Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Come and Get Me, Copper

By Matt Cantor
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 10:29:00 AM

I’m a great retrospective investor. Not so good at guessing which stocks to pick today but I’m really good at knowing which company or trend I should have bought last year. I guess we’re all a bit like that. Copper is a wonderful example. Its had quite a wild ride over the last six years or so and one of those years saw close to a tripling in value. Copper started out at about 75 cents a pound in 2002 and is now nearly four dollars a pound. I guess some people feel so bad about missing out on the copper boom that they’re willing to climb under your house and leave with your plumbing. No joke—this is actually happening so much these days that its become common news. 

An article in the Hanford Sentinel (King’s County) last September criticized the fact that California laws regarding the recycling of copper and other metals are lax. A law was proposed that would force recyclers to pay for metals by check sent with a 10-day waiting period and would also require photographing cars and driver’s licenses of those bringing in the metal. One local county supervisor had 10 grand in copper stolen from his farm and fully four hundred thousand in metal had been stolen from other farmers in the county in 2006. I find that astonishing. 

All over the country, farmers, municipal rail systems and large factories are being hit. Sometimes again and again. Police can’t begin to keep up. 

I was inspecting a large facility in Alameda last year, one of the buildings left vacant by the Naval base closure, when I began, slowly at first to notice something very odd. Every room I entered was devoid of plumbing and wiring. This building had housed a thousand-gallon water heater (a holding tank actually; it was fed by a 100-gallon water heater that ran though a loop to keep the big one full). The place had been built to shower a hundred sailors at a time and so the plumbing was really big. The incoming line was a three-inch copper pipe and it had been sawed through just after the main valve, which had been turned off.  

Well, three-inch copper must be about a pound or two a foot, maybe more, and there had been a lot of it before it began to reduce down to the smaller pipes that fed the sinks and showers, the restaurant and the hose spigots. This place was so big it had its own bowling alley and it had been stripped bare of every bit of copper piping. I can only guess, but it must have been about a thousand pounds of pipe. Then there was the wiring. The building had a main panel on the outside and about four or five really big breaker panels inside. The covers had been removed and there was nothing inside. Just the lonely little breakers and miles of conduit that had been pulled bare. Amazing. This must have taken some time but it was probably done at night and, of course, the place was vacant. 

Part of what I found so awful about this was that the cost of replacing all of this plumbing and wiring was going to be several (perhaps many) times whatever it was that these wastrels had made for their malfeasant efforts. It would have been better to just give them a bag of crack and send them on their way than to have to drop fifty or a hundred thousand dollars replumbing and rewiring the building. 

Earlier this year, I saw another one. Again, the main had been cut and, this time, the thieves were less adventurous and had merely cleared the crawlspace of all the copper piping. Nonetheless, a few thousand were going to be spent repairing the damage. In this case, I doubt if the thieves could have recouped more than about forty or fifty bucks, but I guess that’s enough to make a night of it in the thrilling world of drug abuse. 

At least one city building official I met recently had seen enough of this to recommend to a client of mine that she paint the bright new copper ground wire on the front of her house just as soon as she can manage to do so. He’d obviously been privy to more than a few recent cases of copper theft. 

So here are a few things to think about for yourself when it comes to this wonderful new hobby that’s sweeping the nation. First, lock your crawlspace. If you have a property that is not currently occupied, this is triply recommended. These are the really popular sites for thieves. Also, if you ARE doing construction anywhere, lock up the wire and pipe or at least, keep it out of sight. If your contractor isn’t aware of this issue, please inform them for their sake and for yours. 

It may be some small concession to know that thieves periodically fry themselves while stealing electrical wire (this may be apocrypha but its all over the web thanks in part to my friend Wendy Northcutt and her Darwin Awards books) but the bad news is that this is probably going to get worse before it gets better. If I had the prescience to know what copper futures look like, I’d be happy to tell you but what I can guess is that the value of the plumbing and wiring inside your house isn’t going to drop anytime soon.  

Just think of your copper as if it were 14 carat gold—you wouldn’t leave that stuff unguarded, would you? So here’s a sound investment: a hasp, a padlock and an hour of your handyman’s time. And when you’re re-plumbing, perhaps its time to think about using plastic!