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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  • Matt Beard

    The nasty part of me can’t help thinking that the chargers should detect a theft in progress and energise the cable!

    • Surya

      It’s not just your nasty part.

  • CDspeed

    Maybe wireless charging will end up being necessary for this reason. Wireless charging still needs to be perfected, but at least the equipment would be better secured. I have to say acts like this tick me off, because they leave law abiding people constantly tightening up security on ourselves. The bad guys do what ever they want, and all we can do is build walls until the next thief finds a way over it.

  • Esl1999 .

    Wireless charging will be the obvious solution. The city will install them all along the street, and automatically center themselves below your car for maximum efficiency. You’ll be given the choice to park or charge and park. Charging stations like Tesla Superchargers will have cabinets that lock, and only allow a retractable cable to come out if a the proper keycard is used.

  • Greener

    Vancouver like most major cities has a significant problem of heroin addicts.

  • jstack6

    I just reported a site in the Phoenix greater area. There are two EVSE and both had their cables removed. We all have to be vigilant and report these so the areas can be watched. A video camera should be the next step. A camera can shoot them and then make them pay but not with their life.

    • http://turbulencex.org Nicholas Littlejohn

      QCs do commonly have them, at least the Evgos in the Bay Area. I think that’s wise and not too hard to add, it’s like an ATM camera.

  • http://turbulencex.org Nicholas Littlejohn

    These level two cables are pretty costly, around $100 and more. Our local chargers keep the cable on an overhead, protected reel..but are very unreliable and are often broken.nnAddressing the bigger issue of drug addiction and metal theft is wise.

  • http://turbulencex.org Nicholas Littlejohn

    A stakeout in the local region and vigilant, 24 hour charging folks can help..Stanford police even use plug in Volts themselves.

  • Lawrence Harris

    In the ‘old’ days we had an extension cord in the trunk and plugged into a standard wall outlet or if we were fancy used a 240 volt dryer plug. Then the regulators got involved and we had very expensive inductive charge paddles and now J1772 fancy plugs and >$100 charge cables. I hear that in Europe most systems involve a dual head J1772 type cord that the car owner carries with them. In the mean time we need to make it illegal for metal recyclers to buy bare copper wire from individuals and any copper wire from undocumented individuals (photo ID, credit card etc just like the bank).

    • tina

      I hear you! I just decided NOT to install the pricey J-plug over maintaining Friendly Outlet friendships and careful planning for daily driving. After 10 years of driving lead acid, just driving with Lithium will be a major improvement. WHo wants to add the weight back with cord weight and plugs?

  • http://jpwhitehome.wordpress.com JP White

    Stations with cords provided is a great convenience, no need to grovel in the trunk for a cable to plug into an outlet and the car. Very nice when its raining hard.nnnHowever as we see here the provided cable is money in the eyes of thieves. The business model for charging networks is dubious, add this type of added cost to replace cables and the lost revenue from hapless drivers who had to go elsewhere and the future of public stations is questionable.nnnMaybe the European model with the driver carrying the cable which locks during use is the way to go. Retractable cords released with an RFID card or credit card is another.

  • John VanBrunt

    Its a no brainier. who is set to lose millions and millions and lay off worker as result of green energy vehicles? you guessed it, the people that are aiding and abed-ding these losers that are stealing them. the scrap yards, they buy copper fittings for fire hoses, cut and stolen from building fire cabinets, city man holes, you name it those scrap yard buyers buy it with no regulations in most City’sn.

  • John snith

    I am a co founder of an EVSE Safety Company based out of Louisville, Kentucky. We have brought up these exact issues in 2010- 2011 and I have also wrote blogs about theft, vandalism and collision of electric vehicle charging stations.nLast year we reached out to several cities in Canada including the City of Vancouver offering our services and information regarding this subject matter. These city officials were quick to disregard these issues and deny they have occurred or would happen in the future. They basically stuck their heads in the sand and this is exactly what is happening in the States also.nThere are several other underlying issues that are creating these problems and until they are addressed immediately it will only get worse. We created a robust training program to assist our emergency response teams, city and county workers who may come in contact with these damaged devices, we also were able to create a unique one of a kind inspection program for cities with large infrastructures. nMost will be shocked to know, these charging stations are not being inspected periodically and that is one of the reasons people are finding them vandalized or damaged or not in working condition. We discovered the lack of an inspection program (random or periodically) in every state that currently has charging stations installed on city streets for public use. This presents great dangers and risk for the general public and or users that may come in contact with these high voltage devices. nYou wrote an excellent article and we applaud you for doing so. We are in great hopes that the City of Vancouver will wake up and realize they have dropped the ball and in order for this program to be successful, we must make it safe and protect the users and the general public from injury or even death. We will also continue to support the industry by providing training and sharing information with any and all who will listen.nnnThanks and Best Wishes,nJames Maddox, PartnernGreenStar Concepts LLC. (leaders in EVSE safety)nwww.greenstarconcepts.com/blogs