To Catch a Thief
It is a proven fact that copper thieves do not care where they steal copper from and they will do anything to get it. They target everything, including telecommunication towers, emergency-service generators and even rural utilities.
Historically, solid copper wire and cable has been used as grounding wire for power, telecommunications, wind turbines, solar panels, gas lines, buildings, bridges, homes and many other structures needing to dissipate lightning strikes to the ground. Solid copper wire has long been known to be an excellent electrical conductor.
So, why do thieves target copper? There are several reasons, according to Doug Wells, vice president, Outside Plant Solutions, CommScope.
“The market price for copper today is almost three times the price in early 2009,” Wells said. “Due to increased global demands, the open market pricing for copper has increased significantly over the past several years, and so has its value in the scrap market -- making it an easy target for thieves looking to make a quick buck. Copper-based products such as cable and wire often are not protected against theft, especially in rural areas. Plus, copper historically has been easy to salvage and difficult to trace.”
Copper grounding wire stolen from Miami-Cass poles.
A Miami-Cass service yard fence was repaired after approximately $5,000 worth of copper and aluminum was stolen.
Copper clad steel solution replaced the stolen copper wire.
Copper clad steel solution was installed at a site where thieves had stolen copper wire from Socorro Electric Cooperative in New Mexico.
Real Life Copper Caper
Recent media reports show that copper thieves do not discriminate on where they get their copper. Some companies offer substantial rewards for information that lead to the arrest and conviction of copper thieves.
One rural utility in Indiana was the target of copper thieves. Rob Schwartz, operations manager, Miami-Cass Electric Cooperative, said that during routine maintenance of its facilities and poles, they noticed something very important was missing.
“We discovered that 62 of our poles had its copper grounding wire stolen -- cut right off the poles,” Schwartz said. “In the last 4 years we had to replace grounding wire in more than 100 poles.”
The theft did not stop at the poles. The fence at the co-op’s service yard was cut and approximately $5,000 worth of copper and aluminum was stolen. Miami-Cass decided to put a stop to it because the damage was causing network problems.
Miami-Cass Cooperative decided to try something different. They deployed copper clad steel product instead of the normal copper wire they have used in the past.
This solution makes the product less susceptible to theft by increasing the resistance to cutting and drastically decreasing the scrap value. It is an electrical conductor that has copper metallurgically bonded to a solid steel core, and has been designed for use in subsurface grounding grids, as well as inside plant and outside plant bonding applications. It also can be jacketed with a polyethylene coating to protect, disguise, and distinguish the wire from solid copper alternatives. Additionally, the bonding process prevents galvanic corrosion, which ensures longevity in service.
“The costs associated with such repairs, like labor, go way beyond the replacement of material cost,” Miami-Cass’ Schwartz said. “That’s why we deployed copper clad steel. We also informed all area scrap yards that we were changing over to copper clad steel. Our yard has not been broken into once since the changeover.”
Rather than replacing stolen copper wire with the same material, rural utilities are switching to copper clad steel because of its theft deterrence and also for financial reasons. By using copper clad steel, there is a cost savings compared to deploying pure copper grounding wire. Utilities can now also lower its operating expenses by reducing truck rolls, man-hours and purchasing more copper wire just by deploying copper clad steel.
Tough Copper Love
Some utility and communications companies have gone to great lengths to protect their copper infrastructure by:
• Increasing security around their facilities.
• Laser etching cables so they can be traced when they are stolen.
• Coating cables with a special liquid that leaves a stain detectable under ultraviolet light, similar to dye packs used against bank robbers.
Despite efforts like these, Wells said that thieves continue to steal copper because of its rising value. “The result is costly damage to electrical grids and networks with loss of revenue from increased service disruptions,” he added.
Another alarming example of this theft occurred in rural New Mexico. Socorro Electric Cooperative was repeatedly robbed of its copper grounding wire. On several occasions, thieves broke into the co-op’s transformer yard and storage facility to steal copper. Thieves also swiped bundles of copper wiring right off of work trucks, and even tried to rip it off of utility poles.
“We tried to replace the stolen copper ground wire as soon as possible with new copper,” said Ricky Williams, line foreman, Socorro Electric Cooperative. “After we installed new copper wire, the thieves quickly returned like cockroaches and stole the copper all over again.”
The utility also installed a CommScope solution called GroundSmart Copper Clad Steel to combat the thieves. “When thieves returned to steal copper from our remote lines, they quickly learned that something was wrong,” Williams added. “They figured out the new cabling was not pure copper, and left without stealing it.”
Another provider, N.W. Electric Power Cooperative, in rural Missouri, tried everything to prevent thieves from stealing its copper wiring, including installing motion sensors.
“We had some success with the sensors, but we felt that copper clad steel was the only solution to our problem,” said David McDowell, director of operations, N.W. Electric Power Cooperative. “Thieves were not going to spend an extra few minutes trying to cut such a tough wire especially when it is not worth the time and effort.”
Wells recommends that even if companies deploy copper clad steel, they should continue to work closely with local law enforcement, as well as local scrap yards, to educate them on the growing copper theft problem. “Utilities should also post signs that conductors used on these facilities are made from copper clad steel and have limited resale value,”
A Continuing Threat
The problem is so severe that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a warning stating that copper theft is a threat to critical homeland infrastructure.
Providers today must utilize a myriad of solutions to deter thieves from putting our nation’s telecom infrastructure at risk. One such tool is copper clad steel. Alarms, fences, and sensors are additional preventive strategies to help providers prevent copper theft.
About the Author
Mike Garner is a senior sales manager in the Energy/Telecommunication market space for CommScope, a global provider of infrastructure solutions for communications networks. He is responsible for market development and sales of outside plant and energy-related products and solutions for the utility, energy and independent telecommunication markets. In his 25 years of work experience, he has held engineering, operations and sales positions in the U.S. Army, Alcatel Telecommunications, and CommScope. For more information, please email: email@example.com or visit: www.commscope.com.
What’s your take on this subject? Leave a comment and get the conversation going.