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Coatings Take on Metal Thieves

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

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With metal thieves worldwide trashing everything from rail networks to communications lines to entire bridges for resale, coatings developers are fighting back with new products that help utilities, rail owners, DOTs, pipeline companies and others hold on to their materials.

Metal theft has skyrocketed globally in the last decade, with the four basic nonferrous or base metals—aluminum, copper, nickel and zinc—in particularly high demand since 2003, experts say.

Scrap metal prices reached record levels of $600 a ton in 2008, according to Dr. Brandon Kooi, of Aurora (IL) University. US exports of scrap metal to developing nations tripled between 2000 and 2007, to more than 18 million tons, Kooi says.

Beyond the toll in lost materials is the cost, labor and operational disruption of repairing facilities, systems and infrastructures victimized by metal thieves.

Forensic Coatings

In response, some facility owners are attempting to protect their materials from theft and resale by marking them with special coatings.

 Lead coated with SmartWater
Lead coated with SmartWater fluoresces under water.

Among the better-known manufacturers is SmartWater Technology Ltd., a UK-based company whose infrastructure client list has been growing steadily.

SmartWater coatings provide a “liquid forensic signature” visible only under ultraviolet light, according to the manufacturer. The encoded “forensic solution” is painted on to materials that can then be permanently identified if stolen. The manufacturer says the liquid coding remains on metals even after insulation has been burned off.

SmartWater is sold by subscription with a suite of products and services, including warning signs to thieves and court testimony if needed.

Marking and Traps

SmartWater recently signed with Network Rail to protect railway cable in England’s West Midlands region. Each kilometer-long section of cable is being given its own SmartWater forensic code and recorded on a GPS satellite tracking system, so it can be traced to its point of origin.

Network Rail will also use surveillance equipment and SmartWater “spray traps” that mark the skin and clothes of offenders—a twist on the old exploding-dye bank currency technology.

“Cable theft is a significant problem for the industry,” said Network Rail Route Director Jo Kaye. “As soon as a cable is cut, trains are safely brought to a halt to protect passengers and our people, but that can result in significant delays and disruption.

“The cost of repairs, disruption and manpower from the 85 incidents last year was nearly £4m [nearly $6.6 million US]. That is money lost to the industry that could be better spent on improvements.”

SmartWater “spray traps” have also been used on parking machines and the coating has been used at hundreds of water and wastewater plants, the manufacturer says.

Recycler Aids Town

Similar technology is being brought to bear in South Carolina, where a local recycler has teamed up with Sherwin-Williams to create an invisible, permanent marking paint to help his town.

Sunshine Recycling owner Joseph Rich is not only the inventor of the paint, called Tag-Net; he is running his new venture as a nonprofit—even giving away some of the product through his company and through the local police department.

 Joe Rich
Joe Rich shows how an invisible spray paint applied to the coils of an air-conditioning unit can reveal the unit’s true owner.

“I am hoping it will make a dent,” Rich told the South Carolina Times and Democrat. “It is really neat, and we think it will do a phenomenal job.”

Tag-Net was designed to help police and Sunshine Recycling’s employees identify stolen metals, specifically copper air-conditioning coils.

The water-soluble product will not wash off, says Rich, whose company invested about $15,000 in the program.

Rich said he had asked his colleagues and competitors in Orangeburg County’s recycling industry for a 30-day, self-imposed moratorium on selling AC coil scrap “until we get this paint in the community. If we can more readily identify something that is stolen and apprehend the individual, then it will be a huge deterrent.”

Seeking Affordable Technology

Three years ago, Sunshine Recycling invested in DataDot technology to help mark metals, the Times and Democrat reported. Each dot, smaller than a grain of sand, contains an owner identification code. But at about $30 for two ounces, the DataDots proved too expensive for most, Rich said.

Tag-Net will retail for $10 for a 16-ounce bottle—enough to spray about 50 AC units, he said.

Barry Wolff, of the state’s Recyclers Association, said his association would “get 100 percent behind” the technology if it works.

Copper theft “is a hot-button issue,” Wolff told the newspaper.  “Man, are we ever aware of it.”

Metal Theft Soars

Skyrocketing demand and prices have ignited a serious metal theft problem worldwide, experts say. The price of copper alone has increased more than 700% since 2002, they say.

The theft often comes with vandalism, experts note, as thieves cut through, rip open, pry apart or simply demolish facilities and structures to harvest the metal. On the other hand, police say, large quantities of scrap metal are also often left outside and unguarded—an open invitation to thieves.

A new website,, is tracking the phenomenon with scholarly and professional research, interviews, law enforcement initiatives and a forum for anti-theft products.

Security Tips

Beyond coatings solutions, insurers and police offer some theft-protection tips for facility and utility owners and operators:

· Improve building security. Many metal and job shops lack burglar alarms, making them an easy mark. Install an alarm tied to a central alarm company. Check doors for proper security hardware, and secure windows with wrought iron and/or alarm protection.

· If possible, keep scrap metal inside the building.

· Improve yard security. If scrap metal must be kept outside, consider having it hauled away more frequently. Consider a burglar alarm on entry gates.

· Consider fiber optic cable, which has little or no monetary value, to replace copper cables.

· Light it up. A properly lit job site can act as an effective deterrent to criminal activity. Well-lit areas should include any office trailers, equipment storage trailers and vehicle parking areas. Motion-sensitive lighting should be used throughout the job site, especially in isolated areas.


Tagged categories: Metals; Pipeline; Protective coatings

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