Copper Theft: Out of Control

Posted by Ashley Little on October 30, 2014

copper theftCopper: A malleable great conductor of heat and electricity. Its alloys—brass, bronze and gunmetal—are some of the most sought-after materials in manufacturing. In the utility industry, copper is everywhere, grounding equipment to ensure public and technician safety. Copper is a hot commodity in the U.S. and around the world. So hot, in fact, that copper is stolen at an alarming rate.

Why? The reason is price. As of October 3, 2014, copper was commanding $3 a pound[1] in the U.S. Compare that to the price of lead at less than a dollar a pound[2] and aluminum at around $0.85 cents a pound[3] and one can understand why this abundant and often-used element would be a favorite target for thieves.

Copper Theft in the News

Watch the nightly news and the epidemic becomes evident. In Houston, highway cameras were stripped of their copper wiring in early October, taking real-time feed of Texas’s roads down for several days.[4] In southern Illinois, police are currently searching for two people caught on video stealing nearly 1000 pounds of copper from an equipment dealership.[5] While damaging to businesses and patently illegal, these thefts are fortunately not among the worst-case scenarios. In some instances, copper theft can be dangerous, if not outright deadly.

In Valley Forge, PA last September, a 911 call revealed that a man had been electrocuted at a National Park. He was found partly inside a 4,100 volt electrical box and police believe his motives were to steal the copper inside.[6] Additionally, a Waterbury, CT man allegedly cut the “wrong wire” at a closed public housing complex in early October, electrocuting himself.[7] Finally, a Florida man allegedly seeking money for drugs was electrocuted along a state highway when he attempted to remove copper from a utility pole.[8]

A Dangerous Game

Copper theft deaths can happen in a number of ways, but the most prevalent seem to surround theft from poles and other utility structures. Utility equipment is often in remote locations, and all poles with a transformer have a copper grounding wire anchored at foot-level—easy pickings for a thief.

How do they do it? According to Alden's OSP Operations Manager Matt Hand, “They will take a hatchet and stand on a truck or other structure, as high as they can reach, and cut the copper ground wire and pull it off the pole.” The problem arises in that with the ground removed, the pole can become a conductor—energized with the power surging through its connected lines. At that point “if someone comes up to the pole and touches anything on it or another item makes contact with the energized pole, they can be easily electrocuted,” says Hand. “Risers, guys, anything can become energized.”

The Solution

Because copper is not likely to soon go away as a material used in grounding utility poles, some owners are already taking precautions. Adding extra security is common, including surveillance of vulnerable or often-targeted areas. Laser etching of wires is possible as well to aid in tracking the copper if stolen. Coating wires in an invisible dye, much like banks do with money, is also a possibility.[9]

Beyond safety measures however, all utility pole owners have the ability to keep a closer eye on their equipment through regular field inventories and the utilization of joint use management software, which can help owners pinpoint regularly-targeted areas for theft. Owners can then understand where trouble is most likely to happen, take precautions or swift action if copper does disappear, and hopefully avoid the danger and potential death that this troubling epidemic has brought.

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