When a 79-year-old Texas woman died of heat exhaustion after her air conditioner was stolen, Oklahoma City welder Nathan White couldn't sleep.
“He kept saying, ‘Something needs to be done,'” his wife said.
He decided to invent a cage for air conditioning units that would prevent theft but make maintenance easy.
The cage opens completely for service, so it doesn't have to be cut and rewelded, White said. The rest of the time, the cage is padlocked to keep copper thieves at bay.
Since that night last summer, White has sold more than 300 of his patented Clamshell Cages.
The cages cost $495 each, compared to the $3,000 or more it takes to replace an air conditioner, he said.
White, who runs Ace's Fabrication and Design in the Paseo Arts District, has made educating people about copper theft something of a pet project.
He tells customers about the national rise of copper theft, how quickly it can happen and how harmful it is to the environment when looters cut open AC units, releasing refrigerant into the air.
A common threat
Police Inspector Marty Stupka, who investigates copper theft, said five to 10 air conditioning units are stolen every week in Oklahoma City.
It happens all over the city, Stupka said. Houses, businesses and churches are all susceptible, particularly vacant ones.
“A lot of times, vacant houses get hit in broad daylight,” he said.
Stupka said in one case, a man outfitted his truck with the name of a fake heating and air company and a fake phone number. The man pulled up to a house, put on a hard hat and went to loot copper from the house's air conditioners.
At that moment, the owner came back to check on the pool and called the police.
Copper theft has gone down a bit because of a November 2008 state law that cracked down on illegal copper sales, Stupka said. The police department established a metal theft unit last July, doubling arrests for those crimes.
In Oklahoma City, copper theft hasn't caused any heat exhaustion deaths like the one in Texas last August, Stupka said. But a few thieves have been electrocuted while cutting copper from AC units.
Since air conditioners keep equipment in cellphone towers cool, copper theft sometimes knocks out phone service, he said.
The most common damage, though, is financial. With rising insurance deductibles, Stupka said, many victims must pay the whole cost of a ruined air conditioner out of pocket.
That financial loss is what White is trying to prevent.
He has been visiting insurance companies and speaking to them about offering a discount for owners of Clamshell Cages, which also protect units from hail damage.
White is also trying to distribute the cages to the Tulsa and Dallas areas.
He said there is no standard system to protect air conditioners from being looted for copper, currently valued about $3.50 a pound. Most of his customers contact him after their units have already been destroyed.
White said he hopes his efforts will push people to buy air conditioning unit cages before they have a chance to be robbed.
“It's better to think ahead, rather than to have a knee-jerk reaction and try to fix it after it's already done,” he said.
It's better to think ahead, rather than to have a knee-jerk reaction and try to fix it after it's already done.”