How to Protect Your AC or Heat Pump from Theft and Vandalism
While we do not see AC theft, heat pump theft or AC vandalism very often, it does happen. And it can be expensive. We see this most often in commercial spaces, especially those that may have less security or traffic around them.
What does AC theft or vandalism look like?
Local Houston, Texas, news stories have documented thieves who have hauled off whole outdoor AC and heat pump condensing units. When that happens, the system will not turn on and the thermostat may show the current indoor temperature (rather than your ideal temperature.)
My dad and retired HVAC contractor Rex Terry has also told me that he remembers crawling up to the roof to check on an AC unit and discovering it missing!
Air conditioners and heat pumps are vandalized when drug users access refrigerant, a gas, and use it for a cheap high. When individuals inhale chemicals for their intoxicating effects, it is called huffing and can be very dangerous to their health, even deadly. Freon and other refrigerants can be used as an inhalant and abused by individuals of any age.
The 2020 Texas School Survey of Drug and Alcohol Use reported that only 5.9% of Texas adolescents in grades 7-12 had ever inhaled “Helium, Butane, Propane, Whippets, or Freon” to get high (See pages 30-31.) Refrigerants, like Freon or Puron, are oxygen-displacing substances, which is why HVAC techs use special equipment when working with them in enclosed spaces.
Your air conditioner or heat pump system won’t work correctly without proper refrigerant levels. When a technician comes to service your HVAC system, if they cannot find a leak or other reason that it could be missing, it is possible your system may have been vandalized.
Why do thieves steal air conditioners and heat pump systems?
When the prices of scrap metal rises or equipment is in short supply, we tend to see more issues where air conditioning and heat pumps are stolen.
Money to Be Made
If recycling a residential outdoor unit for scrap metal, a thief might make $18-22.
A commercial unit could be $50-100 or more. Outdoor units can be stolen in as little as a few minutes with the right tools.
AC Theft Deterrants
What thieves looking for an easy buck don’t know is that:
- Every air conditioning unit or heat pump system has a serial number on it. And, this fact has unraveled more than one thief.
- Scrap metal yards are required to keep more information on people selling equipment. In Texas, this is regulated by the Texas Department of Public Safety. The city of Houston has additional rules that apply to scrap metal recyclers to reduce theft. Scrap theft compliance regulations vary across the U.S.
- Technically, only HVAC technicians with an HVAC license and EPA license to properly handle refrigerant can sell HVAC equipment for scrap metal. This is because the Environmental Protection Agency requires refrigerant be properly reclaimed and recycled to reduce emissions and environmental impact.
How Can I Protect My Air Conditioner or Heat Pump from Theft or Vandalism?
The top tip we give customers facing these types of problems is to consider investing in a wrought-iron cage around the outdoor unit. While you can purchase pre-fabricated cages, they need to be able to be disassembled and have enough space to allow air intake. Plus, you don’t want a solution that can be defeated by a hammer.
1. Encase Your Outdoor Unit in Iron
In the Houston, Texas area, we use Roy and Cynthia Prince, the owners of Amador Ironworks, in Spring, Texas, to fabricate custom air conditioning cages that thieves won’t be able to easily defeat. These custom AC cages also give HVAC technicians the access they need to properly service the equipment twice a year.
2. Install Locking Caps to Secure Refrigerant
If refrigerant theft is something you suspect, ask your HVAC technician to install locking caps to make it much harder for thieves to steal refrigerant. We encountered this problem at a Rosenberg, Texas, church recently. This safety measure is a newer code requirement for the city of Houston.
3. Lock the Outdoor Disconnect Box
Connecting your outdoor unit to your home or business, you’ll find a small box attached to the outside wall. That box contains the electrical connection for the unit. By adding a lock, you can deter criminals who will more than likely move on to an easier target.
4. Reduce Access Points
If your air conditioner or heat pump is located on the roof or ledge, ensure that any ladders are pulled up to reduce access. If it makes sense, locking fences and gates around your air conditioning unit(s) can also deter thieves and vandals.
5. Add security cameras, lights and signage
Criminals are looking for easy targets. Adding motion-activated outdoor cameras and lights that turn on when triggered by motion can scare away criminals. You may even be able to tie these into your home or building’s existing security system.
You could even add a sign that informs users that this area is monitored by security camera. Deterrence is the name of the game.
6. Install Air Conditioning Alarms and GPS Trackers
Specialty alarms built for outdoor units for air conditioners or heat pump systems can be used. These alarms monitor voltage, refrigerant flow and tampering and are a good solution if you have a persistent problem with theft.
GPS trackers are another method to ensure your air conditioner or heat pump’s outdoor unit is hard to steal.
7. Make Sure You Have Insurance
Theft or vandalism of your air conditioning or heat pump system may be covered by your homeowner’s insurance, but check with your insurance agent to be sure. The Texas Department of Insurance suggests that for commercial property insurance, you may need to check your policy to ensure you have crime coverage.
Michael Vargas’s insurance agency, MV2 Solutions, can help with home or residential insurance and is the agent we personally use for home and business.
Air Conditioning Replacement & Repair in Richmond, Texas
Contact Terry’s A/C & Heating Business Owners Rob and Summer Terry at 281-495-7830 for a customized estimate if you need to replace an air conditioning system or heat pump, or you suspect you’ve been a victim of AC vandalism. We have seen these issues on occasion and can help you devise a plan to keep your air conditioner or heat pump safe and working properly.
Our family-owned air conditioning and heating business located in Richmond, Texas, serves Houston’s West End from Memorial to Katy, Sugar Land, Fulshear and points nearby. We help both residential and commercial customers with AC replacement, AC maintenance and expert service. A Ruud Pro Partner™, we service all makes and models of HVAC equipment and can help you stay cool during a hot summer!
Header photo source: Canva.com/spates