Guard Against Copper Thieves

How to keep them from striking your church

Despite declining scrap metal prices and tougher laws in many states, thieves are still targeting churches, vacant buildings, and construction sites in their quest for copper. Church air conditioning units are a frequent target. 

Thieves have been taking other metal items as well: gutters, electrical wiring, and pipes. Catalytic converters, which contain platinum and other precious metals, are being taken from vehicles stored in church parking lots. Even rooftop heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are being destroyed so thieves can nab copper tubing inside.

One Alabama church had its air conditioning units stolen twice in 10 days. Each time, thieves got about $300 worth of copper, and the church had to pay more than $3,000 for replacements.

A church in Detroit, Michigan, spent more than $50,000 to replace heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) units damaged by copper thieves.

How to Protect Yourself

Thieves are opportunists. They want easy access, so they can get what they want quickly and escape without notice. By hindering access and making detection more likely, you can reduce your risk of becoming a victim. Here are some ideas to consider.

Hinder Access

  • Place a cage or fence around air conditioning units.
  • Secure the electrical power shut-off switch. Move the switch, if it’s located near the air conditioning units.
  • Enclose church property with a secure fence.
  • Post “no trespassing” signs.
  • Remove ladders and other items offering easy access to rooftop HVAC units.
  • Replace copper downspouts with other materials.
  • Store vehicles inside locked garages or sheds. If that’s not an option, have members drive vehicles home each night, so they’re not left in parking lots.
  • Don’t leave copper plumbing, gutters, or wiring on construction sites.

Improve Likelihood of Detection

  • Increase lighting around HVAC units and places where thieves might hide.
  • Install alarms on HVAC units. A sensor can be set to trigger an alarm if the power to the AC unit is disconnected or if the AC coolant level drops.
  • Use security cameras to monitor target areas, including construction sites. Some systems feature motion activation and can contact police if activity is detected.
  • Ask church members to drive past the church when they’re in the neighborhood, looking for suspicious cars, people, or activity.
  • Invite church neighbors to call police if they notice unusual activity.
  • Have local police patrol your property regularly during evening and night hours.

Protect Unoccupied Buildings

If any ministry buildings are vacant or temporarily unoccupied, it’s important to protect them. Thieves are more likely to strike empty buildings, since they're less likely to get caught. You’ll want to protect not only the building’s air conditioner, but also any copper plumbing or valuables that may be inside.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Visit vacant or unoccupied buildings regularly to make sure they’re secure.
  • Stagger your visits to make them unpredictable. Don’t show up every Tuesday at 2 p.m.
  • Make them look “lived in.” Shovel snow, mow the lawn, collect newspapers and mail, place lights on timers, and leave a radio or television set on during your absence.
  • Ask neighbors and police to keep an eye on the place.
  • Keep fire and burglar alarm systems operational, so authorities are alerted to problems.

Also, it’s important to let your insurance agent know if any buildings listed on your policy are vacant or unoccupied. If a loss occurs after a building has been unoccupied for more than 60 days, your policy may exclude the loss or reduce your payment by 15 percent.

This makes protecting your investment even more significant, since your church would bear a greater share of any loss.

Additional Steps to Take

  • Contact your local police or fire department. See if they’ll do a free assessment and offer tips for improving your property’s security.
  • Call your legislator. Ask what measures state lawmakers are taking to prevent copper thefts in your area.