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Copper Theft: Still a Threat

  • Posted: 08.24.2018
danger high voltage sign
Photo: SafeElectricity

A few years ago, we heard a lot about copper being stripped out of vacant buildings and homes just being built. Power lines and electric cooperative substations in rural areas were hot targets, too. That’s back when the price of copper was high, as much as $4.50 to $4.75 per pound.

While the price has dropped to the $2.70 to $2.80 range, copper thefts are still occurring. We just don’t hear as much about the thefts.

Why is copper important?
Copper corrodes slowly, is malleable, ductile, and a good conductor of electricity and heat. Because of its features, it is used in:

  • Electrical wiring and motors
  • Roofing, gutters and rainspouts
  • Plumbing
  • Fiber optics, cell towers, emergency sirens, irrigation systems, airport control towers and rail lines

It’s important to electric cooperatives because copper is used to ground equipment, protecting it from electrical surges and lightning. Copper wire is used in substations and in neighborhood transformers, to step down high-voltage electricity before it goes through power lines to your home or business.

What happens when thieves steal copper?
Of course, that depends on where the thief is operating.

  • If the thief is attempting to access power lines or high voltage electrical equipment, that person is in great danger of electrocution.
  • The theft of a small amount of copper can cause extensive damage to equipment, costing utilities or building owners thousands or millions of dollars in repairs and replacement.
  • Pulling copper from an electrical system can also cause widespread power outages to households and businesses.
  • Missing ground wires can energize components that normally are safe; anyone who comes in contact with those dangerous components may be injured or killed.

What your cooperative does to prevent theft

  • Install fences, warning signs, and powerful lighting at substations and other electric facilities.
  • Install security cameras or sensors to, both, deter thieves and to record or notify authorities of any illegal actions taking place.
  • Some cooperatives stamp copper wire with an ID number so that, if stolen and the thief tries to sell it at a recycling center, the site will recognize where it came from.
  • Work with local law enforcement for extra patrols near potential theft sites.

What you can do

  • If you notice anyone hanging around an electric substation or electric facilities (other than your cooperative personnel) call the police.
  • If you see an open gate, open equipment or hanging wire at a substation or around other electric facilities, contact your cooperative immediately.
  • Store wire cutters and other tools in a secure location, install a surveillance camera to deter thieves and have a neighbor watch your home when you are away.
  • Here is an innovative hack: Spray paint your copper pipes black to make them appear to be regular plastic tubing, rather than valuable copper.