Copper crooks target houses, commercial jobsites and county parks too

Aug. 14, 2013
CHICAGO – Throughout the years, copper theft has always been a problem. Commercial jobsites, houses, and even parks seem to be the typical places crooks steal copper from these days.

CHICAGO – Throughout the years, copper theft has always been a problem. Commercial jobsites, houses, and even parks seem to be the typical places crooks steal copper from these days. 

Cages are used to protect units from copper theft at Montgomery County Parks, Md.

Copper theft tends to be cyclical with the price of scrap copper. “When prices go up people are going to help themselves to copper anywhere and everywhere they see it,” explained Keith Bienvenu of Bienvenu Brothers Plumbing-Heating-Cooling, Metairie, La. “When you are working on projects you need to be aware of your scrap copper because someone else might grab it.

“When we were doing new construction and residential projects, years ago, we were working in areas where we had to go and run copper in the ground, and concrete contractors would come behind us and put the concrete over the copper, so people wouldn’t take the copper out,” said Bienvenu. “We also had incidents with several houses where we put the copper in during the day and at night it disappeared, so we had to go back the next day and redo it.”

According to Bienvenu, copper theft was rampant in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina.

“When houses were gutted, and sheet rock was taken out, all the copper was exposed, so many people hauled it away… wiring, piping, anything they could get their hands on,” said Bienvenu. Stealing copper was a thing of ease since there was so much copper exposed. It was a crime of convenience at the time.”

Many times copper theft happens to vacant houses or vacation homes that are closed for the season.

According to Ron Dunsmoor, operations manager at Eastern Mechanical Inc., Biddeford, Maine, copper pipe was stolen from seasonal cottages that were closed for the winter.

“We simply replaced all the [stolen] piping with Wirsbo Aquapex tubing instead of copper,” said Dunsmoor.

In a completely separate incident, one of Eastern Mechanical’s jobsite trailers was broken into.  

Thieves cut live coils out of rooftop air conditioners, releasing 60 pounds of R-22 refrigerant at a facility.

“They broke the lock and stole approximately $20,000 of tools, tubing and fittings,” said Dunsmoor. “We were lucky because we did not have all the copper required for the job. We had maybe a weeks’ worth in the trailer. The tools that were taken were typical plumbing tools: chop saw, right angle drills, Sawzalls, and they also took one of our worker’s set of personal tools that was left in the trailer. Two weeks later the lock was broken again, but only PVC pipe and fittings were inside, so nothing was missing.”

As a solution to the thefts, a guard was hired to watch the jobsite, however, the jobsite stock was left at Eastern Mechanical’s shop, and the company carried enough tubing and fittings for only one day’s worth of work.

“No tools will be left on site again,” said Dunsmoor.

Last year, Nixco Plumbing Inc., Mason, Ohio, also had a trailer broken into. Three rolls of 1½-in. type K copper coils and one roll of ½-in. type L copper, valued at $2,400 were stolen from a locked jobsite trailer. The theft occurred on Easter weekend.

“The thieves were caught and prosecuted,” said Jeff Heger, president and owner of Nixco Plumbing Inc.

To prevent such thefts from happening employees park equipment in front of the job trailer as well as keeping it locked.

Rooftop heat pumps and air conditioning units are also prime targets. In Aurora, Ill., thieves cut live coils out of rooftop air conditioners, releasing 60 pounds of R-22 refrigerant at a corporation’s facility.

“They dragged the copper coils to the edge of our building and dropped the pieces right into the back of their truck on our loading dock,” said Craig Whitaker, facilities administrator. “This was done during the middle of the day on a weekday.”

Even county parks are susceptible to copper theft.

“A year and a half ago, I came to work as a supervisor of HVAC for Montgomery County Parks, here in Maryland,” said Wayne Crump, HVAC supervisor. “On the first job I designed and estimated I was thrown a bit when they asked me if I had put money in for the cages. I had no idea what they were talking about. It was explained to me that the public buildings of the parks, such as the Nature Centers, and the Rec Centers are subject to brazen acts of vandalism and theft — most notably the theft of condensing units for their copper.”

Crump added money in the installation estimate for cages made of flex steel and angle steel. The cages are welded together and then bolted over units.

“The cages make the units hard to maintain and service since you have to unbolt the cages and move them before you can do any work on them,” explained Crump.

Houses on park property are also targets for copper crooks. Sometimes the park buys or receives donations of available land – often homes are on the land – for future park consideration.

“Until we need the land we rent out these houses as a revenue source,” said Crump. “Just recently we had a heat pump stolen from a rental house that was between occupants. I can't imagine they get that much money for the copper for these units. I guess it's a sign of how hard up some people are in this down economy.”

About the Author

Candace Roulo

Candace Roulo, senior editor of CONTRACTOR and graduate of Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts & Sciences, has 15 years of industry experience in the media and construction industries. She covers a variety of mechanical contracting topics, from sustainable construction practices and policy issues affecting contractors to continuing education for industry professionals and the best business practices that contractors can implement to run successful businesses.      

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