Even though the number of air conditioners being stolen from backyards and atop buildings may have subsided somewhat across the United States, that's not to say determined thieves have totally quit in nabbing units or stripping them of their copper content.

As long as copper prices remain above normal, expect the thievery to continue.

Like it or not, there is gold in a/c units - and that gold happens to be the metal copper. Because copper prices are at all-time or near all-time highs, thieves are going behind residential homes and sneaking atop commercial buildings in order to get the copper content inside available a/c units. Those who are really bold are actually stealing the entire outside unit - hook, line, and copper.

How bad is it? Here are some of the daring moves:

  • After spending $25,000 in two months to replace stolen water pipes and stripped air conditioning units, Bob McNutt recently told the Chattanooga, Tenn., Times Free Press that he is almost afraid to advertise the houses he puts on the market.

    "As soon as the ‘for sale' sign goes up, it's like a red flag [for thieves]," McNutt told the Chattanooga newspaper. And McNutt is the senior vice president of development for Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises, a local nonprofit seeking to provide affordable housing to local residents.

    Also in this neck of the woods, someone took the copper pipes connecting a church's two a/c units to the building. It cost St. Mary's CME Church a total of $1,500 to repair. This price tag does not surprise Mike Jenkins, owner of A Tech Heating & Air Conditioning, Chattanooga. According to Jenkins, copper thieves tend to do more than just break air conditioning units. Most of the time, he said, they destroy them. Victims of metal theft always must replace their units, he said, so a robbery of just $20 or $30 worth of coil actually costs the a/c owner $2,000 to $5,000.

  • Air conditioners are hot items for northeast Florida thieves, who are targeting everything from small window units to large commercial beasts - even plucking them from windows as homeowners sleep.

    According to the Florida Times Union, Putnam County police handled 17 reports of stolen air conditioners in the first five months of this year - up sharply from the eight such thefts last year, according to Major Keith Riddick, chief of detectives for the Putnam County Sheriff's Office.

    "We even had five stolen in January," Riddick told the local newspaper, "so you know that's not due to the heat."

  • A spike in the price of copper created a new target for thieves in Livermore, a suburb of eastern Alameda County, located in the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. According to a July 31 report in that city's local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times, Livermore police reported that they had been taking four to six copper theft reports a week in the months of May, June, and July.

    In nearby city Pleasanton, police detective Jerry Nicely said some incidents involve people breaking into sites to rummage through a dumpster, but at other times, thieves are breaking apart new air conditioning units to get wiring that is costly to replace.

    "They get 20 bucks of copper and a $5,000 air conditioner is garbage," Nicely told the newspaper.

  • In Savannah, Ga., a/c units on homes and apartment complexes have been ripped open so thieves could remove the internal copper piping. According to Savannah police spokesperson Anthony Fulton, most of the incidents in his city have occurred during the day when people aren't at home.

    "We ask that neighbors be vigilant in noticing their surroundings and whether anything strange is going on," Fulton informed the Associated Press (AP).

  • Thieves in Detroit were literally getting residents hot under their collars by stealing a/c units to be sold as scrap metal.

    Dianne Schultz, a retired city employee, reported to police that she could not use her air conditioner on the hottest day of Detroit's summer because her a/c unit was stolen from her yard.

    The good news: Schultz told United Press International (UPI) that her insurance would cover most of the $1,400 to replace the unit. The bad news: She is responsible for the $500 deductible on the claim.

    Meanwhile, Noreen Alexander, a 62-year-old retired social worker, was in her Detroit home one hot morning during the summer when she heard a strange noise out back. About 10 minutes later, her nephew noticed that the outdoor unit of her central air conditioning unit was gone.

    "I never believed anyone would steal an air conditioner that size, period," Alexander told The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). "Was I mad! I was hotter than the weather."

  • In Bradley County, near Chattanooga, Tenn., local police continue to get reports of stolen a/c units. One of the most recent occurred at a rental property. According to a report on Chattanoogan.com, one of the first full-service Web-only daily newspapers in the country, the theft in question took place during the day, with no witnesses. The online news report stated that the thieves disassembled the a/c unit and pulled the fuse block from the fuse panel that is adjacent to the unit. The value of the missing copper was placed at $50.

    Meanwhile, in a later report - Sept. 16, to be exact - Chattanoogan.com, reported that two males were found loading a $3,000 air conditioning unit from a local business, Maintenance Services. According to the police report, the men said they had planned to take the unit to a scrap metal business the next day. The men-in-question were given $4,000 bonds on the charge of theft over $3,000.

  • While Joe Fick and his wife Rachel Vreeman were sleeping in their rental house in Indianapolis one night in July, thieves sneaked up and made off with an estimated $100 of stolen goods. But the target wasn't jewelry or electronics. It was the copper components of the house's central air conditioner.

    "They unscrewed the top and pulled the guts and left the shell there," Frick, a campus minister, told WSJ.

    The rental home's owner, John Beeler, noted that the thieves probably did not get the market value for the stolen unit.

    "I would have preferred if they had just knocked on my door and asked for $100," Beeler was quoted as saying.

    Sidebar: It Takes a (Creative) Thief...

    When it comes to thieves, expect the unexpected. Just ask Butch Welsch.

    The owner/president of Welsch Heating and Cooling in St. Louis relayed a creative tandem that played havoc this past spring on a relatively new residential subdivision in Welsch's service area.

    "A guy would drive up to a home in an unmarked, but service-looking, van, knock on the door, and if no one answered, he would evacuate the refrigerant from the unit, disconnect the lines and electric," said Welsch. "A few moments after he pulled away, another truck would drive up and remove the a/c [unit] from the premises. This occurred at three or four homes before a next-door neighbor saw it in action and notified the police."

    Then again, not all thieves are as creative. Again, just ask Butch Welsch.

    Not too long ago in his service area, two installed a/c units were stolen from two different jobs. They both happened across the Mississippi River in Illinois. In a display home in this new subdivision a thieve stole one of three units.

    "This would seem to indicate they were looking for a particular size and not just taking the unit for the components," thought Welsch.

    Meanwhile, in a different subdivision, an outdoor unit was pulled away from a new home that was nearly finished, but not occupied. In fact, the house was scheduled to close in only a few days before the thief - or thieves – did the sloppy heist.

    Sloppy? Yes, sloppy, assessed Welsch.

    "Our guys felt the people doing it were not real experienced," he said, "because the way they cut the lines in both cases, they sprayed refrigerant and oil all over the siding of the house."


    - Mark Skaer

    Sidebar: Tell Us Your Side of the 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: 10/30/2006