The design and technology behind Southwire Co.'s award-winning Proof Positive Copper with Trace ID Technology is elegant in its simplicity, but the innovation resolves the two key problems that have left neighborhoods and utilities vulnerable to copper wire theft.
The run-up in copper prices—more than doubling to $3.3985 per pound on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange at the start of this year from $1.4535 a year earlier, and still hovering in a lofty $3.18- to $3.19-per-pound range in mid-May—spurred a flurry of copper thefts across the nation as small-time thieves recognized that 100 pounds of copper wire pilfered from a church or a foreclosed house could fetch upward of $300 at a scrapyard. Recent cases include copper water pipe taken from a church near Seattle, leaving parishioners unable to serve Sunday breakfast; copper wire stolen from a railroad signal switch near Burlington, Pa., resulting in major delays for the rail system there; and a foiled attempt to steal copper cable from a Verizon truck in West Virginia in broad daylight.
"You tend to see more crime in a down economy no matter what industry, but it's worse because copper prices are higher now," one Midwest scrap processor said. "The higher copper gets, the more theft you see."
The biggest concern is copper wire taken from electrical substations. If the stolen cables are used for grounding electrical current, the theft can result in the electrocution of the thieves or an unsuspecting maintenance worker assigned to fix the resulting power outages.
"People are stealing grounding conductors out of utility operations and then reselling them for scrap, and if that critical component is missing it can cause harm to either the public or the utility's own crews," said Carol Godfrey, vice president of marketing at Carrollton, Ga.-based Southwire, which worked with customers to address the problem and, in an ironic twist, itself fell victim to a $500,000 heist of copper rod.
Commodities like copper wire are utilitarian precisely because they are easily fungible, but the lack of differentiation exposes users to unforeseen problems when goods are stolen. With no way to prove ownership, law enforcement can't prosecute suspected copper thieves for possessing stolen property and the goods can't be easily returned to their rightful owners.
Southwire, a privately owned company that manufactures a variety of commercial wire and cable products, set out to find a solution to the problem. "We worked with local law enforcement, with the recycler side and the customer—in this case the utility side. It helped us understand what their issues were," Godfrey said.
The result is Proof Positive copper wire, which is branded in two ways to make it stand out without sacrificing the product's performance or limiting its applications. First, one of the outer strands in a Proof Positive copper wire is tinned, creating a clear visual marker that sets it aside from other products and letting would-be thieves know the wire is marked. The central strand also is tinned and has a serial number and a Web address laser-etched into it at foot-long increments. Serial numbers are assigned at the point of sale and stored by the company on the Trace ID Technology Web-based system that allows retailers, recyclers and law enforcement officials to check the rightful ownership on any Internet-ready device, even an iPhone.
The simple but smart product design addressed the two core issues customers were most concerned about It allows for positive proof of ownership, and it carries visual indicators to would-be thieves that the wire is marked. versity earlier this year.
Southwire wouldn't discuss the proprietary production process, but said it chose tin for a practical aspect. "The material needs to meet a particular cost—you can't make it too expensive. We chose tin for visible differentiation on the outside so that people understand it's an ID-marked wire, but it still works in electrical connectors and doesn't change the electrical component in the system," Godfrey said. This allows for Proof Positive Copper to be used in the field without any adjustments or changes to existing electrical equipment and without incurring any integration costs.
While Southwire sells the product for a premium over comparable unmarked copper, the small price difference is likened to an insurance policy that protects the overall investment consumers are making in their copper infrastructure.
And the product works. Southwire placed some Proof Positive Copper at a substation operated by Georgia Power Co. "Within 10 days the material was stolen, but the thieves took it to a recycler who we had engaged in the (development) process and several individuals were arrested for having utility property in their possession," Godfrey said.
Recycler reaction to the product has been largely positive. "It's a great step forward. We're on the Georgia scrap metal task force and we have worked with Georgia Power. It's great to put an ID on some of their cable," said Frank Goulding, vice president of marketing at Newell Recycling LLC in East Point, Ga. "We have 12 operations in Georgia and we have samples of this wire or photos of it in all of our scale rooms, so our scale staff are trained and we're always on the lookout for it."
Other scrap buyers, who weren't part of the Georgia program, agree that Proof Positive stands to benefit the industry. "I think it's great whenever you can cut down on crime, so this could be a good deterrent. Thieves may not know that yet though," the Midwest recycler said.
"The concept is great," a buyer for another Midwest scrap processor said. "We get a lot of our material from the street, so it's great to be able to establish rightful ownership."