Farmers take action to keep copper thieves at bay
The call came on a Monday night in May—someone had cut the copper wiring to Watson Tolson’s irrigation line. A 6,000-acre row crop farmer in Lynchburg, S.C., he had 1,200 acres under irrigation, run by 14 pivots. Taking his spotlight, Tolson called the sheriff and headed to the field.
His neighbors and son also got the call. Coming from different directions, they caught the thieves in the act and restrained them until law enforcement arrived. This was the 14th time thieves had cut and stripped copper wire from irrigation lines in the area, but it would be the last.
Once just a problem where urban and rural areas overlap, copper theft is occurring in more rural areas. Tolson’s irrigation line was first vandalized in March. "We had to replace 1,600 ft. of wire—about $6,000," he says. "Everyone was so busy that we had to put it back up ourselves. If it had been June or July, we could’ve lost a lot of money not being able to run the pivot."
After that first incident, Tolson installed WireRat technology from NetIrrigate. The technology sends a patent-pending supervisory signal through the existing span cable. If the signal is interrupted, WireRat triggers a phone call, e-mail or text notification to multiple recipients.
Based on cellular technology, WireRat uses lithium battery power, a cost-effective energy source even in the off-season. "Dealers install it on the end tower. Farmers then run the pivot as they normally would. The system automatically arms itself and works seamlessly with normal pivot operation," says Mark Childress, NetIrrigate account manager.
|Using cellular technology, WireRat alerts farmers if wires are cut.
"The thieves obviously semi-know what they are doing," says Julie Stark, NetIrrigate account manager. "They target the pivots because it’s easy access to the wiring and, with the cost of copper going up, they can easily sell it. In the big picture, though, a theft can cost the farmer up to $10,000 or more in damages, and the thief can cash in the wire for about $500."
"The [farmer’s] cost goes up even more depending on when the wire is stolen," Childress adds. "This year was very dry. If it is stolen in July while the crop is growing, and the farmer or dealer can’t get out to replace it quickly, some farmers may lose their crop due to the sun and the heat."
Locked down. Other farmers are also looking at ways to prevent copper theft. Brothers Ed McDowell and Paul and Dennis Yiannakis of Goldsboro, Md., started coming up with ideas to secure irrigation wiring after a neighbor’s copper wire was stolen multiple times. Their custom-made steel bracket system has done the trick so far, they say.
The brackets, made of 1½"×1½" 1⁄8"-angle iron, sit overtop the copper wire. Using metal clamps the brothers designed, the angle iron spreads when pulled tight, making contact with the copper wire. Enough friction is present that even if a person removes one of the clamps, the wire can’t be pulled out from one end—access is just to a 18' to 20' section. The clamps are secured with bolts that are bent to keep them from being removed.
"It would take way too long for someone to take a chance to try to get that off. Rather than 20 minutes, we’re talking five to six hours to get all of the equipment off and the wire," Paul says.
The brothers have made 11 customized systems for farmers as far south as South Carolina.
"With the price of steel and paint, it’s about $5 per foot," Paul says. "We’re about half the cost of a rewire, but if you never have to rewire it again, it’s more than worth it."