Copper Thieves

If you are the type of person that drives around to transmitter sites and steals things; fuck you. You have no idea the problems you are causing to get a few extra dollars worth of scrap copper.

Missing copper ground buss bar
Missing copper ground buss bar

I have a feeling that most of these copper thefts can be attributed to out of town tower contractors removing old cellular equipment from towers.  Notice, only the buss bar and copper ground wire is missing.  They did not try to cut the transmission lines.  In other words, they seemed to know what they were doing.  I have noticed around here that a when a particular contractor, employed by an unnamed large company that rhymes with glint, would work at a site, things would be missing afterwards.

Perhaps it is just a coincidence. I have never been able to catch anyone pinching things. However, if this is you, and I catch you, you can rest assured that I will block you in with my car, then walk down the road and call the police.

Copper prices on the increase

It is a concern for radio and TV stations, that someone will notice all that greenish brown piping coming out of the buildings and attempt to liberate it, for the cash that is in it.  Of course, such things can lead to some pretty spectacular failures and possible harm to the thieves.  AM ground systems are often a target because they can be pulled up without anyone noticing right away.

In the last twelve months, copper has gone from to about $2.90 to $3.82 per pound:

Copper prices through 10/10
Copper prices through 10/10 per 100 lbs

This is approaching the all time high price of $4.34 per pound in early 2008.

Copper TELCO cables, wiring, piping, gutters, downspouts, roofing are all targets for thieves.  On the other side of the Atlantic, British Telecom (BT) has been hit so hard, they are striking back.  Employing something called “Smart Water Bombs,” they can mark any unauthorized person that attempts to open BT equipment. According to PC pro magazine:

The SmartWater liquid carries a DNA fingerprint that links a criminal to the scene of the crime and police units carrying ultra-violet light detectors can use the incriminating stains to make an arrest after the trap has been sprung.

That is a novel approach, but it  may be a little extreme for the average radio station.  There are a few steps that one can take to minimize theft at the transmitter site:

  1. Keep things buttoned up, mow the field, trim the weeds around the building and make regular site checks.  Keep the building in good repair.  If the site looks cared for, drive by thieves may think twice about visiting.
  2. Make sure that all of the buried copper ground system is indeed buried.  Any wires or screen showing is an invitation for a tug.
  3. Copper strap is especially vulnerable.  Get a metal stamp and stamp the station’s call sign into it every twenty feet or so.  Take pictures of this and keep them on hand to show police.
  4. Report any thefts right away.  In NY, scrap yards must keep records of all transactions over $50.00.  At today’s prices, that is about 14 pounds of bare copper wire or strap, which is not much.
  5. Have a neighbor keep and eye on the place.  Once, I traded about 10 CD’s and 5 T-shirts to the next door neighbor and from that day forward, nothing ever happened at that site without me knowing of it.
  6. Put up “Danger, High Voltage,” and/or RFR warning signs.
  7. Keep fences in good condition and locked.
  8. If possible, work with the local police department to up site patrols.  Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t but it never hurts to ask.
  9. If the site warrants it, buy some dual light cameras and a motion triggered DVR.  This is more of a revenge device, but it nets an arrest, it will be effective in stopping repeat occurrences.

If you notice any unusual activity at the transmitter site, especially during a late night visit, have the police come and check it out before you confront a possible thief.

Copper theft and how to avoid it

One of the unfortunate signs of the times is increased theft of valuable materials. Copper, while not as expensive as it once was, still fetches a fair amount at the scrap dealer. One local telephone company has been having a difficult time keeping their aerial cables intact in certain areas. For radio stations, the situation is compounded by remote transmitter sites with lots of copper transmission lines and buried ground radials around AM towers.  Reduced staffing levels also means that the weekly trip to the transmitter site is now every two weeks or perhaps once a month or even less.

Site that are not visited or monitored very often are prime targets for copper theft.  Forget asking the local constabulary to patrol more often, the few times I tried that I was met with a blank stare.

A few common sense type things that I have learned over the years may keep your site intact:

  1. Keep  up appearances.  A neglected transmitter site is more likely to attract the wrong type of attention from the wrong type of people.  Clean up any rubbish, dead equipment, keep the weeds and trees cut down, etc.  If a site looks well tended and often visited, a thief may think twice about lifting valuable metals.
  2. Along with #1, keep things buttoned up.  Secure all transmission lines to ice bridges, remove any dead lines, etc.  If there are ground radials poking out bury them, same with ground screens, copper strap, etc.  Out of sight, out of mind, leaving this stuff exposed is asking for somebody to come along and give a tug.
  3. Fences and locks.  Towers are required to be fenced and locked to prevent electric shock hazard.  It is also a good idea to fence the building, generator and fuel tank if possible.
  4. Post all sorts of warning signs, RF warning, high voltage, no trespassing, under video surveillance, pretty much anything to deter trespassing and vandalism.
  5. Add video cameras with a video recording device since most theft occurs during non-working hours.  Last year, the company I used to work for traded a video surveillance system for the studio location.
  6. Compensate a neighbor to keep an eye on the place and call you if they see any suspicious activity.  It doesn’t even have to be money, I once worked out a deal with a neighbor for some T-shirts and CD’s.   That was the best alarm system we ever had.

In the long run, keeping all the copper parts where they belong is a great way to avoid those annoying “the station is off the air” phone calls not to mention the expense of replacing damaged transmission and ground systems.