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Coping with copper theft

It’s no wonder police departments concerned about the rising rate of copper wire theft keep calling for laws aimed at scrap metal recyclers.


April 4, 2011
By Linda Johnson


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Ever since metal prices began their ascent on world markets, thefts of the lucrative wire and cable have proven difficult to stop at the source. Dark, secluded crime scenes and easy access have been a boon to thieves set on stealing copper supplies from warehouses or on ripping electrical systems off store walls.
And access is still sometimes easy enough that thieves will risk their lives pulling ground wires out of cell tower compounds and cables from electrical transformer stations.

Conventional security systems have proven largely ineffective in stopping the thefts. But now some companies are finding a way to keep the thieves out and the lights on by turning to two advanced technologies: verified surveillance and broad-spectrum wireless.

Many companies with copper stocks are opting for remotely monitored video, says Joe Wilson, president and CEO of Sonitrol Canada.

The company, which specializes in verified video and active audio systems, has seen its metal-related business increase by 30 per cent in the last three years, he says. Many of these new customers are electrical and plumbing suppliers, cell tower owners, utilities and construction businesses.

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“The conventional alarm guys will sell them a CCTV system that’s just a recorded video feed. The problem with that is there’s no value in coming in the next day and watching someone steal your copper,” says Wilson.

In Sonitrol’s video system, Sonavision, cameras connected to temperature and motion sensors are placed around the perimeter of a compound. When these sensors detect warmth or movement, they begin sending video to an operations centre, where staff check to see what kind of intruder it is.

If it’s a raccoon, they reset the alarm. If it’s a person or car, they connect directly into the police. Officers there can see what’s happening and respond to the alarm.

In vacant buildings, Sonavision is often deployed with audio sensors, says Wilson. Each sensor in Sonitrol’s Active Audio system listens 50 feet forward, 40 feet sideways and 30 feet backwards, floor to ceiling, so the system can cover about 5,000 square feet unobstructed by walls. Sensors can differentiate between ambient sounds — those made by animals or weather, for example — and sounds made by human intruders. As soon as a thief arrives and starts to break in a window or door, the sensors trip, and operators start feeding the sound to the police.

Response time is usually three and a half minutes, says Wilson, because the police know it’s not a false alarm. Sonitrol’s false alarm rate is only three per cent, compared to 98 per cent with conventional systems.

“The police hurry up to us because it’s verified. That means we can verify there really is an event, and the verification is either us watching through Sonavision or it’s through audio,” he says.

For a typical commercial building, Sonavision with audio costs between $5,000 and $10,000, says Wilson. Customers can also rent products and pay a monitoring fee of $100 to $400 a month.



James Weldon, owner of JTW Consulting, a private consulting firm in Vancouver, has often seen the damage that thieves cause. He says it’s important to stop the theft early in the act.

In December thieves broke in to Weldon’s new $1.5-million renovation project, stripping out all the wiring, including the panel wiring. That would normally mean rewiring the entire building and repairing many damaged structures. Fortunately, they were planning to change the electric system anyway, he says.

“You can be close to dry wall and all your electrical and plumbing is in, and somebody comes in and maliciously strips everything out,” he says. “That’s a typical equation. They weigh that copper in for $1,000, and it costs the unfortunate person who has to repair it up to $50,000.”

About a month later, after the site had been equipped with Sonavision, another break-in occurred. This time the intruder was caught on video and was quickly arrested.

“I think that’s what Sonitrol does. They’re monitored and within five minutes, before they can do serious damage, the police are here. And they tell them, we know you’re in the building, we know what you look like, we know what you’re wearing. Just come out and give it up,” he says.

The quick response time makes the system a good deterrent, Weldon says. After an arrest, word goes around fast — break in there and you’ll be caught almost as soon as you get in. And the system has saved him money. On the $1.5-million project, it was installed for $14,000, while a guard would probably have cost $50,000 to $60,000, he says.

Another technology, advanced wireless, has proven effective in preventing copper wire theft in retail malls and outdoor areas — cell towers and construction sites, as well as electrical and plumbing compounds, says Mark Jarman, president of Inovonics. The company specializes in wireless sensor networks. Its EchoStream radio technology is designed for large commercial and retail buildings.

“With a spread spectrum technology, particularly frequency hopping, you can get around the challenges you come across — metal and even concrete structures — to get radio transmissions through commercial buildings,” he says.

The system uses a repeater network, Jarman says. Repeater devices, mounted above ceiling level, hear a primary message from a sensor and pass it on to a transceiver, which is connected to a control panel in a security system.

“And you can actually put a whole constellation of these things into a commercial complex and cover the entire building, even a high-rise,” he says.

Jarman says many customers with copper product are choosing to add on, or hybridize, the wireless capability to their existing networks. The result is something like having a control panel on a radio receiver. The sensors are registered to the receiver, and the receiver expects to hear from them in a given period of time.



“If it doesn’t hear from them, it sends an alarm message in the form of a relay output that can be put onto any control panel,” he says.

While wireless devices are more expensive than wired, labour costs are lower, says Jarman. For a 200-square-foot distribution centre with 140 sensors, for example, he estimates it would cost $34,400 to install a hardwired system, while the Inovonics system would be $21,800.

Many businesses are finding that their existing security system, designed solely for interior detection, is not enough, says Jarman. With an add-on receiver, a client can add a perimeter beam around the edge of a property. Outdoor wireless systems are being used in supply compounds, at cell towers, and at any site where the danger of electrocution makes it important to detect someone before they get over a fence.

Inovonics transmitters are put into infrared-based beamed detection devices, made by Optex, and mounted outdoors, around the perimeter of the property. The technology of the perimeter beam is very good, Jarman says.

“Optex and we and a lot of dealers are gaining a great a deal of confidence in their efficacy to detect someone penetrating the property.”

Sometimes, wide range radio technology is the right option simply because it can go where wired systems cannot. That was the situation in a commercial area of Albuquerque, N.M., where storeowners often arrive in the morning to find their electrical systems gone. But then, the security company of one store, Accent Southwest Windows and Doors, installed Inovonics devices inside the outside utility box, and thefts at the store stopped completely.

“We added the switches inside the enclosures, and as soon as someone tries to tamper with the enclosure — even before they can begin to cut the wire — we’re getting a signal. And that signal is being transmitted to our central monitoring station so that our officers can be begin responding,” says Dave Meurer, president of Armed Response Team.

With the wireless devices, they overcame the main problems they faced with a wired system: mixed voltage and the need to drill through the steel enclosures. After testing many wireless products, they selected Inovonics, mostly because of the range of the transmission signal, says Meurer.

“It’s not a line-of-sight situation; it’s inside a steel enclosure, so you have to make sure you have an adequate signal strength to get that message to connect back to an alarm receiver inside the building,” he says.

Wilson says Sonitrol is producing better and faster video transmitters, as well as stronger audio sensors, while Meurer describes the Inovonics wireless as the “game-changer” in his search to devise an alarm. That’s good news as copper theft is likely to continue — at least until metal prices go down. And right now, there’s no sign of that.


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