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ATEX deadline arrives

Beginning next month, some U.S. manufacturers who ship certain products to Europe could be in for an unpleasant surprise.

A new European directive that applies to products intended for use in potentially explosive atmospheres becomes mandatory on July 1, 2003. Adopted by the European Union (EU), the directive—known as ATEX Directive 94/9/EC—requires that products intended for use in certain hazardous locations be tested and certified as ATEX compliant.

After the July 1 deadline, covered products that lack ATEX certification can’t be legally sold in the 15 EU countries. And despite a seven-year transition period, during which the ATEX directive has been voluntary, there may still be manufacturers who are unaware of the directive and its impact on their businesses.

“It’s probably going to be a rude awakening for some, but after July 1, these certifications have to be in place for anything shipped into Europe for use in a hazardous area,” observes Alan Stewart, a product specialist at the Richmond, Va., offices of Weidmuller (www.weidmuller.com), a German-based manufacturer of electrical connection products.

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The ATEX directive (from the French “ATmosphères EXplosives”) applies to electrical and mechanical equipment and protective systems that are intended for use in potentially explosive atmospheres, where flammable gases, vapors or dusts may be present. Such atmospheres are commonly encountered in industries ranging from petroleum and chemicals to food processing, surface coating and metal grinding, among others. Equipment that constitutes or contains a potential ignition source must be certified, as well as items that are safety or control devices, or intended to prevent an explosion from spreading or causing damage. Commonly covered product types include electrical connectors and terminal blocks, for example, as well as thermocouples, flow meters, gas detectors and enclosures.

For manufacturers who have their certifications in place, the new ATEX directive should make life easier, by eliminating the need to individually comply with multiple national standards and regulations when selling product into different European countries. The ATEX directive “harmonizes” the various national differences, so that an ATEX-certified product will be accepted in all of the EU countries.

Manufacturers can obtain ATEX certification through any European Notified Body, which is a testing laboratory designated by any of the EU countries. U.S. manufacturers may also work with a U.S. lab, such as Northbrook, Ill.-based Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL, www.ul.com). But while U.S. testing labs such as UL can perform the necessary product testing and quality system evaluation required by the ATEX directive, the resulting paperwork must be submitted to a European Notified Body, which may then issue the certificate.

UL sources confirm that they are seeing a last minute rush of certification activity as the July 1 ATEX directive deadline approaches. About 200 U.S. manufacturers have used UL services to acquire ATEX certification over the past two years, and as of early May, about 30 additional companies had certification activities in process, says Kerry McManama, UL manager of hazardous locations operations. The certification process typically requires from two to three months to complete, adds Katy Holdredge, UL engineering group leader.

McManama points out that the ATEX directive is “a big step forward” toward the goal of worldwide harmonization of hazardous locations standards. The ATEX directive brings European standards largely in line with International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standards, while the North American standards-writing community has worked hard to do the same, he notes.

“There are still additional requirements that products must comply with coming into the United States that the ATEX directive does not cover,” says McManama. These differences may still lead to additional testing requirements here. But the days of designing two completely different products for the European and U.S. markets are over, McManama says. “It’s much easier for manufacturers to build one product now that goes into both markets with minimal, if any, differences.”

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