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Sounding alarm on copper heists

This article was published in August 2020 and may be outdated.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “heist?” Diamonds? Big stacks of cash? A famous painting stolen from a museum?

What about copper theft?

It might not be a movie-grade caper, but across North America, thieves make off with hundreds of pounds of copper wire from utility equipment, new house builds, and even car wiring — it can be that lucrative when sold for scrap. In our case, copper thieves cut fences, climb walls, and sometimes even use disguises to get into high-voltage areas and strip as much wire as possible. They also chop copper ground wire off hydro poles, often in broad daylight.

All Manitoba Hydro copper is stamped and identifiable, but a good middleman has ways of disguising where the scrap came from. To opportunistic thieves, stealing copper seems like the perfect crime: Get in, get out, nobody gets hurt. Easy money. Right?

Wrong. Every time a thief steals copper from a Manitoba Hydro facility, the thief is in danger, the neighbourhood is in danger, and potentially everything you plug into your house is in danger. We use copper as a “grounding” material; some electrical equipment won’t function properly without it, and some will, but becomes dangerous.

For example, if lightning strikes equipment near a substation, we rely on copper grounds to safely disperse the extra current into the earth. Without that copper, the electricity could jump to other equipment, nearby objects like metal fences, or — in the worst cases — people.

Some of our equipment is grounded to regulate voltage across the system, and without copper it can cause power surges to homes and businesses. In North America, almost everything is rated for either 120 volts or 240 volts — without copper at our stations, power can surge to levels much higher than that. These surges can damage electronics, fry appliances, and in extreme cases may even cause fires.

Why use copper?

If thieves love copper so much, why do we still use it? Because it’s the best metal for the job.

Pound for pound, copper is capable of carrying more current than any other standalone metal, which makes it ideal to tie into the ground.

But thanks to the latest alloy technology, we can use copper-clad steel to ground equipment instead. The copper carries the current, while the steel significantly lowers its scrap value and makes it more difficult to cut. We outfit all new substations with copper-clad steel and refresh the old ones with it when copper wire gets stolen.

Preventative measures

In addition to using copper-clad steel, we also install security cameras at substations, alert scrap metal companies, and work with law enforcement to investigate and apprehend thieves. The charges we seek aren’t just copper theft, either – we also seek damages for our station and equipment.

We also encourage our staff to look around substations when they’re driving by in case they spot someone or something out of place. And we educate people on the dangers of stealing copper – that it can kill you – and we talk to local communities about copper theft, where possible, to spread the word.

But we can still use your help.

If you see something suspicious around our poles or substations, call police. If you notice copper is missing from a pole or substation, call us. Stealing copper from our equipment is no joke: it puts you, your loved ones, and your house in danger, plus the person stealing it could be killed.

Help us stop copper thieves. You, your neighbourhood, and your power will be safer. Call your local police, or us: 204-480-5900 in Winnipeg or 1-888-624-9376 toll-free.