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Loss Prevention

Curbing Copper Capers

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It’s the middle of the day. A store is full of customers, and suddenly the power goes out. No lights. No way to ring up sales. … Time to call the utility provider.

Only, in this particular instance, the utility provider did not have a blackout or a brownout. Instead, there were thieves on the roof, cutting the power lines on the exterior electrical panels so they could steal copper wiring.

The boldness may be unusual, but the crime, which happened to an arts and crafts chain retailer in Albuquerque, N.M., is “a huge problem happening everywhere,” says Dave Meurer, CEO of Albuquerque-based Armed Response Team (ART), a security service provider. “In retail, it means lost sales, but it can also mean additional damages if the retailer owns or is responsible for the building.”

A showroom owned by another Albuquerque retailer, Accent Southwest Windows & Doors, was victimized four times in the past four years — the last two incidents just a month apart about a year ago.

As a tenant, Accent Southwest did not have to pay for the loss of 100 yards of copper or some $7,500 in electrician fees that resulted from the most recent incident, but lost selling opportunities have cost in excess of $20,000 each time.

“We had no power. Customers couldn’t see,” says vice president Greg Noel. “We couldn’t ring up sales. We were out of business.”

After the first of the two recent incidents, Noel put screws in the cabinet of the electrical panel and put a light in the back where the panels are located, hoping to deter any future thefts. That didn’t work. “They came back a month later and had no problem getting in,” he says. “In fact, the light probably helped them.”

Frustrated, Noel called ART, which installed and monitors his burglar alarm system. Meurer recommended that Noel install wireless monitoring contact sensors within the utility’s control panel. If anyone touched the panel’s door or tried to tamper with it, an alarm would activate, alerting ART’s monitoring station in seconds. This wireless monitoring technology is from Inovonics, a developer of commercial grade wireless sensor networks based in Boulder, Colo.

Expenses add up
ART tested a number of wireless systems before deciding to partner with Inovonics.
“We sat down and worked with them to develop the technology to easily, within the building codes, put trip sensors inside of those electrical enclosures that could communicate to an alarm system,” Meurer says. “At the same time, we put in an audio alarm that would make it clear to anyone who touches the container that they’ve been noticed and that someone is coming.”

Thieves targeting copper wiring “know how to cut the electrical wires even while the power is still on,” he says. “They cut it ‘hot’ because they have insulated cutters. Once they cut the wire, a breaker trips and it shorts out. Then the thieves can work two, three or four hours — whatever they need to physically strip that wiring out of the service box, through the conduit and back to the transformers.”

In one instance, thieves broke into a vacant restaurant and stayed for four days, ultimately stripping about $750,000 worth of copper, electrical and plumbing supplies.

Repairs associated with this type of theft can cost “at least $5,000 at the low end, and we’ve seen expenses as high as $50,000 on one building,” Meurer says. And because of the various permits required and “coordination between the electrical contractors and the utility company, parts being out of stock or needing to be specially ordered, it can take up to a week” to complete repairs and return to normal operations.

Inovonics president Mark Jarman says his company’s technology is unique in several ways. First of all, it has built-in redundancy to insure that when sensors are triggered, they are able to transmit and capture an alarm “99.99999 percent of the time.” The redundancies, which fire the same message at different times and on multiple channels, work using a technology called “Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum” that eliminates garble caused when frequencies clash or interfere with each other during transmission.

“You can’t put most wireless transmitters inside a metal box,” Meurer says. “They won’t talk well, but Inovonics’ devices work exceptionally well in that situation. Their signal strength is higher than any of the competitors that we know of.

“Because we can put their wireless units inside the electrical enclosures without any wiring and without making any penetration to the can, chief electrical inspectors say that we’re fine. But if we were to connect with wires, the chief inspectors would have worries about mixed frequencies, currents and special wiring, and they would need to issue permits and do inspections. That can take days.

“With the wireless Inovonics system, we get the job done very quickly,” he says.

Technology with service
The system works this way:
Technicians put the wireless sensors inside the electrical enclosures on the outside of a building and the main burglar alarm panel inside the building. “They communicate within the existing alarm system,” Meurer says, “so it’s a relatively inexpensive add-on.”

The burglar alarm then becomes the monitoring device. “The moment someone touches the electrical enclosure door,” he says, “a signal goes to our central monitoring station and they immediately send a radio dispatch to one of our officers. The dispatchers know where the alarm was triggered so they can tell the officers specifically where to go as they respond.”

Seven years ago, a large national retailer integrated Inovonics wireless sensors into the burglar alarm systems at its stores and distribution centers.

“They told us that they had figured out that 70 percent of the costs of deploying an alarm system, whether in a new facility or a refreshed site, were for the labor, much of which was required for wiring, so they wanted to cut that down substantially by using wireless,” Jarman says.

Noel, whose electrical panel is roughly 250 feet away from the burglar alarm system used on the 20,000-sq.-ft. building that his showroom occupies, says it would have been expensive to have wired in the contact sensors.

“It would have been a lot more work and cost,” he says. By contrast, if the Inovonics solution “prevents thieves from stealing just once, it will more than have paid for itself many times over.”