Preventing Theft

Attacking the copper theft enterprise with the latest technology

The cost of copper wire has continued to increase in certain parts of the United States as a result of the economic recession, meaning thieves can make a living by selling it. Copper, however, is critical to much of the country’s infrastructure backbone, including power lines, heating and cooling pipes and grounding wires.

Thieves often rip the wire from buildings, leaving little else as part of the structure, and the loss of such essential infrastructure can have a big impact: phones drop calls; retail outlets close for days or weeks; police stations lose power and phone services, making them unable to respond to crime scenes; and city budgets must pay to replace the wire. These thefts are becoming a national concern.

According to the Department of Energy, copper theft costs about $1 billion a year. From January 2006 through March 2007, electric utility companies in 42 states reported 270 copper thefts, which represents millions of dollars in maintenance and repairs. A 2008 FBI report, Copper Thefts Threaten U.S. Critical Infrastructure, warned that the persistent, widespread theft “presents a risk to both public safety and national security.”

With industrial demand remaining consistent in the United States and China, this issue does not appear to be going away anytime soon. We also are seeing new state efforts to crack down on copper and metal theft, with some even suggesting that metal theft charges be raised from a misdemeanor to a felony. An Illinois state law that went into effect in 2008 requires that scrap metal processors maintain records of scrap metal sales valued at $100 or more, and that they provide this information to law enforcement.

And copper thieves are crafty. They know how to cut the electrical wires while the power is still on by using insulated cutters. Because of this, many copper wire thefts can take place in broad daylight. Once the thieves cut the wire, a breaker trips and it shorts out. Then they can physically strip the wiring out of the targeted service box, through the conduit and back to the transformers. Once they’ve safely escaped the crime scene, they can cut away the insulation and sell the valuable metal to recycling facilities.

The 900 MHz Wireless Solution
Commercial-grade wireless products provide flexible, easy-to-install and cost effective solutions for this easily stolen wire, ensuring facilities don’t suffer the infrastructure losses that occur when copper wire is stolen. The deployment of a wireless system does not disrupt a building’s existing infrastructure, and organizations from any industry can rely on it to ward off would-be copper thefts.

Wireless sensor networks in commercial settings provide tangible ROI for property owners because, unlike copper wire, they are not susceptible to -- or the target of -- theft or removal. Businesses and the communities they serve can be assured of wireless technology’s reliable performance for their building or place of business.

Today’s security needs are different from what they were a decade ago. In addition to flexibility, quick installation and cost-effectiveness, commercial-grade wireless products ensure facilities are safe and secure from copper-wire theft. Depending on the degree of difficulty in the installation, wireless products’ cost-savings can be profound when compared to a wired solution.

The range and reliability of wireless make it more than just a practical solution for commercial installations; in many cases it’s also a necessary choice to remain competitive and profitable. Businesses are deploying wireless security networks in commercial environments more than they ever have before.

Wireless sensor networks using 900 MHz technology are a solid choice for commercial security applications. Networks using this frequency can process data quickly and are easily deployed and expanded as system needs change and grow. Many 900 MHz technologies rely on frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) technology, which sends redundant messages across multiple channels to avoid interference obstacles.

A transmission at a specific channel may be blocked; however, the retransmission on the next channel will likely be multiple channels away, thus avoiding the interfering signal. FHSS systems not only avoid interference, but they can also tolerate in-band interference signals more than 10,000 times stronger than the desired weak signal.

Wireless in Action
Accent Southwest Windows and Doors, located in Albuquerque, N.M., has been a victim of copper theft four times in the past four years. The electric panels for its showroom floor are located at the back of the building, making it an easy target for copper thieves. Each time the wires were stolen, the company lost its power, resulting each time in a loss of more than $20,000 in selling opportunities.

After the fourth theft, Accent Vice President Greg Noel wanted to install a better monitoring solution. Accent called Albuquerque Armed Response Team (AART), which operates the company’s burglar alarm system, for a solution. Dave Meurer, COO of AART, recommended that Noel’s company invest in a commercial- grade wireless sensor network by Inovonics. The network, installed within the retail store’s control panel, would send an alert signal if anyone were to tamper with the panel’s door. If the sensors were tripped, AART’s monitoring station would respond within seconds by sending armed security officers to secure the premises and call the police if criminal activity were in progress.

Sensors and AART provide a service that can leave retailers worry-free about copper wire theft. Before teaming up with Inovonics, AART tested a number of wireless systems. Together with Inovonics, it developed a technology that could work within building codes and communicate to an alarm system once the sensors are tripped.

Because of the craftiness of these copper thieves, sensor networks must be reliable in signaling an alarm. Built-in redundancy is critical, because it allows a wireless sensor to transmit an alarm 99.999 percent of the times it is tripped. This is ensured by using FHSS technology, which eliminates signal interference during transmission.

Since installing the new system, Accent Windows and Doors has not had any copper wire thefts. Meurer says his company is getting more requests for this type of solution from retailers that are recognizing the increasing threat of this kind of threat.

Wireless installations can provide the security needed to prevent wireless copper theft. The use of 900 MHz technologies provides an unmatched reliability, flexibility and overall cost savings. As seen with Accent Windows and Doors, combining these technologies with an effective response system can easily prevent such theft. Not only does a wireless sensor network provide installation and deployment savings, but it can also help ensure retailers and municipal buildings will not lose operation hours because of copper wire theft.

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Security Today.

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