As a young couple walks down a nearly deserted downtown street one night, they make eye contact with a visibly nervous, trench coat-wearing man standing outside an apartment.

The woman clutched her purse a little tighter as they walk by.

"Pssst," the man says. "Wanna buy some copper?"

OK, so maybe that's not how the sale of copper scrap is handled these days, but I hope you can forgive my imagination. The news media has been full of stories of thieves breaking into businesses and abandoned homes to steal copper plumbing, wiring and fixtures.

The sudden interest, as many contractors who do plumbing or architectural sheet metal work know, is because copper prices have hit record highs in recent months. According to MetalPrices.com, a Colorado company, copper is currently averaging about $3.50 a pound. Two years ago, the price was less than half as much.

That makes scrap copper a very precious metal. A Google News search for "copper thefts" in late September revealed hundreds of articles. In Greenville County, S.C., two men were killed this year attempting to remove the copper from neighborhood power lines. Similar deaths have been reported in Texas, Colorado and Michigan.

Clamping down

In Detroit, which has been hit by copper thieves targeting streetlights and even churches, the City Council is considering an ordinance to require scrap dealers to keep records of their sales and purchases, and give the information to police, similar to what many cities require of pawn shop operators. The city would also require dealers to install surveillance cameras.

The rash of copper thefts, I imagine, is having a profound effect on HVAC contractors, since one of the products they deal in - central air conditioners - contain huge amounts of copper tubing. Many homeowners are reporting that thieves are removing their air-conditioning units from the back yard, while others are carting off the units from residential construction sites, where oftentimes the air conditioners sit unguarded.

With copper prices so high, I'm not surprised about the sudden increase in thefts, but the lengths some people will go to for what usually must amount to just a few dollars is eye opening. Some newspaper articles have quoted police as saying they believe many of the riskiest thefts, like copper taken from electrical lines, are drug addicts feeding an addiction.

For those of you who use copper in HVAC or architectural work, have you experienced any thefts? I'd like to hear about them. Please contact me at SNIPS magazine, BNP Media, 2401 W. Big Beaver Road, Suite 700, Troy, MI 48084, or send an e-mail to mcconnellm@bnpmedia.com. Include your name and title, as well as your company's name and location, and a way to contact you. We may print your comments on this page or use them in an article.

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