate remains “approved” as long as it is produced, installed and operated according to the terms of the type approval certificate. Any maintenance and repairs to this equipment must also be performed in accordance with the manuals and components specified as part of the type approval.” (Posted 9/22/2017: USCG Maritime Commons).
The key concepts to be taken away from this position would be (a) all maintenance must be performed to the OEM certificate holder’s instructions, and (b) the replacement parts used should only be those specified in the OEM’s certified equipment design.
Based on the statements of the above notable authorities — which essentially express the same positions with slightly different language — it is also safe to assume that if unapproved, non-OEM part(s) are used on a type approved/certified marine sewage treatment unit, then that treatment unit will be considered as “uncertified” by the Class Societies and out of compliance with the IMO requirements.
The common thread among STP manufacturers in the industry
Indeed, all reputable STP manufacturers who wish to maintain compliance see encroachment by unauthorized third parties as a troublesome aspect of doing business. As a result, many STP OEMs are now actively warning end users of the risks of using non-approved or “copy-cat” parts. While many of these companies word their warnings differently, the common thread is the high exposure that the end-users risks by operating a unit that is not certified.
In the case of DNWT, several counterfeit parts have been discovered on DNWT specific STP units. As a result, these issues were suitably addressed and replaced with little to no inconvenience to our customers. However, ours is not an isolated case.
In many cases, 3rd party, aftermarket service teams are contracted to maintain and repair the STP. These teams may or may not follow the OEM’s requirements, thus leaving the unsuspecting customer exposed. There are even risks to crews who use their maintenance teams, as these teams may not be aware of the risks of using non-approved, aftermarket parts.
Ultimately, any STP unit that ships from an OEM’s factory carries with it a loggable serial number, as well as a type certification number, which can be directly traced back to a particular Classification Society member. This member will also have the technical data package related to the certified unit on file.
This is required for those instances where a 3rd party-authorized inspector finds discrepancies on a certified unit and must rely on the certification data from the Class Society headquarters to evaluate the system thoroughly. In those cases, where it happens that an STP configuration is different or has been modified from the originally-certified data on file with the Class Society, the inspector then has just cause to thoroughly inspect all aspects of the unit and issue a non-conformity findings report as required.
Compliance comes at a cost
The required IMO performance and efficacy tests for manufacturers to achieve a type approval or certification come at a high cost to the STP manufacturer. These costs include, but not limited to:
- Generation of in-depth equipment technical files with all subject equipment drawings
- Physical equipment to be tested along with needed apparatuses
- Testing site capable of providing consistent sewage influent for testing
- Access to Regulatory Approved testing laboratory and sampling costs
- Equipment subject to Regulatory required environmental testing
The MEPC has established objective criteria for assessing a complete marine sewage treatment system, as well as its components for use in the sensitive marine environment. The Class Society shares in matters regarding the acknowledgment of any treatment system certified to IMO standard guidelines. As such, it judiciously engages with the STP manufacturer to provides oversight of the required efficacy testing and analytical sampling.
Since the costs for IMO certification are incurred solely by the individual OEM, it is in the manufacturer’s best interest to protect its Type Certifications to maintain good standing with the Class Societies, as well as its installed customer base. The actual type certification process creates a partnership of sorts between the OEM and one, or more, of the Class Societies members. It validates that the originally certified STP will remain, in all material aspects, the same as the original unit tested and can continue to be built under the type-tested design.
Taking this one step further, both the USCG and BV(in this case) also state that alternate components may be used on a type approved/certified STP, but only after those new part(s) have been verified and tested to meet the requirements of the USCG or Class Society.
Conceivably, to achieve this, the alternate part(s) in question would need to be installed on the subject Certified STP unit. That unit would then be put through the prescribed testing regiment per either 33CFR Subpart C(159.51-159.131) or Annex 22 of MEPC.227(64), Section 5, including environmental, shock and vibration testing to confirm compatibility and verification that the part(s) do not negate the already type-approved/certified STP unit from that particular OEM. Only then would the authorized IACS member approve the part(s) and recognize them as meeting the Class requirements.
