RFID Prevents Copper Theft

By Claire Swedberg

Armed Response Team provides Inovonics' RFID system in conjunction with a manned response to attempted thefts at electrical boxes in Albuquerque.


In response to four incidents involving the theft of copper electrical wires at its showroom in Albuquerque, Accent Southwest Windows and Doors is now employing an RFID-based solution combining an arsenal of police officers and automated wireless sensors.

For businesses, the theft of copper wire can be a recurring problem. Electrical service boxes—access points for the underground wires that provide electric power to companies—are frequently located outside a building, where thieves can potentially access the wires and pull them out of the boxes. The process of stealing copper wire can take 30 minutes to an hour to complete, but if a box is located in a secluded area, a thief can pull off such a heist without being observed, and then sell the copper on the black market for triple the price that it would have fetched just a few years ago. A burglar can simply rip out the wires, and later strip off the insulation in order to sell the bare copper. For businesses, the expense is often absorbed by insurance companies, though a company’s operations can remain down for a day or more until rewiring of its electrical service can be accomplished.

ART’s CEO, David Meurer

To deter such thefts, Accent Southwest Windows and Doors deployed a solution provided by Armed Response Team (ART), utilizing an active 915 MHz ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) Gen 2 RFID tag from Inovonics. The tag transmits an alert upon sensing that an electrical service box’s door is open, says David Meurer, Armed Response Team’s owner and CEO, thereby indicating that someone might be tampering with the box. ART has provided the solution to approximately 50 businesses to date throughout the Albuquerque area, in order to thwart thieves from stealing copper wires.

ART was founded in 2004 by a retired police officer, to provide a manned response to calls or burglar alarms. The problem, the company explains, was that local law-enforcement departments were often called to handle false alarms. Burglar alarms have a battery as a backup power source, and are designed to trigger an alert if the main power goes out. Although an alert might be caused by a thief cutting electrical wires, a simple power outage could also trigger an alert, resulting in a false alarm. What’s more, in the event of a copper theft, a burglar alarm will only trigger an alert once the wire has been cut, bv which point it may be too late to thwart the burglary. Therefore, ART’s leadership turned to Inovonics for a solution to this problem. Inovonics provided a transmitter and sensor built into a single device that detects the opening of the circuit box before wires can be tampered with, and issues an alert via radio frequency identification.

About a year ago, Armed Response Team installed the Inovonics system at Accent Southwest Windows and Doors, as well as at other businesses across the Albuquerque area that face the same problem. The RFID tag fits within the electrical box, and transmits a signal at preset intervals, thereby indicating that the alert status of that box is normal.

Meurer declines to provide details regarding Accent Southwest’s installation. However, he says, most installations generally involve the same steps. If someone opens an electrical box, the RFID tag senses that action and transmits an alert, via a propriety air-interface protocol, to a reader installed in the vicinity, either on a wall or a post, located up to 300 to 500 feet away. The interrogator captures the transponder’s ID number and alert status, and forwards that information via a cable or GPRS connection to a server hosted by Armed Response Team. Dispatchers receive the alert and contact one if the firm’s security guards (most of whom are retired police officers) to respond to the alert with an address matching the reader’s ID number in the database. In the event that power goes out, the reader can continue monitoring the tag’s status—determining whether the circuit box’s door is closed, or if it has been opened without permission—and then transmit that data via battery backup.

If a maintenance worker needs to access the circuit box, a notice printed on the box warns that the system is protected by RFID, and instructs him or her to call the ART monitoring station. The employee then calls the station, provides a password (supplied by the building owner or tenant) and opens the box. Upon completing his or her work, the worker calls the monitoring station once more, and the system is restored to active status.

In the event that there are several boxes spread out far from a convenient location, the Inovonics tag is capable of receiving and forwarding data from nearby tags, says Mark Jarman, Inovonics’ president, so that data can hop from one transponder to the next until reaching the interrogator.

The data is managed by Inovonics software, which is provided on a server hosted by Inovonics. The software can not only issue alerts to the ART dispatcher, but also store information, thereby maintaining a record of activity regarding a particular box—such as the number of times that alerts were sent.

According to Meurer, the greatest advantage to the Inovonics system is that it is wireless. “We didn’t want to introduce more wires” at the electrical boxes, he states. Instead, he says, an Inovonics RFID tag is powered by a battery with a lifetime of “a couple of years.” Armed Response Team provides the solution for a one-time fee that covers the cost of the hardware, as well as installation, and also charges a monthly fee for monitoring and response.

To date, Meurer says, there has been only one successful copper wire theft sustained by a user of the system. In that instance, electrical workers had inadvertently disabled the transponder while working on an electrical box and the system had not been configured to send an alert if the reader no longer received signals indicating that the status of that box is normal. Therefore, the system failed to issue alerts during the burglary. Current systems are all configured to automatically send alerts if a reader stops receiving a tag’s signal.