194. According to the Charlotte County Sherriff’s office, this is the number of air conditioners stolen from residential and commercial properties in Charlotte County between January, 2011 and October, 2012. Hard economic times and rising metal prices have contributed to the increase in metal theft not only in our area, but nationwide. Air conditioners are only one of the types of machinery being targeted, but with their copper and aluminum components, they represent a decent payday for metal thieves. With the price of copper at approximately $3.50 per pound, a thief can expect a scrap metal profit of about $40 per air conditioning unit. This is a drop in the bucket, though, in comparison with the owner’s cost of repairing or replacing the vandalized unit — often upwards of $1000.
The victims of air conditioner theft are not only the owners of the stolen or vandalized units. The environment also suffers from such crimes. Cutting a condenser unit’s refrigerant lines releases a harmful gas, such as Freon, into the atmosphere. Releasing refrigerant without a license to do so is considered a punishable offense by the EPA, with fines upwards of $10,000 and the possibility of incarceration 1.
But, why all of this risk for a mere forty bucks? Well, considering that it can take a thief only about ten minutes to disassemble an air conditioner, cut the condenser lines, harvest the copper tubing or aluminum parts, and make their getaway, the risk is rather minimal. Also, these crooks generally target vacant houses, or commercial locations and even churches after-hours, where they are less likely to be spotted. Additionally, this type of thievery is often not a central livelihood, but is rather done to earn the cash to support other less-than-legal pursuits.
The bottom line: anyone’s air conditioner is at risk. Like the proverbial saying, the best offense against such crimes is defense, and there are fortunately several steps you can take to protect yourself from the costs related to the theft or vandalization of your home or commercial air conditioning units.
First, here are a few recommendations:
- Use hedges or fencing to obscure your air conditioning unit from easy detection. If necessary, have your unit relocated so that it can’t be viewed or accessed easily from the street.
- Etch the property address into the copper tubing or on various areas of the air conditioner. This will make it easier to trace the origin of the metal in case of theft, and will likely deter some thieves.
- Check your homeowner’s or property insurance policy to see if your air conditioning unit is covered for theft and vandalization.
There are also many products available that will help you secure your condenser unit. These include:
- Surveillance Cameras
- Motion Lights
Alarms, surveillance systems, and motion lights all aid in theft detection, and may in some cases deter a thief from attempting to steal your AC in the first place. However, alarms and motion lights may often deliver false positives, making them more hassle than they are worth. And surveillance cameras, while they can help in catching the thief after the fact, can do little to prevent a crime from occurring, as they will likely go undetected by the thief.
The most effective way to protect your condenser unit is to purchase what is known as an AC cage. These cages are exactly what they sound like – metal bars, some with wire mesh filling in the gaps, which form a protective barrier around your air conditioner. They are often anchored securely to a concrete base or into the ground. AC cages render theft very difficult, or even impossible, prompting thieves to look elsewhere for a speedy heist. Cages are reasonably-priced, in the neighborhood of $300, and can be installed by anyone with some handyman prowess and basic power tools. Although, consulting with your HVAC contractor before purchasing or installing an AC cage is recommended. A licensed contractor can ensure that the AC cage will not interfere with regular maintenance of the condenser unit, and will likely be able to help you install it, or give you recommendations as to the best product.
So, don’t let metal theft hit you where it hurts. Armed with this information, you can give these thieves a run for their money. Taking steps to ensure that your property is protected can potentially save you thousands of dollars, give you peace of mind, and help put an end to the national metal theft epidemic.
1 “Section 608 of the Clean Air Act: Stationary Refrigeration and Air Conditioning“, United Stated Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).