Copper cable installed at cell sites are a prime target for copper theft.

Do an online search for “copper theft,” and you will find numerous stories about the daring and destructive theft of cell site RFcable lines, power cables and rooftop air conditioning coils. You’ll also see gruesome stories about desperate souls who have died or been seriously injured in their search for today’s “orange gold.” Copper theft is a $1 billion a year problem in America, and could be 10 times that amount globally. Our wireless customers are some of the hardest hit.

Scrap copper is extremely hard to trace to its source, and that makes it a perfect target. Soaring copper prices are fueling a problem that is so monumental the FBI has called it “a risk to both public safety and national security, and a threat to the nation’s critical infrastructure.” The looting of copper RF transmission line cables and grounding components cost one major wireless carrier over $2 million in one year, not to mention repair labor time and costs plus the loss of revenue attributed to disabled cell sites.

Wireless operators need to reduce the amount of copper products they install at their cell sites.

Aluminum transmission linesand tin-plated grounding bars and grounding kits have the appearance of containing no valuable copper, despite performing just as well as products with visible copper in their construction. The idea is to make your cell site less valuable in the eyes of a criminal, and thus less likely to get ransacked. It might sound a little extreme, but the costs of dealing with a theft and the equal or better performance of aluminum cables and tin grounding products justifies it. Better to prepare ahead than suffer to consequences of copper theft.

Wireless video cameras may deter some criminals, but the bravest of them do costly damage before anything can be done with the footage. Thieves have climbed to the top of cell towers to dislodge coaxial cables from hangers, knowing that a typical coaxial cable is chock full of copper. Some have even dug up buried copper grounding plates, leaving a cell site without protection against a lightning strike.

Aluminum cable is a reliable alternative to copper cable and essentially reduces the likelyhood of cable theft.

Wireless carriers have attempted to dissuade thieves from attacking their sites with locks, fences, and signs indicating that their copper has no scrap value, but that approach has not stopped the problem. Sadly, many copper thieves are desperate criminals looking for a quick score and stealing copper from a remotely located cell site is a relatively safe bet against police interference.

The best way to ensure against copper theft is to limit the amount of copper at the cell site in the first place.

About the Author

Mike Schaefer

Mike Schaefer is a product line manager in the HELIAX Cable Products group, with 20 years experience in the wireless industry. He holds a bachelor’s degree in management, a professional development certificate in organizational leadership and an MBA in Marketing.

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2 comments for "Protect Against Copper Theft With Aluminum Cables"
Scott Adams

Hi Mike, I read your blog about avoiding copper cable theft with aluminum. One criticism I've heard is the thieves can't tell the difference between Cu and Al until it's too late. So how can we differentiate the two? We could make the aluminum a different color, say grey. Or add a grey tracer stripe(s). Additionally, I've always wanted to develop an "invisible cable"--basically using various jacket colors and advanced print pattern schemes to custom camouflage the cables and blend them in to various backgrounds. --Scott Adams Sr. Engineer Newton, NC (828) 466-8643office (828) 308-4854 cell

Mike Schaefer

Scott- There are two sides to that coin. We have reports from the Central America region with pictures of sites pillaged of copper cables, but with FXL smoothwall cables left in place. The suspicion is that because the cables were smooth, they looked different enough from the corrugated copper cables along side them, that the thieves thought they might be live power cables. The thieves swiped at the jacketing in a few spots, revealing the aluminum conductor, and left the cables alone. Your ideas regarding unique jacket coloring and alternative print schemes are definitely worth looking into.

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