With the price of copper skyrocketing to more than $4 a pound, it’s safe to say there is value in obtaining and selling scrap copper. Having traveled throughout the country, I have heard countless horror stories from many utilities about how thieves are stealing copper wires, costing tens of thousands of dollars. It’s clear that no matter where you are, copper theft is on the rise and electric utilities have an extremely dangerous problem on their hands.

In a January 2009 survey conducted by the Electrical Safety Foundation International, it reported that 95% of electric utilities have been victims of copper theft. The problem is epidemic and it’s not just happening to utilities.

Bloomberg Business Week featured a cover story entitled, “The Great Copper Heist.” It reported that thieves have hit cell towers, airport control towers, irrigation systems, storm sirens and rail lines owned by Union Pacific and Amtrak. Thieves have also put utility workers in harm’s way (risk of electrocution) and subjected communities to substantial losses because of power outages.

What amazes me is that copper theft at utilities is an unnecessary problem. Copper grounding wire and cable has been used for many decades on poles and in substations, but solid copper is not the best use for this grounding (bonding) application. There is a simple, lower cost, copper replaceable solution—Copper Clad Steel (CCS). Since lightning or short circuit conditions carry a high current for such a short time, only the ground wire’s outer skin is used to carry most of the current. Why “waste” the inside diameter of solid copper wires with this precious and expensive metal?


Copper Clad Steel (CCS)Copper Clad Steel (CCS)


Some utilities got smart years ago and began using CCS on their poles and substations (below and above grade). Socorro Electric Cooperative in Socorro, NM is a recent example of one such utility that made the change. Even some wind farm owners and contractors evaluated the electrical characteristics and costs, causing them to convert from solid copper ground cable to CCS for grounding their collector lines on the farms.

CommScope’s GroundSmart™ solution can replace nearly all copper wire and cable used for grounding in electric utility applications, pole lighting and other industrial applications. Theft impacts safety, reliability and operational costs. GroundSmart CCS is a viable and cost-effective solution for utilities to combat theft and keep their systems up and running.

About the Author

Stephen Oaks

Stephen C. Oaks, Managing Partner, Pacific Managment Partners, Ltd. Stephen has over 20 years of Business to Business marketing and sales channel management in technology hardware and software products. Most recently, Stephen has researched product need and efficiency opportunities in the electric utility and wind industries. He has written several industry articles and maintains industry communications to develop awareness of problem/solution areas. He is a faculty member in the Graduate and Undergraduate Programs of University of Phoenix.

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4 comments for "Utilities Have A “Smart” Solution To Prevent Copper Theft"
Michael Mattera

As with anything new, education has to be part of the process. While CCS does look like copper on the outside, there are differences and this is where the education starts. First, CCS is harder to cut. Someone trying to cut it with inexpensive cutters or those not designed for anything other than soft metals such as copper, will notice right away. Also, it's now becoming popular for thieves to use an ax to chop at the copper wire on a pole because it's quicker. With CCS, that won't be so easy and with every swing of the ax, the education continues. Finally, CommScope is addressing this issue with a coating that will hide it so the copper surface is covered. Several utilities have begun using this product and it is starting to be effective in above grade installations. I think you'll see more of this type of product being deployed by utilities to aid in this fight as copper prices continue to rise.

Stephen Oaks

Mike makes good points. It is interesting to hear that thieves would be destroying "cell towers" to remove the copper ground wires. If so, and as Mike points out, replacement with CCS material will begin the education process of the thieves. We have been told by utilities that when they used the CCS, the theives made attempts to steal it, but gave up promptly, causing little damage compared to when they used solid copper for ground wires. Yet, it is the copper color that attracts thieves and some utilities have tried to paint the copper. There has even been some more expensive attempts at tinning the copper, but this sets up galvanic corrosion potential and uncertain longevity to the coating. A method gaining more acceptance today in preventing "first cuts", is to disguise the copper with a thin UV coating of a black polymer material. This can dissuade the less informed thief, by removing the visual color of copper. CommScope offers this black polymer coating, which is easy to work with and has a high life expectancy.

Ricardo La Guardia

In order to keep the thieves way, we are considering a product, a placard, we would supply to the locations using our CCS products saying " CLAD WIRE, HAS NO SCRAP VALUE. In addition, CommScope does not produce a Broadband over power line solution. We are focused in the Infrastructure cables in the Broadband, Wireless, and Local Area Network markets

Ron Mason

Has this wire been accepted for city codes? In Tennessee in the Gatlinburg area homes and remote cabins are having entire neighborhoods stripped of their wires subjecting home owners to death in electrical storms. There is no need to replace copper with copper if this is accepted by code.

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