Copper is disappearing from Ameren Illinois’ substations, off power poles and even from linemen’s locked work trucks. Robbers are then trying to sell Ameren’s copper wiring to local scrap yards.

Linemen typically carry about three to four 25-lb reels of copper in their trucks and lock them in storage compartments. They typically use the copper wiring for jobs such as setting a pole or installing a jumper or pole ground.

Because copper can be worth up to $3 a pound, thieves have stolen this copper and then tried to sell it to local scrap yards. While the robbers may get away with $100 to $200 worth of copper, however, it can cost Ameren Illinois thousands of dollars to make the repair. In addition, it can cause power disruptions and even put linemen at risk because of the removal of grounds at substations or on power poles.

Last year, Ameren Illinois spent $250,000 to purchase and replace stolen copper throughout its service territory, said Richard J. Mark, president and CEO of Ameren Illinois.

“The safety of our employees and customers is our top priority at Ameren Illinois,” Mark says. “This type of theft is placing our coworkers at high risk of injury and could leave our customers in the dark due to an unexpected outage. Thanks to tougher legislation, stealing copper from a utility, in many cases, is a felony, and Ameren Illinois will prosecute to the full extent of the law.”

Copper theft has happened not only at Ameren Illinois, but at electric utilities nationwide. And the problem is not limited to utilities. In addition to stripping copper from transformers, thieves are also taking copper from air conditioners, telecom cable, tornado warning sirens and even railroad tracks.

According to a recent report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, 96% of the more than 25,000 insurance claims filed for stolen metals were for copper theft.

While Ohio tops the list of states with metal theft insurance claims, Illinois is ranked in fifth place behind Texas, Georgia and California. In Ameren Illinois’ service territory, the utility has experienced a rash of copper thefts.

Most recently, culprits managed to make their way onto the property of the Belleville, Illinois, operating center. Inside, they actually loaded up an Ameren Illinois work truck with spools of copper wiring and the linemen’s tools. They then tried to drive the truck through the fence surrounding the operating center. Rain, however, put a stop to their plans. After the truck’s wheels got stuck in the mud, the robbers fled on foot and escaped before police arrived on the scene.

Dealing with Copper Theft

To prevent future incidents, Ameren Illinois is protecting its substations and operating centers with fences, video cameras and motion sensors. Despite these preventive measures, however, robbers are still finding their way into substations to remove the copper wiring, which grounds the towers used to step down the high-line voltage to a distribution voltage. In turn, this presents a significant safety hazard to linemen because the equipment then becomes energized. If the linemen come in contact with the tower, they have a high risk of being electrocuted.

For that reason, linemen are always taught that when they go into a substation, they need to look to see if the copper is removed and then act accordingly. In addition, they also need to be careful when climbing power poles in case the copper grounds have been stolen.

Copper inspection

Linemen always install a copper ground wire from the top to the bottom of every pole. Oftentimes, thieves will try to steal this copper as high as they can reach, typically up to 8 ft off of the ground. As a result, the pole is no longer grounded, and the neutral and ground potential will be different, leading to a possible electrocution of a lineman.

Handling Vehicle Break-Ins

Unfortunately, the thieves are not only targeting the substations, they are also stealing copper wiring from the utility’s work headquarters, operating centers and even from linemen’s trucks.

When the Ameren Illinois linemen are either working up in a bucket or on the ground away from their work trucks, robbers have snuck up to the truck and used bolt cutters to snip the padlocks off of the locked storage units. They then help themselves to the entire spools of copper wiring as well as to cell phones, mobile computers and other tools.

When the linemen leave their work trucks in easements or out in the street, they often can’t see what’s happening when they’re out in the backyard. The theft often occurs when the linemen aren’t in full view of their work truck.

When a lineman reports that a copper theft has occurred, Ameren Illinois calls the police and officers often come out to the job site, take a report and then take fingerprints. That area is then considered a crime scene, and it can delay work by a few hours or more.

The robberies are often frustrating for the field crews who come out ready to do their work, and then when they check their trucks, something is missing. They then have to turn around and start their day by restocking their trucks. They also have to do a complete inventory of all the tools and items within the truck to ensure that nothing else has been taken besides the copper wiring.

This is especially problematic during emergency situations. In the middle of the night, when a lineman has to make repairs because of a large outage, it can delay the restoration process if tools or materials are taken off of the truck. While the utility usually will allow the lineman to get on to another truck, he or she may not be as familiar with the tools on that truck and the transition will take additional time to deal with.