ACHRNEWS

Another Season of A/C Thefts?

May 21, 2007
Authorities assess the damage atop the roof of Surface Mount Depot in Oklahoma City, Okla. In all, 18 rooftop units were either stolen or stripped of their copper content.


Even though copper prices have not necessarily risen to alarming heights, theft of air conditioners appears to be on the rise - again. As a result, it could be a long, hot summer - in more ways than one - for many homeowners and building owners across the United States.

“It’s a problem,” assured Frank Spivey, owner of Spivey Construction, located on the far south side of Indianapolis.

Spivey had the units from his business swept away, and a building next door experienced the same surprise. As reported on TheIndyChannel.com earlier this month, the theft of air conditioning units has become a hot criminal trend in Indianapolis. Dozens of businesses and homeowners have had their outdoor units stolen, presumably so the thief or thieves can sell them to scrap yards.

“It’s just a sad situation that someone would do that rather than go work and get an honest pay,” Spivey told TheIndyChannel.com.

“It really bothers me that way.”

Last summer, the steep spike in air conditioner thefts was linked, in part, to the cost of copper prices, which reached a nearly two-decade high.

There was a firm belief that criminals plundered anything and everything they could get their hands on in order to get instant cash from scrap metal shops. Copper coils were stripped from outside condensing units all over the United States.

At last report, the price of the red metal was a little more than 30 cents from its all-time high of $4.04 set in May of last year. While many industry insiders differ as to whether the cost of copper will rise over the next few months, no one is predicting a decline in air conditioner theft.

Bruce Thibo, owner of an east side Indianapolis heating and cooling business, said he has replaced nearly 20 stolen air conditioning units in the past two months.

“Two minutes, he’s gone,” said Thibo, estimating the time it takes for someone to steal a unit. “He just made himself $20 or whatever. And the poor homeowners ... this is probably costing them $2,000 to get it replaced.”

Thieves had a field day atop the roof of Surface Mount Depot in Oklahoma City, Okla. Shown are the remains of stripped rooftop units.

QUITE A HEIST

Apparently, some thieves are braver than others. Oklahoma City-based Surface Mount Depot employees made an awful discovery on Friday morning, April 27. There were gaping holes in the roof where, last time they looked, large rooftop equipment had simply been doing its job of providing comfort inside.

One hundred and fifty tons of HVAC equipment was stolen right off the rooftop, 30 feet from the ground. Most of the stolen 18 rooftop units were 10-ton units that - who knows? - may have required the work of an experienced team and a crane, as there was no evidence of throwing the systems off the roof.

“There’s no doubt this was grand larceny, and - for the theft of HVAC equipment - on a scale the Oklahoma City police and I have not heard of before,” said Ted Davis, president and CEO of Surface Mount Depot, manufacturer of surface mount boards, microprocessors, and copper manifold units for HVAC and other industries.

“We have a second shift at this facility, which ended at midnight, so the theft must’ve happened between midnight and 6 a.m. when employees began to arrive for the next day’s first shift,” explained Davis.

A close-up view of what thieves did to one of the rooftop units atop the manufacturing plant of Surface Mount Depot in Oklahoma City.

According to Davis, the new, flat, tarred roof was largely undisturbed, though a recent 3-inch rain brought six bad leaks within the building, even though they’d rigorously taped and tarped the rooftop curbs to prevent leakage.

What perplexes Davis is that the facility has an 8-foot high chain link fence surrounded by barbed wire. The fence has four gates, one of which the thieves entered through after cutting the locks.

“It looks like the team that did this had a well-honed routine and knew how to use cordless drills, screw guns, and saws,” said Davis.

Davis said he had to make several phone calls to, what he viewed as, a mostly disinterested police department, ultimately threatening the chief of police with his interest in taking the story to a local television station.

“It’s incredible,” said Davis. “They’ll send a team of officers to a 7-11 for a petty shoplifter, and are reluctant to put minimal resources into a theft of $130,000 to $140,000 worth of rooftop equipment.”

Davis estimated that the value for the scrap copper and aluminum was about $9,000.

A close-up view of what thieves did to one rooftop unit.

WHAT TO DO?

What scares most authorities is the fact that, with most stripping of outdoor units, refrigerant is released illegally into the atmosphere. In the case of the Surface Mount Depot heist, 150 tons worth of R-22 was believed to have been released into the environment, which only turns Davis’ stomach.

“The government really should do something about this: tightening policies with scrappers,” he said. “There should be some form of regulation that requires tighter sourcing of scrap, or something to reduce the ability of thieves to so easily sell this stuff.”

One solution, one that Davis said he will follow, is to install the use of pressure-detection valves, designed to signal a central alarm when refrigerant line pressure dips to a certain level.

“I’ll put them immediately on all of the new replacement equipment, and on the other units as soon as possible,” he said. “They’re about $175 per unit to install,” noting that this could be a full-time business for some enterprising HVAC pro.

“I’d think that, from the EPA’s [Environmental Protection Agency’s] perspective, it’d be the best and most responsible thing to do,” added Davis.

“The valves detect even a slow leak, something that can happen from unit vibration or whatever. So a firm immediately knows of a need to repair a refrigerant line before the entire charge is evacuated. It’s not only good sense, but environmentally responsible.”

As many found out last summer, prosecuting these acts is not easy. One problem is the inability to track copper parts and tie them to an offense. According to scrap metal dealers, it is virtually impossible to tell whether copper has been stolen. As they explain, metal bears no serial numbers, and old and new copper wire or piping looks the same.

For the most part, police collectively believe the culprits are usually petty criminals looking for some quick money. Those who are arrested are often charged with burglary or larceny, depending upon the circumstances of the theft, and face fines, probation, or several years in jail. In the long run, most people can be reimbursed through homeowner’s insurance, but often must pay a deductible.

“The guy who used to collect beer cans for redemption values says, ‘Why should I do that? I can get 10 times that for a fraction of the work,’ by stealing air conditioners,” said Nathan Frankel, a scrap yard owner in Fontana, Calif. Frankel made such an observation to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) last summer.

The bottom line is this: Should copper prices remain at their current level or possibly soar higher in the not-so-distant future, expect more of the same - or possibly worse - in regard to a/c thefts. It may just be a long, hot summer for many.

Sidebar: Tell Us Your Story

As a contractor, have you heard about air conditioning units being stolen or gutted out in your service area? Has business picked up for you due, in part, to a/c units being gutted out or stolen from residential homes and/or commercial buildings? What is the boldest a/c unit theft (or worse) that has occurred in your service area?

Translation: Let The NEWS know of how this rash of stealing/gutting out a/c units has affected (or, not affected) your business. Supply as many details as you can or desire to relay. Please pass along your observations to NEWS senior editor Mark Skaer at markskaer@achrnews.com.

Publication date: 05/21/2007