“Honestly, I am thinking of just taping a $100 bill to the next one I install,” the business owner said, shaking his head. For the second time in a year, he was making a police report on a stolen central air conditioning unit. “It will be cheaper for me. They get something like $80 worth of copper out of the thing, and it costs me $1400 to replace it!”
In the last few years, as the price of copper has risen, so has the price of air conditioners and the demand for scrap copper to recycle. Theft of air conditioners and air conditioner parts have risen right along with the price of copper. Imagine coming home from vacation and finding an empty concrete pad where your central air conditioning unit used to be. Or waking in the middle of the night to a strange hissing sound or a too-warm house, and finding your air conditioner gutted but still safely bolted to its foundation!
While taping $100 bills to your AC unit is not feasible, there are steps you can take to make your air conditioner harder to steal. No system is perfect, but most thieves are after the easy score. Anything you can do to “harden the target” will make it more likely that the thief will bypass your home, or even get caught in the act.
There are two kinds of thefts, for two kinds of resales. One is theft of complete units, which is mostly done by organized rings who sell the units directly to consumers (some of whom are trying to replace their own stolen units on the cheap!) or unethical builders and renovators who reinstall the air conditioners elsewhere. The more common type of theft targets the copper innards, and this is usually done by a single thief. He destroys your air conditioner by prying it open and removing the copper parts. These thefts are most prevalent in areas near a metal recycling business, but thieves have been caught ransacking subdivisions fifty miles from their home as well!
Once the theft has occurred, there is little that the police can do to catch the perpetrator after the fact. Although such a theft can be financially devastating to a homeowner or business, in a busy police department, violent and person crimes such as murders, rapes, and robberies take priority over property crimes. Even if a police officer or detective wants to work the case, there are few leads. As they are working with leaking coolant and sharp metallic edges, thieves almost always wear gloves. The metal recyclers know that a significant portion of incoming metal is probably stolen, but they usually follow a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In fact, county and state governments have been scrambling to put laws in place requiring the recyclers to keep records of sellers, because the industry has been so loosely monitored in the past.
So what can you do? The best approach is to keep a thief from going after your air conditioner at all by making it too hard to steal.
1. Fence in the yard, and lock the gate.
If your air conditioner is behind the house or on a side near the back, install a back yard fence that has the unit inside its perimeter. Make the fence as high as allowed by your local zoning regulations–backyards are usually allowed to have higher fences. Anything under 6 feet is too easy to climb over. For the same reason, choose a fence made of closely set wooden panels over chain link, and face the side with the braces to the inside rather than the outside. Have a lockable latch on the gate, and buy a lock that is more difficult to pick or cut. Higher end, specially keyed locks require special picking equipment most thieves will not have, and the round locks are impossible for most amateurs to cut.
2. Cage your air conditioner.
Any barrier around the unit will make it a less tempting target. Businesses have added chain link enclosures with locked gates, and landscapers can suggest thick, thorny bushes to make the unit less accessible (although any HVAC technician will also be cursing you!). Make sure that there is enough space between the barrier and the unit that air can circulate freely. Otherwise, the air conditioner will not work correctly. In response to the increase in thieves, different types of steel and iron cages have come on the market, some as cheap and basic as a criss-crossed pair of rebar pieces, and others with decorative leaves and vines in the design to make the cage less of an eyesore. The 2-piece rebar cages will not prevent a determined vandal from opening the unit and salvaging the copper from it, so if you decide to go this route, choose a true cage made from strong metal. And again, lock it up with a padlock that is difficult to impossible for the typical thief to defeat. And while you are at it, lock up the power box too–a thief will think twice about your air conditioner if he cannot turn off the juice running to it!
3. Light it up.
Place motion sensor lights that will shine directly onto the area where the air conditioner is. This is especially useful if your air conditioner is within view of the street. Of course, this only works in places where there are more likely to be observers. If you live in an area where the houses are more spread out, or if your business is in an industrial area that is mostly deserted at night, the lights will help the thief work faster!
4. Include the air conditioner in your alarm system.
If you already have an alarm system on your home or business, talk to your vendor about expanding it to include proximity or motion sensors near the air conditioning unit. Choose an audible alarm as well, which will likely scare off a thief in a quiet residential area or business district. A silent alarm will aid in catching a crook in the act, but by the time he is caught, he will probably have damaged the air conditioner. If you do not yet have a security system for your location and decide to get one, get quotes that include air conditioner sensors.
5. Keep eyes on the air conditioner at all times.
Businesses with large, very expensive air conditioning systems, or who have been frequent targets of theft, might consider upgrading their security to a camera system that is continuously monitored by the security company. Many services offer guarantees that include paying your expenses if a thief gets past their monitoring without being noticed. Such a service can cost several hundred dollars per month, but for larger or frequently victimized businesses, it can be money well spent.
If you take some extra steps to make your air conditioner harder to steal or break into, you will be able to keep your cool throughout the hot season–literally!