Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Tamper-proof bolts are one of the deterrents being considered.

by  Judy Gish
Issue Date: 06/2008

Wire Wars--The Department Strikes Back! Copper wire thieves are a menace to the public and a giant pain for Caltrans. But help is on the way.

When Caltrans routinely installed copper wires in a multitude of projects, the Department never dreamed that they would one day sparkle like diamonds to the eyes of thieves. But then, no one ever anticipated that the lowly metal would one day rise in value from $.70 a pound three years ago to $3.40 a pound today.

The thefts have left the Department reeling, from disappearing guardrails to lighting and signal failures that pose a safety hazard to motorists and costing nearly $800,000 this fiscal year in District 7 alone.

The thieves, who hide behind soundwalls, are virtually undetectable; missing wires are not discovered until lighting outages are investigated, said District 7 Maintenance Manager Dan Sanchez. “The hardest-hit area is where SR-60 and SR-71 intersect, because the 71 has so many connectors and merge points and therefore a lot of lights.” 

Copper wire theft, unfortunately, is not just limited to the District; it’s a statewide and even nationwide problem, growing larger as the economy worsens and the price of copper escalates. And, while Caltrans deals with the impacts to freeways, the public also faces any number of other copper theft-related dangers, such as fire safety (stolen sprinkler heads and hydrants).

Now Caltrans is fighting back with theft deterrent devices and the Legislature is getting onboard by imposing additional fines for theft of materials belonging to transportation entities, government agencies and utilities.

The deterrents range from the fairly simple to the elaborate to the experimental. They include:
• Filling pull boxes with foam and covering them with sand;
• Burying pull boxes to hide wires and splices;
• Using metal pull boxes with special pin head bolts and burying them;
• Using tamper-proof bolts;
• Testing a product called CopperKeeper, which hides the wire and makes it virtually impossible to pull out;
• Developing specially-made pull boxes with specialty locks.

Unfortunately, implementing these measures and devices will be expensive, costing in the millions of dollars, Sanchez said. One of the most useful and inexpensive deterrents, however, might be good old fashioned community involvement. Part of the anti-theft strategy is asking the public to report any suspicious behavior to the California Highway Patrol.  The Department also has its own crack investigators on the case: the HQ Copper Wire Theft Combat Team, which is constantly exploring new products and approaches to this serious problem. 

Sammy Vargas, a Caltrans Electrical Supervisor in the Norwalk office, holds another deterrent device. A close-up of the deterrent device.