The Grisly Lure of Copper
How to turn electrical substations into less tempting targets
- By Robert Moore
- Feb 01, 2014
It is unbelievable how some people are so desperate for money that they risk
their very lives for a quick buck. With copper as one of today’s most grisly
lures, thieves scale fences to high-voltage distribution sites and cut the copper
off live, megawatt lines. They also back their pickup trucks to the perimeter
of these sites, dig down three feet and hook a tow cable to the underground,
copper mesh to rip out the copper wiring, even though the results of these capers
can be gruesome. Thieves get electrocuted from the high voltage coursing through
the wires, or worse yet, unsuspecting electric company employees get electrocuted
the moment they step out of their vehicle because the copper grounding has been
Although not highly publicized, cooper theft is a more frequent occurrence
than you would probably think, especially since the lure of copper has become
all the more tempting as the price of this industrial-grade metal continues to skyrocket.
According to the Scrap Monster Index, as of November 2013, the North
American average price per pound for scrap, high-grade, copper wire was $2.95,
though the price varied widely from state to state.
The pickings seem pretty easy, too. Since most sites are remote and unmanned,
thieves think they can slip in and out undetected. For electric companies, the financial
impact is significant with loss of assets (that need to be replaced) and revenue
(from substations being temporarily offline), not to mention potential loss of life.
Therefore, utilities are taking this threat seriously by investigating new technologies
that provide tools to take a more proactive stance against copper theft.
During a recent visit to three different types of sub distribution stations—a
small station embedded within a large city, one in a suburban environment and
one that delivered power to more than eight million people—it was apparent that
each of the three environments had its own challenges in deterring theft, the two
common ones being lighting and power.
Lighting can be a Double-edged Sword
Thieves thrive under the cover of darkness; therefore, lighting is usually the first
consideration when formulating a deterrence strategy. Yet, while keeping the vicinity
well lit might deter crime, the costs associated with lighting vast expanses can
be prohibitive, even for electric providers.
And, cost is only one part of the equation.
A well-lit area not only serves as a beacon for thieves, but conveniently provides
the illumination they need to perpetrate the crime. For a sub distribution station
nestled in an urban environment, light pollution could also create a public relations
nightmare with the residents in the surrounding neighborhood.
From a utility company’s perspective, keeping a site dark draws less attention
and can actually mask the existence of the location.
So, what options for protection does a utility company have?
- Manpower. Often the first line of defense is a full-time staff of on-site security,
but this cost can add up quickly. Suppose you pay your security officers a minimum
wage of $12 per hour. When you multiply $12 x 24 hours x 365 days, you
will be looking at a cost of more than $100K per site for a single security guard
per eight-hour shift.
- Physical barriers. Perimeter fence detection systems are common and relatively
inexpensive, but they can only alert officials that something is affecting the
fence. They don’t provide protection from thieves who target the copper mesh
that extends beyond the fence line. Also, animals or inanimate objects blowing
against the fence can trigger false alarms. Without visual verification to identify
whether the threat is real, the police could waste valuable resources responding
to a non-existent incident. Sometimes there are fines associated with repeated
false alarms that have to be absorbed by the utility company.
- Surveillance technology. Video cameras provide another layer of situational
awareness that can help leverage security manpower and perimeter detection
systems more effectively.
Power - Often in Short Supply
While many new network cameras are loaded with features that can significantly
raise the detection and deterrence value of a security system, getting electricity
and network access to them can be rather tricky and expensive in a substation
Oftentimes, the only area on site with available power is the control room building,
so getting power to areas on the perimeter tends to be cost prohibitive. A
power drop cannot simply be added to these locations nor can it be tapped into the
megawatt power lines that crisscross a site. Trenching isn’t an option either because
the copper mesh that provides grounding for these sites would be compromised.
As for networking cameras, you could go with a wireless option, but until Tesla
is resurrected from the grave, there’s no such thing as PoE for wireless. So, finding
a way to power the cameras would still be an issue.
You could always try a non-conventional workaround, like solar power, to deliver
electricity to the edge, but even though prices have dropped, the cost of a
solar solution would still be quite high per location. Powering everything through
solar-generated electricity with wireless networking to a camera requires enough
wattage for the camera but also for the wireless access points, supplemental infrared
illuminators, and depending on the location’s environment, perhaps heating
and/or cooling the equipment to protect it from temperature extremes. The number
of solar panels needed to satisfy the energy requirements for such an operation
might be prohibitively expensive or impractical, especially for large sites or locations
with limited sunlight during certain times of the year.
A remote location could, however, augment solar power with fuel cells in combination
with wireless radio or cellular modems to power the cameras and provide
network connectivity. Or, where possible, opt for more traditional power over coax
to reach cameras and deliver network connectivity.
Ultimately, the power source of choice will have to be dictated by the environment
and budgetary constraints of a site.
