Copper Thieves

November 25th, 2007 by Potato

I have to wonder just how dumb thieves really are. I mean, in my own life we have lots of evidence of mean, spiteful, stupid thieves: the ones who did over a thousand dollars of damage to my car just to take it out for a joy ride (or commit another crime), who had the car for a week and couldn’t get the radio out (though obviously not for lack of trying), and the ones who broke into my house and left behind the American money. Now in the news we have several reports of thieves stealing copper for the scrap metal. From the London Free Press a report about thieves risking their lives to get the copper from live wires. Wow, copper must be worth a fortune for someone to risk their own life, the life of the power worker who will have to come by to fix the damage, and to be spiteful enough to plunge a whole neighbourhood into darkness for hours (not to mention stealing from a public utility)! And the going rate, according to the LFP?

Scrap dealers are offering about $2.80 a pound for copper.

The price is down from the high of $4 last year but still worth a thief’s effort.

“Don’t forget, their profit is 100 per cent,” Kummer said.

$2.80 a pound! Geez, even if you haul a hundred pounds of wire out of a substation (which is about as much as I could see a thief taking out on foot), and assume it’s pure copper and not wasted weight on insulation, you’re looking at $280, and that’s probably a pretty generous estimate. Possibly worth the time since it is, as the person quoted says, all profit, but there is a lot of risk associated with that, and the dickheadery that goes along with stealing from a utility, and putting others into a blackout and at risk. Nearly everyone has a price at which they’d sell their own mother, but I can’t believe these guys place such a low price on their respect for other human beings. And hey, here’s another similar story from the CBC.

“What they do is they take this and they wrap it around a trailer hitch of a four-by-four and drive away. And they take probably 1,200 feet, ripping that up.”

Wow, 1200 feet. Since I’m a science geek, let’s figure out just how much copper that is. Of course, we’ll need to know how thick the wire was, which wasn’t reported in the story, but let’s assume it’s pretty hefty wire with a diameter of 1 cm [r=0.5cm] (not quite as thick as the wire carrying bulk power in your neighbourhood, but a fair bit thicker than even an outdoor extension cord). 1200 feet ~ 400 meters. Density of copper = 8.9 g/cm^3. Volume = pi*(0.5 cm)^2 * 40000 cm = 31400 cm^3. Mass = 279 kg, or 615 pounds. Hey, not too shabby, but that’s assuming something that’s more of a copper rod than a wire. If it was 8-gauge wire (still pretty hefty), we’d have a cross-sectional area of 0.08 cm^2, for a mass of 89 kg, or 197 lbs. Hey, still nearly double my earlier estimate, but hardly mess-with-the-power grid money.

Speaking of putting people at risk for selfish bone-headed copper thieving, how about this story from the CBC in Nova Scotia?

A thief stripping propane tanks of copper lines is putting people at risk, Halifax police warn.

Someone stole the copper lines from two propane tanks outside residences in central Halifax on Monday. In both cases, the highly combustible fuel leaked.

“The person is literally playing with fire,” said Const. Jeff Carr, spokesman for Halifax Regional Police.

It was only a few weeks ago when police reported that someone had cut copper from several oil tanks in north-end Dartmouth, resulting in oil spills and expensive cleanups.

All of this of course doesn’t mention the disparity between the cost to the victim and the gain to the thief. Ignoring the issue of the insane risks the thieves are taking and forcing upon others, the people who have to replace their propane lines or power connections don’t pay the scrap price for their copper. Their lines cost much more than that. Similarly, people who get a laptop, iPod, car stereo or catalytic converter stolen usually have to pay much more to replace it than the thief will ever get for it, and that’s not counting any repairs from a break-in that might be necessary, or intangibles lost (such as data on a laptop). Whatever happened to the days of holding up a bank, or swiping the cash out of a till, or pickpocketing a person? In other words, the days of stealing money? It still sucked to be a victim, but at least the thief would get as much utility out of the money as the victim lost, rather than this stupid, spiteful gap.

One Response to “Copper Thieves”

  1. Potato Says:

    The catalytic converter thefts remind me of something else: the batteries in hybrid cars. When they first came out, critics poked at the batteries they carried, claiming they would be nightmarish to dispose of, thinking of the lead-acid batteries at the front of every other car. Quite to the contrary, the NiMH batteries are quite recyclable, and come with a $200 bounty from the manufacturers (to ensure none are thrown away). Now the metal in them is worth more than $200, so I cringe to think of thieves taking them just for scrap