Bob Weber, director of sales, Johnstone Supply â?? The Huestis-Meyers Group, Chicago, knows of four local distributors that have been fleeced by R-22 thieves.
Bob Weber, director of sales, Johnstone Supply — The Huestis-Meyers Group, Chicago, knows of four local distributors that have been fleeced by R-22 thieves. Weber and his crew were recently swindled out of a skid of R-22 by a man posing as a current customer. (Photo courtesy of Chris Yarzab)

Earlier this summer, Mike White, CEO, Clean Air Systems of Louisiana, greeted his front office crew as they headed out for lunch. Due to the sweltering Shreveport, Louisiana, heat, his staff left the garage doors up to allow air to flow throughout the space. White and his wife retreated to their offices, opting to enjoy their midday meals at their desks.

As the company secretary returned from her meal, she was greeted by a visitor who casually questioned, “Hey, who cuts your grass?” After receiving an answer, the subject strolled toward the exit, jumped in his van, and sped away.

Upon further investigation, White discovered the individual was hardly concerned about lawn care — he wanted R-22 and, apparently, found what he was looking for.

“As soon as our secretary left, this guy pulled right in like he’d been here before. He peeked through the windows and didn’t see anyone — even though my wife and I were right in our offices — strolled by the R-410A and went right for the R-22,” White said. “He loaded his van up, peeked back into the office, which is when he encountered our secretary, and off he went.”

The thief left with four drums, which retail for about $9,000. Luckily, White captured the entire event on camera.

“The police eventually located the van, but the thief jumped out and ran off,” said White. “The suspect had just gotten out of jail in 2011 for stealing and was spotted in a nearby supplier’s office twice, but they shooed him away before he could get his hands on anything. Crime stoppers believe the same guy recently walked into a store and casually took money from a register.”

White said the incident inspired him to upgrade his office security.

“Let me tell you, this guy’s brave. He didn’t even bother wearing gloves, and we have a fingerprint on file. It really scared my secretary and wife, and it goes to show you that something like this can happen to anyone at any time.”

Not an Isolated Incident

Reports similar to White’s are surfacing across the country.

“We’ve had refrigerant stolen right out of our trucks in Rochester, Minnesota,” said Jeff Fitch, regional supervisor at SCR Inc.’s Northern location in Baxter, Minnesota. “People know the line of work we perform. If you’re gone for a weekend and no one’s around, thieves will pop the glass on your vehicle and grab the refrigerant.”

Bob Weber, director of sales, Johnstone Supply — The Huestis-Meyers Group, knows of four Chicago-area distributors that have been fleeced by R-22 thieves.

“They got us for a skid,” he said. “An individual claiming to be a contractor we’ve worked with called and requested prices on a coil, furnace, condenser, and a skid of refrigerant. A little later, the guy called back and said he only needed the refrigerant and arranged for delivery. We put it on his truck and he told our guy to ‘put it on his account,’ which, of course, didn’t exist.”

Weber said the incident cost the company about $4,700.

He insists the bandit had to have industry experience, as he knew the names of those in charge at the company, and spoke intelligently about the HVAC supply chain.

“The distributor-contractor relationship has never been more important. We have to run background checks on every guy we work with as, with every transaction, there’s thousands of dollars at stake,” said Weber. “There’s less and less refrigerant on the market; it’s becoming quite a commodity. The industry needs to watch out for these guys. If it’s happening here, it’s got to be happening elsewhere, too.”

Lock it Down

Several contractors acknowledged the importance of implementing proper safety protocols, regardless how much they cost upfront.

Steve Lauten, president and CEO, Total Air and Heat Co., Plano, Texas, is a firm believer in background checks. “About 15 years ago, we started doing background checks on every employee we hired, and almost all my issues with things such as break-ins went away,” he said. “We’ve always kept our refrigerants locked up in a chain-link fence with padlocks. We also keep a refrigerant log. To get a jug out, it has to be assigned to a truck. We also log all the recovered refrigerant we have.

“We have security cameras all over the building with a good recording system. When we bought our building, we had sky lights in place, so we put steel bars over those. We want to take away any temptation a dishonest person may have.”

Lauten’s security measures extend beyond the shop to the company’s vehicles.

“All of our trucks have heavy-duty mesh screens over the windows and all the windows are blacked out,” he said. “If you look at the value of what’s in a truck; it’s incredible. We take our property very seriously.”

Fallout of the Phaseout

As the pending EPA phaseout diminishes supplies, the demand for R-22 is likely to increase, which may trigger additional criminal activity.

Jon Melchi, director of government affairs, Heating, Air-conditioning, and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI), said distributors and contractors must remain on guard for theft.

“The theft of refrigerant is something that anecdotal evidence would indicate is on the rise. I would certainly anticipate this trend to continue as the refrigerant phaseout continues and prices continue to rise,” he said. “The best advice I can offer is make sure that very few people know all of the security measures you have put in place. For instance, many security cameras are easily spotted. If a company puts in additional cameras that are more discreet, it does the business no good to advertise that fact. Additionally, I believe distributors need to be aware of who is accessing their warehouses and be on the lookout for people out of place. For contractors, the answer may be older and more simplistic: Lock your truck.”

Charlie McCrudden, senior vice president for government relations, ACCA, said: “Contractors have relayed to me stories about cylinders disappearing from trucks or job sites. The frequency of these incidents seems to rise with the price of R-22. Unfortunately, this situation is likely to get worse as the production and importation of virgin R-22 is phased out between now and 2020. I’ve also heard about R-22 being stolen from rooftop systems by enterprising thieves, which is a completely different problem.”

He encouraged contractors to “take every practical measure” to protect their cylinders in their shops and vehicles. “Thieves know where they are likely to find them,” he added.

Fitch is not taking any chances, as his R-22 is tracked and tagged from conception until the canister is empty.

“Our refrigerant is behind a cage with thicker-penetration, high-density covering on the walls. More care is given to that area in regards to protection,” he said. “Each pound is tracked. We have daily and weekly verification of refrigerant, which is above and beyond the tracking most contractors do. Due to what we’ve heard about thieves targeting refrigerants, and the expected surge in value, we decided to take those measures.”

Publication date: 10/6/2014

Want more HVAC industry news and information? Join The NEWS on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn today!