Every device, regardless of brand or purchase location, seems to have a set of cryptic symbols on them that we’ve just chosen to accept as part of our lives. While many have grown apathetic about the presence of these symbols, a few people really want to know what they mean, and whether the symbols themselves may help them make smarter purchasing decisions in the future. In this piece, not only will you learn about the hieroglyphs, but they will also help you understand the significance of private sector collaboration in product safety!
1: The UL symbol: Proof that the private sector can embrace product safety.
While some companies may be satisfied with passing the minimum government safety standards (which lately have just become a tool that slows down competition), other developers and manufacturers feel a certain sense of pride in the safety of their products. For these companies, there’s a private sector safety regulator known as Underwriters Laboratories, which certifies and assesses the safety of a product.
If your product doesn’t pass their test, you can still market it, but not with a UL certification. As a consumer, purchasing a UL-certified product means that there were extra steps taken to ensure that the device passes highly-stringent safety protocols.
Despite the optional compliance of UL certification, some local regulations require businesses to reject devices that aren’t UL listed.
Beware, however, of counterfeit UL certification symbols! Compare them to what is provided by UL’s website.
2: CE: A simplified European Union.
Before the EU’s CE certification existed, you had to adhere to each country’s standards before exporting a device there. CE stands for Conformité Européenne, or “European Conformity”. This standard was created so that one device can be sold in all 27 member states by adhering to one simplified code. Some would argue that this threatens market diversity, but the standards are not as stringent as the UL certification. They were created to ease the process of competing in Europe.
A proper CE certification will contain a number right after it, which is the identifier of the private sector firm that tested the product’s safety. You can read more about it in the European Commission’s Enterprise and Industry section here.
In addition to CE certification, devices that cannot be disposed of in regular waste bins need to contain a Waste Electric & Electronic Equipment (WEEE) symbol, which looks like this:
3: Chinese products have their own safety requirements.
Every product in China, with a few exceptions, must pass the China Compulsory Certificate test in order to be sold in the country. Yes, this includes products that have otherwise passed tests in other countries. If you live in China or have bought a product directly from a Chinese vendor (as opposed to buying a product imported from China for the US market), then you should see this symbol there. If you don’t, there’s no real guarantee of its safety. Also, be aware of counterfeit certifications. They’re quite rampant. The image I have shown above shows the exact format that the CCC mark must use in order for a product to truly be certified.
4: The FCC ensures that a device can communicate properly.
For devices that emit radio waves or communicate in any way (such as cell phones, Wi-Fi antennas, radios, television sets, bluetooth devices, etc.), the United States has a special set of regulations that fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission. The mark, shown above, certifies that your product is designed to communicate inside the United States. Devices without this mark (i.e. anything you bought from abroad) could behave unpredictably because of differences in the radio spectrum occupation of both regions. The FCC has changed the exact formatting of its symbol a number of times over the years. The above image shows the most current mark as of the date this article is published.
5: The NFC symbol lets you know your phone is currently using NFC.
Since there are a couple of safety concerns regarding near-field communications (the ability to, for example, make contactless payments through your phone), the people behind the technology decided that it’s important to make users aware of the fact that NFC is turned on in their phones. If you see the above symbol on your phone’s notification bar and you don’t want to use NFC, it’s time to disable it!
I have now done my part and shown you all of the major symbols in commercial devices, but that doesn’t mean that I covered absolutely everything. If you feel there’s a symbol you’re confused about that doesn’t appear here (or even if you’re still confused about a symbol I covered), please leave a comment! There’s always going to be new symbols we’ve never even heard of but together we can uncover their secrets.