COPPER THEFT: The Next Gold Rush

| September 14, 2015

Factors to consider when selecting a theft-deterrent device for your customers.

Copper is a key component used in the manufacturing of air-conditioning and refrigeration systems. Despite its necessity, a thief can steal the copper coils or the entire A/C in a matter of minutes. In the past few years the industry has seen a huge shift in the way thieves are stealing the copper from A/C systems. A short time ago, thieves would only steal the copper coils. With regulations more stringent on scrap yards (from photographing of metal being scrapped and paying scrappers with checks instead of cash to only allowing scrap yards to accept scrap metal from licensed businesses), thieves are finding it easier to steal the entire system and then sell it on the underground market. Back when thieves would sell the copper coils for scrap, they would get $60 each. Now, taking that same unit out intact and selling it on the underground market could net them more than $1,100.

Copper thefts are in the news daily, as thieves are bolder and take more risks than ever before. If your customers’ A/C systems are located on the ground or behind a fence, protecting them from theft is necessary. Lighting, steal cages or fencing will do very little to protect them, and a camera system will only provide a video of the thief hauling the A/C away.

When looking for a theft-deterrent system, consider the following questions:

  • Will it hinder the serviceability of the A/C?
  • Will it void any warranties?
  • Is it reliable (can it be bypassed)?
  • Will it alert the police?
  • Is the system UL listed, patented and proven to stop a thief as early as possible in a theft attempt?

Considering a system
There are many types of theft-deterrent devices available. Stand-alone systems come with a siren and others directly connect to a security alarm system. The major difference between these systems is that if the stand-alone system is activated, it will only sound the alarm. If someone is not there to hear the alarm, no one will respond.

Systems that connect directly to the existing security alarm system utilize a monitoring company that will call and dispatch the police if activated. When looking at this type of device, it is important to find one that cannot be bypassed and will not generate a false alarm. Selecting a device with built-in electronics that prevent a thief from tampering with or shorting the wires is extremely important, as is the system’s ability to utilize the alarm system’s back-up battery in the event of a power failure, so the system is still being protected.

The difference between a stand-alone and direct-connect system is in the way they monitor the voltage. A majority of these systems monitor the load voltage. However, a more effective system will monitor both the line and load voltage. One problem with monitoring only the load voltage is that a circuit breaker trip can trigger a false alarm. Or, even worse, if the power fails to the home or business, all protection is lost. A device that monitors the line and load voltage will understand the difference between a power outage and a theft attempt, so it will not trigger a false alarm.

Most devices monitor refrigerant pressure as well, but a majority of them can be bypassed simply by shorting the lead wires together. Look for a device that has embedded electronics that prevent a thief from bypassing the switch. In one type of device, the pressure monitor simply screws to the gauge port of a unit with little or no refrigerant loss. A good system will come with an assortment of “T” fittings. When the pressure monitor is installed, using the “T” fitting there is a gauge port left available for a service technician. Without a gauge port available to complete required maintenance, the technician would have to remove the pressure monitor completely, which would cause a false alarm.

Systems in the field
Connecting a theft-deterrent device to the security system is simple. It can be hardwired to the security panel or the alarm company can install a wireless transmitter. The device should have space available within its tamper-proof construction for the wireless transmitter and should be approved to connect to all security alarm systems, even if the security alarm is not monitored. Typically, the HVAC contractor will install the device and the alarm company will install the wires to the panel or install the wireless transmitter. It is important to install a device that does not void any warranty, so be sure to select one that is installed without modifying any part of the A/C system.

As an example, one device on the market takes about one hour to install. Simply install the supplied pig tails on the line and load voltage terminals within the A/C safety disconnect. Install the other end of the pigtails to the line and load voltage terminals within the enclosure. Install the pressure sensor to one of the swivel “T” fittings and screw the “T” to the liquid-line gauge port. Install the three wires to terminal points marked P1, P2 and P3. Have the alarm company connect to terminal points A1 and A2. Installation complete.

Encountering one of these devices in the field should not change the way routine maintenance, seasonal service or annual cleaning is performed. Technicians should have the building manager turn off the alarm system then required maintenance or repair can be completed. Once the alarm system is turned off, technicians can do the work needed without removing or dismantling the device.

Protecting equipment is by far less expensive than replacing it. Fences, lighting and video cameras will not alert anyone when there is a theft attempt. A device that is linked to a security system will sound a loud siren and it will also contact the police as early in the theft attempt as possible. The cost to install a system that links to a security alarm is about $500 per A/C system—a small price to pay for the comfort of knowing the equipment is protected from theft.

Robert W. Frederick is the Founder/Inventor and patent holder of the CopperWatcher theft solution. CopperWatcher LLC was developed as a solution to the air-conditioning side of copper theft in order to right a wrong perpetrated by thieves who were tearing apart vital equipment worth thousands of dollars for the copper coil from unsuspecting owners of residential and commercial property. For more information, visit

Phone: 817-684-1216

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