Surrey cuts out copper for alloy

SURREY – – The City of Surrey is spending $9 million to replace all of the copper wire in its streetlight system with alloy wire.

At Monday’s council meeting, Surrey’s engineering department proposed an overhaul of the city’s streetlight system to deter wire theft, which has cost the city about $3.5 million in repair costs over the last two years.

“Although the rate of loss has been declining from previous years, copper wire theft appears to be linked to the price of copper as a commodity and thus it is expected that copper wire theft will increase again as copper prices rise,” read a corporate report that went before council.

According to city staff, Surrey’s wire theft task force – with the help of Surrey RCMP, utility companies and the provincial government – is likely responsible for a portion of the drop in wire theft, referencing increased enforcement, the installation of security devices on street poles and other crime-reduction efforts. However, staff recognized that stronger measures have to be taken to better ensure the prevention of wire theft.

Alloy, which is made up of two or more metals, has a lower salvage value – roughly 10 per cent of the value of copper on a weight basis – making it less enticing to thieves. As well, alloy is difficult to recycle due to the insulation around it.

In 2012, staff conducted a wire replacement study to determine if alloy was a suitable alternative to copper. Initial concerns over lower conductivity, wire size and difficulty with connections were resolved and alloy was proven to be a cost effective and viable conductor.

As part of a pilot project last year, the city replaced copper wire in three locations in the city that were known to be troublesome areas for copper theft. According to staff, there has not been any wire theft in those areas.

Coun. Judy Villeneuve commended city staff for being a leader in the alloy wire shift

and noted the benefits of the replacement.

“We’ll avoid a lot more blackouts and issues that people face because of electrical wiring,” she said, noting that some parts of Surrey may be overdue for an upgrade in their electrical grids. “I think in many older areas, it’s timely that it’s being done anyway, but I really think it’s a proactive step to be taken.”

Coun. Bruce Hayne added that by switching the wiring now, the city is preparing for future technological development in the streetlight system.

“My understanding is this is also going to make all our street lighting LED-ready when the cost of LED becomes attractive. We really are looking down the road.”

The city will consider one contractor to undertake the replacement of Surrey’s streetlight system, which is estimated to take a year to complete with a net cost of about $9 million after subtracting the value of the existing copper wire. Staff noted that funding for the project is available in the Roads 10-Year Financial Plan.

“Based on current and historical wire theft rates and costs, within eight years of the wire replacement, this investment will have been offset by the avoided repair costs for wire theft,” read the report.

The city has narrowed down the qualified contractors to Cobra Electric Ltd., Crown Contracting Ltd., EPCOR Technologies Inc., Trans-Western Electric Ltd., Houle Electric Limited and Bay Hill Contracting Ltd.

Following presentations from the qualified companies in March, city staff will prepare a report with recommendations regarding the award of a contract, expected to reach council in April.