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Backflow preventer thefts costing businesses thousands

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Recently there has been a rash of commercial irrigation and domestic water backflow preventers stolen for their scrap metal. While the scrap metal value for the brass and copper contained within these fittings is only about $250, brazen thieves are making short work of stealing as many as they can, sometimes twice from the same properties.

Backflow preventers are easily recognized, usually placed above ground along the street frontage for most commercial properties. The U-shaped pipe acts as a valve to prevent irrigation or other water from "backflowing" into the potable water source for the building. Most jurisdictions in the county have mandated the use of these valves in commercial buildings. The thieves drive up, sometimes dressed in orange vests to look like city employees, take a saw and cut the valve off at the pipes. The whole process can take less than two minutes.

These thefts have occurred in broad daylight and also have happened at prominent and visible locations. Replacing these backflows can cost as much as $3,000 to $6,000. Their removal by thieves will also interrupt water service for your property and tenants as well as the possible water damage created from the water running uncontrolled through the open connection.

BOMA is working with local authorities and the recycling/scrap metal industry to stem the tide of these thefts. BOMA has already met with the local waste industry association to brainstorm ways to notify the public about these thefts in an effort to prevent them in the future.

How to protect your building

Although there is no perfect solution to eliminate the theft of the units, and, in fact, those who have taken the measures outlined below have still experienced the loss of the valves, the following actions are being recommended by law enforcement, landscapers and plumbers:

* Enclose your backflow valve(s) with a protective cage (if you haven't already).

* Secure it with a non-tamperproof lock (a breakaway lock is easily opened and not recommended). In case of emergency, your maintenance crew should have a copy of the lock's key.

* The cage should be securely mounted to the ground.

* Have the cage spot-welded to the bolts to prevent its removal.

* Stamp, label or identify the metal with a recognizable code or name of your own.

* Paint the unit(s) with brightly colored paint.

* Post a visible warning sign with something to the effect of: "Theft and damage to this unit will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

* Camouflage the unit by planting screening landscape a foot or so from the backflow. This will make the unit less visible while still allowing for maintenance access if needed.

* Inform your onsite building management, security or other staff of the problem and make sure they keep an eye out for thieves. It is also a good idea to inform your tenants so they can contact you should they see something suspicious near these valves.

BOMA will continue to monitor the issue and pursue actions to curb thefts and catch the criminals stealing these valves.

Tostado is chair of the BOMA San Diego Government Affairs Committee.

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