Pat Cole, senior project manager at Sunset Air in Olympia, Wash., said it has come to the point that his firm is hiring security guards to watch rooftop units that may arrive early to a project site. Sunset Air recently had a rooftop unit vandalized for copper content - and the unit was sitting across the street from a police station.
“The units were behind a construction fence. We lined them up close to each other to try and make it difficult to vandalize, but the unit at the end was stripped,” wrote Cole.
“If we have units arrive early, we now hire a security guard to watch them. I’ve also looked into remote storage, in particular places that store recreational vehicles. They have the room and necessary insurance, but that is expensive, too. But, it’s better than being ripped off.”
Meanwhile, Don Blocker, service supervisor for Murphy & Miller in Chicago, could not believe what he saw when he recently visited a home located on the south side of the Windy City. He e-mailed a picture of the alarming image (pictured right). Though the owner had a steel cage built around the outdoor unit, it did not stop the heist.
“A thief was able to steal the condenser coil out of this unit,” wrote Blocker. “Condenser fans were running when I found it. It appears that the thief was able to reach in through the cage to dismantle the coil and then slide it through the bars of the cage. The unit is less than a year old.”
MAKE IT A FEDERAL CRIMEThe high cost of copper is being blamed for such coil thefts. Though the cost of copper has fluctuated over the past few months, thieves apparently can still get a pretty penny for copper coils from scrap yards. According to many NEWS contractor-readers, therein lies the biggest problem.
“Our local newspaper ran an article on the front page of the ‘Local and State’ section of the Sunday paper a couple of weeks ago about copper thefts,” wrote Mike Creamer of Pro-Air Engineering in Austin, Texas. “It featured a large picture of a pol-iceman in front of a huge mound of scrap copper at a local scrap yard. The article stated that the thieves could get $65 for a coil from an a/c unit. I cringed when I read that statement.”
As he put it, “Every ‘wanna-be’ thief in town that did not know about the copper market, does now. We replaced approximately $20,000 worth of condensers the next week.”
If a local newspaper should interview a contracting business owner concerning a/c thefts, Creamer recommended not to reveal what a thief could get for a copper coil. “Most of the time these thieves are being prosecuted for a misdemeanor theft and are getting a slap on the hand if they are caught at all,” said Creamer. “Why are they not being prosecuted by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] for releasing refrigerant and being fined $10,000-$20,000 per occurrence like HVAC contractors are?”
Another contractor-reader echoed Creamer’s concerns. “The answer to stopping copper theft is to turn them into the EPA for prosecution,” wrote Norman NeSmith, a retired instructor from Southwest Georgia Technical College in Thomasville, Ga. “If I remember correctly, it is $50,000 per event [unit], plus jail time for intentional venting, whether the person knows what he is doing or not. I know not many are caught, but when word gets out that it is a federal crime, it should slow down a bit.”
PUTTING PRESSURE ON SCRAP YARDSAccording 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.
That is one reason why the gutting of outdoor a/c units continues. 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.
Some cities and states, however, are attacking the problem head-on. In Indiana, for instance, a new state law was passed (House Bill 1324), which requires scrap metal recyclers to keep additional records or logs of customers selling copper, aluminum, brass, or other valuable metals used in residential or commercial construction. Police can inspect the records at any time. The law goes into effect July 1.
According to state Rep. Dave Crooks, who authored the bill, meeting the records requirement could be as basic as scrap dealers photocopying the customer’s driver’s license and sales receipt and keeping them in a manila folder. “It’s a simple system any small business person can create,” Crooks told the Evansville, Ind., Courier Press.
Henry Adams, of H.A. Sun Heat- ing & Cooling in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., recommended one more step. “There should be inspectors going around to these scrap yards and fining them big time if they are in possession of copper with no paper trail,” he wrote.
POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS?With the theft of a/c units continuing, possible ways to thwart thieves have surfaced.
James Boyer, an HVACR instructor at Vatterott College in St. Ann, Mo., recently informed The NEWS of his invention, the Sentry Air Conditioner Alarm System. The system consists of a low-pressure control that is attached to the refrigerant line. It is connected to a wireless transmitter, designed to send a silent signal to an automatic telephone dialer.
“The phone dialer dials four preselected numbers and plays a recorded message alerting you to a potential theft,” explained Boyer. “The system operates in complete silence so the would-be thief has no idea he or she has been caught until it is too late.”
Meanwhile, Joe Wojtowicz, a service technician from Majestic Heating and Cooling (Detroit, Mich.), introduced the AC Watchdog Alarm System, an audible alarm located inside a building. The alarm attaches to the a/c unit and measures the refrigerant level. If the level drops below a certain point, the alarm sounds.
For more information, about Boyer’s Sentry Air Conditioner Alarm System, call 636-456-3021. For more information on the AC Watchdog Alarm System, visit www.acwatchdog.com.