Meet the Latest Electric Car Charging Station Menace: Copper Theives

You’ve heard of ICEing — the name given to the practice of parking an internal combustion engine vehicle in an electric car recharging space — not to mention outright vandalism of electric car charging stations. But what about electric vehicle charging station cable theft, a problem which not only renders electric car charging stations inoperable but also poses significant danger to those carrying it out?

[Editorial note: We've just heard from a spokesperson from the City of Vancouver, who says that they are unaware of any particular problems in the city itself and were concerned our original story painted them in an incorrect light. We have modified the story below to make it clear that the issues outlined in the article have been reported to us by individual owners in the Greater Vancouver Metro area rather than the city itself, and the evidence cited below is from crowd-sourced sites like Plugshare.com and personal conversations with specific owners in the area.]

Have you seen a charging station with its cables stolen?

Have you seen a charging station with its cables stolen?

According to electric vehicle owners in and around the city of Vancouver Greater Vancouver Metro Area, British Columbia, a series of attacks on public level 2 charging stations has left them inoperable after thieves snipped off the several meters of electrical cord attached to each charging station with bolt cutters. In fact, the phenomenon is becoming fairly problematic for plug in owners in the cities of Surrey and Richmond, BC, both of which form part of the Metro Vancouver area.

What’s more, the problem has been plaguing electric car owners in the area for more than a year, with some sites falling victim to cable cutting multiple times.

The problem is believed to stem from the high price currently being paid for scrap metals such as copper. At prices of more than $4 Cn. per pound for high quality copper, thieves are able to sell on the high-quality, high gauge triple-core copper cabling found in every charging station cord for a tidy profit. Even the lower-quality, low-voltage wires used as signalling wire between charging station and the car can be sold for more than a dollar per pound.

The thieves — which many locals say are probably drug addicts — are able to sell the high quality cable on the black market to unscrupulous scrap metal merchants in exchange for their next drug hit. While large amounts of cable would surely arouse suspicion, small two or three meter sections are easier to sell on, especially to a buyer keen on hiding the stolen metal in a truck-load of other stripped copper wiring off to be reprocessed.

“This is the 2nd charger in the area that has lost its copper,” Kelly Carmichael, a local EV owner told us when describing a recent cable theft at the Bear Creek park in Surrey, BC. “I am thankful that the copper thieves haven’t noticed the [higher power] DC chargers yet, as they have far more copper in them than the Level 2 charging stations.”

Most European charging stations don't come with a cable attached -- except higher powered ones.

Most European charging stations don’t come with a cable attached — except higher powered ones.

Sadly, the problem isn’t just confined to charging stations: over the past few years, the city of Surrey has been forced to switch out copper wiring from its street lights and replace it with cheaper aluminium wiring instead.

“It is a real issue for the city. In my neighborhood they are actually changing out all the street light wires to aluminum to prevent more copper theft,” Carmichael said.

Nor is the problem confined to north of the Canadian border. We’ve heard stories of cable thefts from all over the U.S., where tethered charging cables have been cut by unscrupulous thieves looking to make a quick buck.  However, we’ve never encountered the problem in Europe, where multiple different charging protocols mean that tethered low-power charging stations are uncommon and electric car owners carry their charging cables with them. While this adds an extra level of inconvenience for those using the charging stations — they have to fetch a cable from the boot of their car, plugging one end into the charging station and one end into the car before starting to charge — it does dramatically reduce the risk of charging station vandalism.

In fact, only high-power charging stations in Europe capable of providing more than 40 kilowatts of power are usually tethered, although some domestic lower-power charging stations do come with tethered cables.

Transport Evolved Top Tips: What To Do if an Electric Car Charging Station is Broken

Cable-cutting isn’t news: back in February we told you about a couple in Florida who were victims of a similar problem when their Chevrolet Volt charging station had its cable stolen, and we’ve covered other stories before where public charging stations have been vandalised beyond repair.

Unlike the blocking of public charging stations by gasoline-powered cars, cable theft from charging stations is more than just a minor inconvenience, often causing charging stations to be out of action for months while new cables are sourced. But like the policing of parking infringements, guarding against cable theft requires regular surveillance to deter would-be thieves from making away with their swag.

Either that, or perhaps a sign warning of the dangers of being electrocuted by high power electricity.

If you live near a public charging station, why not make sure to regularly visit it to ensure it’s working as it should? Or perhaps you can team up with other local EV owners and make sure you report failures or problems with charging databases like PlugShare?

Have you experienced charging station vandalism? Where was it, and how long was the charging station out of action? Leave your stories in the comments below, so we can build a better picture of how prevalent this problem really is.

[Hat-Tip: Andrew Bell]

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