For the average aftermarket parts distributor, undertaking the prescribed MEPC tests and verification regiment for the approval of just one part can easily run into the six-figure range. Since this testing would need to be carried out on an already type-approved STP for which the part is to be used, the cost of the complete treatment unit, along with the prescribed testing and approved laboratory regiment, must also be taken into account.
As the return on investment (ROI) would typically take a very long time to recover, the cost of certification is something that most suppliers or counterfeit parts makers would not care to take on.
Proper enforcement is key, but don’t hold your breath
Due to the geographical size of the regions where most marine STPs are installed, and a shortage of Notified Body inspectors/surveyors, active enforcement of IMO-approved equipment is extremely difficult. This is, no doubt, an advantage for parts counterfeiters who roll the dice to gain an economic advantage over compliant-conscious OEMs.
It is also an advantage for unscrupulous OEMs that are willing to manufacture sub-standard STP units for the marketplace. Units that cannot possibly meet the intent of the IMO requisite testing due to the lack of proven treatment process, or because of the ‘race to the bottom’ philosophy of the price ladder, a topic to be discussed at a later date.
Counterfeit parts buyer beware
Purchasing counterfeit or ‘fake’ items (such as general consumer goods), that are not regulatory controlled is quite common. For example, earlier this year — and for the first time ever — the online marketplace Amazon released warnings about counterfeit products. In its earnings report, the retail giant stated that; “We also may be unable to prevent sellers in our stores or through other stores from selling unlawful, counterfeit, pirated, or stolen goods, selling goods in an unlawful or unethical manner, violating the proprietary rights of others, or otherwise violating our policies.” (1)
However, the stakes become high when the environmental oversight and regulatory statutes of the IMO are bypassed, as severe repercussions can be handed down to customers or companies found operating outside the prescribed guidelines.
Customers and purchasing agents should be skeptical of any advertised parts marketed by unauthorized, non-OEM dealers or distributors making statements such as, ‘per OEM standards,’ ‘same in form, fit and function,” works as intended,’ ‘same installed performance as original,’ or ‘exceeds manufacturer’s offering.’ Some counterfeiters even make claims of ‘extended warranties’ for their parts that extend far beyond what the OEM offers. This, of course, in some way trying to convince the market that their parts have undergone the needed analytical and efficacy testing as required by the authorizing bodies.
Once the conscience decision is made to install a non-approved component on any Certified STP, it becomes the liability of the owner/operator of the STP, and he/she may be put in a position to justify any changes to the STP if approached by the Class Society. Also note that non-approved parts may have a direct, negative bearing on the discharge effluent water quality and could result in regulatory fines and/or legal consequences. Always refer to your equipment’s operations and maintenance manual for the OEM replacement part number(s).
It is also advised that a customer’s environmental and regulatory departments, as well as their purchasing teams, perform a careful review of all marine equipment purchasing portals, National Stock Numbers (NSN) or NATO and shore-based, e-parts outlets to ensure that none of the STP parts currently in your systems are available via unauthorized, non-OEM suppliers. If in doubt, or if you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact the OEM of your particular STP for confirmation of legitimate parts.
It is also advisable to confirm that any replacement or spare parts being purchased are from OEM authorized distributors or the OEM factory itself. With the ease and convenience of online shopping and e-purchasing, many third-party sellers can easily claim to be authorized by the OEM but may be operating wholly outside any authorized OEM’s knowledge.
Preserving regulatory compliance and the equipment validity
If you are unsure whether your current parts distributor is OEM factory approved, a simple call to the OEM aftermarket or spare-parts division should clear things up. This simple communication can not only confirm that your parts distributor is authorized to provide the needed spares or replacement parts; it can keep you out of hot water.
If your procurement model is repetitive or cyclical, it may also be a worthy investment to establish a counterfeit part detection and avoidance plan. In the end, the sole purpose of purchasing an IMO Approved or Certified STP unit is to be in compliance with a specific regulatory region for the protection of the marine environment. By recognizing the shortfalls of using non-approved system parts and assuring replacement parts ordered do not violate the STP’s certification status, you will be taking the necessary steps needed to safeguard against future non-compliances.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed herein are mine and do not necessarily reflect any views of any entity I have been, am now, or will be affiliated