Copper Theft: New Solutions

KEITH JENTOFT, PRESIDENT, RSI Video Technologies, Minneapolis, recently sent me some video clips showing copper burglaries in progress. I was reminded of a summer job during college working demolition on the upper west side of Manhattan in a three-story brownstone where the copper that was torn out was immediately picked up by those ready to jump in the dumpster. After a few moments of nostalgia, I called Jentoft to learn more about this growing problem.

Harlick: What does today’s rash of copper theft mean to security companies?
Jentoft: Reducing copper theft is one of the most significant new opportunities to happen for security companies in the last decade. Simple searches on Google and YouTube will reveal numerous entries that highlight the epidemic proportions of the problem. Copper theft probably began as construction site theft because there is so much exposed copper in plumbing and wiring. Many sites are being hit by thieves who chain the electrical service to their pickup and pull the breaker box and all the attached wiring out of the walls. Because thieves often rip out the drywall to strip the plumbing and wire, the cost to repair dwarfs the actual loss of the copper.

Harlick: Where else is copper theft causing problems?
Jentoft: It is now contributing to power outages, dropped phone calls, and routinely closing schools and hospitals. The U.S. Department of Energy said in 2007 it was a $1 billion problem and growing. Here are some real examples seeking a solution.
One real world example seeking a solution includes communication towers. Recently two men and three women were accused of stealing $270,000 worth of copper from 100 cell towers in Virginia and South Carolina. Jim Smith, executive director of asset protection for AT&T has noted that in 2006 AT&T reported 1,066 copper cable thefts with more than one-third disrupting service for its customers, costing his company $2.2 million in one year.
Other examples include electrical substations and air conditioners. According to the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, air conditioning units are now the “hot item” for copper. It is easy to steal and easy to sell, but of course, the cost to repair can be hundreds of times more expensive than the loss of the actual copper.

Harlick: What can we as an industry do about it?
Jentoft: Traditional security systems can help indoors and in vacant buildings. CCTV can also help but it tends to be expensive to deploy and tough to install in remote locations. The trouble with copper theft is that much of what is at risk is outdoors and in remote locations that are difficult for traditional systems. In my opinion, this is the main reason why the security industry has been so slow to focus on the copper theft problem—there have been no easy answers.

Harlick: Where can somebody find more information on possible solutions?
Jentoft: RSI Video Technologies developed a self-powered outdoor video security system that reports alarms and videos over the cell network. We also have a website (www.coppertheft.info) dedicated to the problem, which has articles and other resources on copper theft. The site is designed to be used by dealers and integrators as they work with prospective customers.

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