Catching Thieves on the Move
The portfolio of network cameras on the market today is fairly diverse. In recent
years, network camera capabilities have surpassed those of analog cameras on a
variety of fronts. There have been vast improvements in image quality with HDTV
1080p resolution and even higher megapixel resolution. Network cameras now
feature Lightfinder technology to deliver color fidelity even at night, a 16x9 landscape
ratio to put more pixels on target and full 30 frames-per-second or higher to
capture people running toward or away from sites.
Compared to the distances that analog cameras could cover five years ago, network
cameras can now double and even quadruple that distance, delivering images
at a much higher resolution. With more pixels in a greater viewing area and more
powerful zoom lenses, the level of identifying detail being captured far exceeds
what was possible.
There is a caveat, however. Although Moore’s Law—a doubling of pixels every
two years—has taken hold within the network camera world, the lenses providing
these higher resolutions have not kept pace. To achieve the highest resolution rated
for a specific network camera, it must be paired with a like-rated megapixel lens. It
should be noted, too, that the lenses for the highest-megapixel cameras can often
exceed the cost of the camera.
Furthermore, these higher resolution cameras are best suited for well-lit areas.
The higher the resolution of the camera, the higher the lux level performance.
For example, instead of a lower limit of 0.5 lux you may only have a lower limit
of 2.0 lux or higher. The more pixels you have on a sensor, the more the available
light gets diluted as all these pixels demand the attentive light. Over time, though,
these lux levels will inevitably improve as sensor technology gets even better, but
currently, those higher-resolution cameras generally don’t have the same lowlight
capability as their lower-resolution network camera cousins.
Taking these characteristics into consideration, when designing your surveillance
system, you also need to factor in the environment size, terrain, surrounding/
abutting neighbors and lighting (or lack thereof) to choose cameras that help address
For instance, even a small distribution site, 100 square yards or smaller, would
need multiple cameras. Consider cameras with motion detection analytics to trigger
an alert to those monitoring the camera. If lighting wasn’t possible, deploying
network cameras with lowlight or near-no-light features, such as an infrared filter to
capture any usable footage, would be necessary even though they typically don’t function
well over long distances, making the possibility of triggering false alarms high.
And, in foggy or rainy environments, their visual capability significantly diminishes.
Sophisticated, Affordable Thermal Technology
for Nighttime Detection
What if you could cover the long sight lines at these sub distribution stations—
some a square mile or larger—with cameras that could reliably detect human
threats with a minimal number of cameras?
The key is thermal imaging technology.
Until recently, thermal cameras were so expensive that their use was primarily
limited to military operations. Recent advances, though, have brought the price
down to an affordable level for commercial installations, and this technology is
now considered a best practice for protecting critical infrastructures.
Thermal cameras can cover sight lines of 500 to 1000 feet or more with narrow
fields-of-view while meeting the Johnson’s criteria for resolutions, a U.S. military
standard for the number of pixels needed on a target to determine whether the object
is a human or vehicle, and so on. When combined with today’s ever-improving
analytics, thermal cameras can detect people or other threats at surprisingly long
distances, even more than a trained human eye. Unlike their human counterparts,
thermal cameras don’t take naps, get bored, take vacations or a restroom break, or
lose concentration. They steadily detect threats 24/7, rain or shine, even in tough
backgrounds, such as dense forestry.
Thermal cameras work in all environments because they only look for differences
in heat signatures. In fact, Discovery Channel’s MythBusters produced a
whole episode on the possibilities of defeating thermal detection and weren’t able
to beat it.
Glass is the only material that thermal cannot see through because it has the same
ambient temperature as the surrounding area. But seriously, picture an intruder approaching
a substation holding a pane of glass in front of their body. A large, rectangular
mass moving back and forth would likely pique someone’s interest.
Integrating Triggers for Real-time Alerts
Installing thermal cameras at the perimeter shifts the security balance from reactive
to proactive. These cameras can detect threats before intruders participate in
maliciousness. With instant alerts, security teams can respond faster and more
appropriately to the event with situational awareness provided by these cameras.
Some utilities integrate their thermal cameras with a speaker system to warn
intruders that they have been detected and authorities are on their way. Others
connect their thermal cameras to the site’s flood light system to light up the substation
when the cameras detect motion. Also, utilities typically augment thermal
cameras with traditional network cameras so that once a threat has been detected
other cameras can be directed toward the threat to capture details that can be used
for verification and identification before requesting police response.
The lure of copper can be a siren that’s hard to ignore for people desperate for
cash, but thermal cameras make great tools for spotting intruders before they are
able to do any damage to the site or themselves. While copper
loss may not be completely eradicated, publicizing the capture of
a few thieves can be a better deterrent than any signage you can
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Security Today.
Robert Moore is the Canadian country manager for Axis Communications.