News from CNN about a disturbing trend in copper theft. Thieves are ripping the wiring out/off of light poles at athletic fields, causing thousands of dollars in damages. Since most fields are in less developed areas, dark at night, and unguarded, this makes them easy targets.

In their quest for copper, which is valued for its conductive properties, thieves exact devastating collateral damage, from rendering cancer patients unable to seek radiation treatment at a clinic in Vista, California, to leaving entire neighborhoods without power, as was the case last week in Ohio.

As communities have stepped up efforts to stem the thefts, bandits have become more resourceful, turning from traditional targets like electric substations, construction sites and homes to cemeteries, artillery ranges and athletic fields.

In the past three months alone, CNN found at least five incidents of copper wiring thefts from light poles on athletic fields, in addition to the three incidents in metro Atlanta.

“Usually, athletic fields aren’t guarded, they don’t have locked fences and they’re pretty easy to get into,” said Bill Verner, vice president of government relations and communications for the Georgia Electric Membership Corporation, a statewide trade association serving Georgia’s 42 electric cooperatives.

“Copper theft is like where identity theft was 15 years ago. It’s becoming an epidemic that’s affecting everyone, and the cost of damages often falls on the consumer, or in the case of athletic fields, the teams that use them,” he said.

I’ve read about copper thefts for a long time, but honestly never thought about them going after the lighting on athletic fields. Makes sense though, since lighting systems have extremely long cable runs and use very thick wire given the currents used to drive the lights. It would be interesting to know which types of systems they are hitting. I’d imagine getting the wire out of a structured system like MUSCO would be difficult where the ballasts are elevated off the ground and there is no easy access to the wires elsewhere inside the metal pole. But many fields have conduit running up the poles, making it easy for thieves to cut the conduit and pull out the wire. A lot of fields have their lighting panels outside, making them even more vulnerable.

I like the idea of changing the law to make the charge apply to the the cost of the materials stolen AND the damage inflicted to get the copper – making it a felony in most cases. I can’t say we’re doing anything in particular to guard our fields. We used to leave a couple individual lamps on all night for security, but neighbor complaints forced us to turn them all off. However our cables are terminated in a locked building and on the pole end are embedded in the poles, with the boxes elevated 12 feet off the ground. So to get to the wire they’d have to break into the closet to access one end and the light poles to access the other and it would be difficult to attach anything at either end to pull the wire out (you can’t do it by hand in most cases). Still vulnerable I guess, but hopefully not as much as others. I expect at some point the lighting companies will have to start running alarm circuits to each pole that trip an alarm if the ballast/control/junction boxes are opened on the poles. Given the cost of your average lighting system, this would be a minimal increase in cost.

Does your league take steps to protect your field lighting? If so, what are you doing?