The allure of copper theft and how to stop it

March 2009 Perimeter Security, Alarms & Intruder Detection

Theft can have dire economic consequences.

Fortunately there are solutions that do not require

excessive human or financial resources.

One of the reasons cited in Eskom’s Annual Report 2008 for its poor distribution performance was the increase in unplanned interruptions such as theft, and in particular conductor theft. According to the Report, losses to the entity due to conductor theft (including copper and cable) during 2008 totalled R25 million (up R9 million on 2007) and involved 1832 incidents.

Fixed-line operator Telkom is also battling with theft: CEO Reuben September told in June last year that R980 million worth of cable had been stolen from Telkom during the year ended March.

Mines, too, regularly fall victim to theft. According to the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, the mining sector faces risks in the form of organised crime, which includes the theft of vital infrastructural items such as copper cabling and operational equipment. Critical to the continued economic growth of the country, mining is a major employer with an annual wages and benefits bill of more than R50 billion (2007).

Ben Coetzee is a senior researcher in the Institute for Security Studies’ (ISS) Arms Management Programme. In his white paper of February 2008, he highlights the significance of cable theft from major entities, saying that it poses a major threat to the economies of many countries and to the safety of their citizens. “One obvious example is the mining industry, which relies heavily on a guaranteed electrical supply. If the wrong cable is stolen, a deep mine such as one of those found in South Africa would be hard-pressed to extract its workers from the mine shaft. Deaths could easily result,” he warns.

Until recently, he continues, the use of non-ferrous metals in exterior applications carried little threat with it, but as its value has increased, so has its rate of theft. An example is copper, which increased in value from less than 2000 USD per tonne in 1998 to more than 7000 USD in 2008, a trend followed by many other metals in the non-ferrous metal grouping.

“The security of these metals was not taken into consideration during installation or construction. These metals were used in plain sight to protect more valuable components. As a result, (they) can easily be identified and harvested by criminals. At first glance, the situation gives the impression that companies, including government, have to enhance their efforts to secure the non-ferrous metals they have custody over. The problem is, however, more complex. Consider, for example, the challenge that Eskom faces. Firstly, there are the long distances that electrical cabling must cover in order to supply electricity to rural areas, making these cables extremely vulnerable to theft; secondly, load shedding removes any deterrent value linked to the danger of being killed by electrocution when tampering with electrical cables…”

The telecommunications service provider, Telkom, is in an even greater bind as it does not even have the limited threat of electrocution to deter would-be cable thieves, says Coetzee. “The voltage in telecommunication cabling is relatively low and the thief stands very little chance of being electrocuted in the cutting process. The distances covered by copper communication cables are enormous and it is impossible to physically protect every metre of the cable network.


“These are all gigantic entities, with multiple depots scattered throughout the country, which makes the challenge to secure them so much greater than normal,” explains Jack Edery, CEO of Elvey Security Technologies. “Thieves take full advantage of the more isolated sites as well as those that do not have access to electricity or a means of communication such as a fixed line or radio transmitter to transmit alarm signals. The uncertainty of the country’s power supply exacerbates the problem by often rendering CCTV (closed circuit television) systems inoperable.”


There is, however, a solution, says Elvey’s Wynand Beneke. “Today’s cutting-edge technology means that companies of all shapes and sizes, no matter where they are located, can finally fight back.”

With thousands of hours of consulting and installation experience in a wide range of industries, including the mining, leisure and industrial sectors, he does not hesitate about the best route to go. “The solution to this multimillion rand crime nightmare lies in wireless technology, which is being used with great success on challenging sites.

“The ideal solution for difficult-to-secure sites would be an integrated, battery-powered system that combines wireless alarm with PIR (passive infrared) motion detection, and a built-in IR lens to capture events. This system will not only trigger an alarm and record a crime in progress but will also, through a special access point name (APN) SIM card, send both the alarm signal and the images to the control room and even designated cellphone.”

The many benefits offered by this technology is seeing it increasingly utilised in mines, stadia and construction sites, which all are regularly targeted by thieves after copper and power cable, pipes, airconditioning ducts and even solar panels.

For one, it seamlessly combines GSM/GPRS-based alarm technology with motion detectors and IR camera lens. For another, it is splashproof, making it ideal for locations exposed to rain and sprinklers. Added to this is that it comes with enhanced night vision. What is more, this system can also piggy-back on existing alarm systems, bringing simplicity and cost-savings to the industry.

Another major benefit is that it can stand up to harsh outside conditions such as wind, snow, hail and extreme temperatures. What is more, its completely wireless nature makes it portable and easily installed within hours rather than days.

With regard to the protection of sites in remote areas or those where free access of multiple workers is required, intelligent security is the only reliable way to go. RSI, with its versatility, is the new and intelligent way to authenticate problems on any site. We are talking literally seconds for a response to take place from the time the alarm signal is received by the control room. As soon as the signal arrives, the operator is able to focus on the event unfolding in front of him or her. As virtual eye witnesses, controllers can then make judgment calls on who to dispatch to the site and then keep them informed about what is happening there. Not only does this afford better protection for response officers, but it is also an invaluable tool for the apprehension and prosecution of criminals.

For more information contact Kenny Chiu, marketing manager, Elvey Security Technologies, +27 (0)11 401 6700,


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