Keeping the Copper Safe

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Recently I offered some tips on site security, particularly in light of the myriad of copper thefts occurring around the country, especially in copper rich environments like communications sites. The reality is, if someone wants copper, he will get it, if given enough time with no other people around. But the few dollars a thief might realize selling this material is nothing compared to the cost of damage repair, or more importantly the costs incurred should a station be taken off the air for any period of time.

While scrap copper is paying nearly $3 per pound, brass and some types of steel can bring about $2 per pound. As it turns out, we have a lot of these at typical broadcast transmitter sites.

Tampering with a licensed communication facility is a federal offense; however, I'm not aware of any time when the federal government was directly involved with this type of theft. It has primarily been handled by local law enforcement. Many police departments have a copper theft task force. They tend to have good intelligence on specific activities going on within their jurisdiction. It might be worth a call to see if they would be willing to meet at your facilities to evaluate the level of risk for theft and perhaps offer some advice on theft proofing these sites.

Co-located sites

Whether you share your transmitter site with other broadcasters and wireless tenants or lease space to wireless tenants on a company owned-tower, be aware that all combinations used on locks provided by wireless carriers are well known throughout the industry. Typically they daisy-chain their locks to others. Pretty much anyone with exposure to that industry has the cheat-sheet. In my experience, I have seen several sites sustain damage by a thief, but no indication of forced break-in. This suggests the job was done by someone with a little knowledge about the site. Along the same lines, be careful hiring new employees, as part of your hiring practice, consider running a criminal background check on all applicants. This may give you additional insight into a prospective employee.

It is almost impossible to eliminate exposed copper or other metals. Copper isn't worth as much dirty as it is bare. Thieves usually don't want to take the time to clean it. This also applies to jacked transmission lines; however, going back to my previous statement, someone on the inside would know that it's easy to strip and this would not deter them. The simple answer is to use an industrial paint-on coating like roofing tar, Tammscoat, Rhino-Liner or equivalent material that can be painted on wet, adheres to the metal and basically makes it very difficult to clean. Using a tar-like product will also remain sticky to the touch and leave a lot of staining on the thieves hands and clothes. These materials may make routine repairs a little difficult, but it's a small price to pay in the big picture. Tammscoat is a material primarily used to waterproof concrete foundations. It's relatively inexpensive and as it turns out has some good conductivity characteristics that may be desirable in some applications.

The owner of this site replaced the stolen ground strap on the pier, and then covered it all with a foundation cement. Click to enlarge. Photos by Ben Weiss, CPBE.

The owner of this site replaced the stolen ground strap on the pier, and then covered it all with a foundation cement. Click to enlarge. Photos by Ben Weiss, CPBE.

In addition to coating the copper, when purchasing new copper wire or ground bars, make sure they are tin-plated. This is what most wireless carriers are using. A knowledgeable thief might know that this is only tinning, but keep in mind the tinning also reduces the copper scrap value as well and may not be worth someone's efforts. The use of tamper-proof hardware to attach copper ground bars to buildings can also be an effective means to slow down the progress of a theft.

You can also purchase copper bars with wording such as "Stolen, please report to police." This would send a red flag to a scrap yard to alert police. Build partnerships with local scrap companies in the area. Many recycling centers will not accept copper that has been painted.

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