Monday, August 27, 2007

Stealing Copper Wire and How Much an Old Penny is Worth

A retired neighbor of my parents collects scrap metal. He does pretty well scavenging the town dumps looking for things people have tossed that have copper in them. He also collects brass and aluminum - he especially loves the heavy aluminum covers of old gas grills. A couple times a year a guy comes out with a truck with a scale on it and he gets paid by the pound. He's learned picking up scrap metal can bring in some good supplemental income.

Occasionally he'll pick up some discarded wire in the dump or a construction site - the last time I was visiting I asked him what he did about wire insulation since he is paid by the pound. The answer is simple - he burns it off.

It looks like thieves have discovered copper also - venturing outside the town dumps and up the telephone poles, cutting wire, burning off the insulation and selling it by the pound to scrap companies. The problem has gotten so bad in the Las Vegas area that Embarq, the 4th largest telecom company in the United States, announced on Wednesday that they are offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone caught stealing copper wire. Here's few Embarq quotes from a piece in The Register:

“Copper theft is going on in any town across the nation. But we thought we’d start here because of the high number of incidents,” commented Charles Fleckenstein, a spokesman with Embarq.

More than 60 people have been arrested for copper theft this year in Las Vegas alone. This type of crime has been on the rise globally in recent years, due to the soaring value of coppers and other metals, which can often be sold as scrap at recycling depots.

"You've got people that are going out there and trying to steal wire cable," said Embarq spokesman Charles Fleckenstein. "It's an area where we have almost 13,000 miles of cable and it just looked like a real good area to get started."

"Copper thieves often drive vans, don hard hats and scale telephone poles, in an attempt to blend in with legitimate telephone workers. But instead of fixing broken lines, they pilfer the wire used to connect ATMs, emergency 911 call centers and phone service".

According to Kitco Metals, scrap copper was selling for approximately 70 cents per lb in August 2002. It closed on Friday at a little over $3.40 per lb.

I'm going to move off topic for a bit. Copper.... you may be thinking pennies - right? A new US penny has a mass of 2.5 grams but wait - new pennies minted after 1982 are 97.5% zinc core with 2.5% copper plating..... not much copper. However, before 1982, their mass was 3.0 grams and they were 95% copper.

Let's take a look at the value of a pre-1982 penny based on the $3.40 per lb copper scrap cost.

1 lb = 453.59237 grams - we can use this to calculate the value of 1 gram of copper:

Value of 1 gram of Copper = ($3.40/lb)/(453.59237 grams/lb) = $0.00749/gram = .749 cents/gram

Now, a pre-1982 penny weighs 3 grams and is 95% copper - it looks like we may be able to make some money here:

Amount of copper in a pre-1982 penny = (.95)(3 grams) = 2.85 grams

Based on .749 cents per gram for scrap copper:

Value of a pre-1982 penny as scrap = (2.85 grams copper/penny)(.749 cents/gram copper) = 2.135 cents/penny!!


Is it legal to sell pennies as scrap? I'm not sure - the closest answer I've found is here. Regardless - a pre-1982 penny is worth more than twice its face value as scrap and you know what some (legal or illegal) are doing....... and..... Zinc closed at $1.40/lb on Friday........

Copper thieves are not just stealing wire and old pennies - air conditioner units are also hot items because they contain a lot of copper. Image living in Las Vegas in the middle of the summer and having your phone lines cut out and air conditioner stolen...... Sweltering heat with no way to call the air conditioning company - bring on Fiber to the Home.

And speaking of fiber to the home - last month I blogged here about Verizon cutting out copper lines to homes that are having FIOS fiber to the home service installed. If Verizon is cutting this stuff out and dumping it in a landfill tell me where - I'll quit my job, buy a truck and hit the dumps!

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