Police say warmer months unveil an all-to-familiar problem in Lee’s Summit: Copper thefts

tporter@lsjournal.comJune 20, 2014 

The warmer months have brought a familiar problem in Lee’s Summit: the theft of cooper.

Particularly this year copper stolen from HVAC units seems to be the trend.

From April 1 of this year to May 21, Lee’s Summit Police Department recorded 29 incident reports regarding the theft of cooper from 60 HVAC units.

Most of the thefts – 20 in total – have been reported in the LSPD’s Sixth District, which comprises downtown Lee’s Summit. Some of the downtown thefts were from churches, others were from smaller businesses, including a preschool, and a handful of other thefts were from residential homes. The others thefts were spread out throughout the city, but in those cases just one or two incidents were reported.

“We have had some businesses, including churches, that have been targeted for A/C unit thefts” said Lee’s Summit Police Officer Beth Glover. Glover cited commercial HVAC units being sizably larger compared to residential units as an underlying factor in the thefts from businesses. “We’ve actually had a lot of residential homes – either new homes under construction or vacant homes and foreclosures and that type of thing – have been hit as well, so it’s not necessarily been a total focus on churches.

“I think where the concern comes in when you’re talking about businesses is they have a greater loss than a single-unit home. Some of the churches that have been hit have multiple units and they were commercial size, so it’s quite a bit more money to replace those units.”

Glover said thieves are not taking entire units, but are stealing the copper that runs from the structure to the HVAC unit to expedite the process.

“What we have noticed is they are cutting the tubing that goes from the structure to the actual unit,” she said. “They’re not actually taking apart the unit because when they take apart the unit there is a risk of getting electrocuted. There’s a risk of cutting the Freon line and letting it come out so there is a little bit of risk there. What we have seen this summer, particularly, that we didn’t see last year is that they are cutting the copper out from the tubing. They’re not even disassembling the unit.”

Police investigators have had a difficult time pinpointing a suspect, but after a man reported to be a squatter was questioned recently, a majority of the thefts stopped. The man was found in possession of multiple pieces of scrap metal and a few tools, but there was not enough evidence to arrest or charge him with a crime related to theft, LSPD Police Sgt. Chris Depue said.

“It’s hard to trace scrap metal,” Depue said. “There are no serial numbers or any other indicators to tell us where the scrap metals come from.”

Matt Spellerberg, sales manager of AFC Unit and Cooling at 824 N.W. Main St., said the cost to replace damaged HVAC units are astronomical compared to the price one could fetch for metal sold to a scrap dealer.

Most transactions net $30 to $50 at a scrap yard.

“Sometimes the damage can be so severe that the units are no longer salvageable,” Spellerberg said. “So then you’re looking at spending at a minimum $2,500 for a new air conditioner system. Sometimes it can be higher. It’s crazy.”

Spellerberg said he knew of at least five instances of stolen copper from HVAC units. He offered professional expertise on how to safeguard against potential loss.

“We offer cages that can be bolted to the ground,” he said. “We recommend padlocking the high-voltage disconnect boxes so they can’t just turn off the high voltage power; there’s more steps for them to actually have access to the units. And in some case, you can even wire in a low-pressure switch that is tied to your alarm system.

If a refrigeration system is cut and it loses all of it pressure, the low pressure can trip. If the alarm system allows it, it can trigger the alarm and police or other people can be called.”

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