Precious Metals: Recycling Helps Turn Trash Into A Little Bit Of Treasure


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Like the majority of air conditioning contractors, Thermal Services in Omaha, NE, offers recycling of old units as part of its all-inclusive service. “We assure customers that we’ll remove and discard their old equipment in an environmentally sound way,” says Wade Mayfield, president. “Aft er reclaiming the R-22 for recycling, we put the entire old unit into a dumpster.” Thermal Services contracts with a scrap hauler, who pays a per-ton price for the dumpster’s contents and then strips down the units into recyclable components.

Reliable Heating & Cooling in St. Louis, MO, recently terminated the contract with its scrap hauler in favor of do-it-yourself recycling. “Scrap metal prices—especially for copper—have gone up, so much that we thought it was beneficial to do it ourselves,” explains Mike Schumacher, general manager. “Line sets, for example, are Number 1 copper—pure,clean copper that has been as high as $4 per pound for scrap.”

Copper and other nonferrous metals, including aluminum and nickel, command higher prices than ferrous metals because they don’t degrade during the recycling process. Th at means nonferrous metals can be recycled an infi nite number of times, reports the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (ISRI), Washington, D.C. Air conditioning contractors are major contributors to the 130 million metric tons of scrap materials processed annually in the United States which includes, according to ISRI calculations, 74 million metric tons of iron and steel and 1.8 million metric tons of copper.

For a Good Cause

Since initiating its on-site recycling program in June, Reliable has learned that taking the time to cut off the ends of evaporator coils can boost their value—and per-pound scrap price. And motors, depending on their weight, may fetch as much as $30 a piece at the scrap yard. The remaining components of old AC units, plus decommissioned furnaces, are periodically loaded on Reliable’s flatbed trailer and cashed in as scrap metal.

“We’re a seasonal business, and anything we can do to keep people working during slow times is good,” notes Schumacher. “Breaking down the units isn’t especially hard work—you can give some hours to guys who aren’t making a high hourly wage, and the effort will more than pay for itself in the scrap value.”

Like Reliable, Moncrief Heating & Air Conditioning in Atlanta, GA, depends on its shop employees to disassemble AC units into easily recyclable components. The company has a designated station, stocked with battery-powered nut drivers and other tools, for reclaiming copper piping, stripping out evaporator coils, pulling out motors, and removing drain pans and blades. Such efforts to keep old equipment out of landfills aren’t just good for the environment. In Moncrief’s case, they’re also good for the local community.

“The remaining sheet metal from the air conditioners and all our old furnaces go into a dumpster that is picked up, for free, by the Tommy Nobis Center here in Atlanta,” says Frank Mutz, Moncrief’s president. The center, named after a retired Atlanta Falcons linebacker who championed Special Olympics, employs about 70 people with mental and physical disabilities. Its recycling program not only provides productive work opportunities, but also generates financial support for other programs.

Neither Mutz nor Schumacher pays much attention to the prices of scrap copper or steel. As Schumacher says, “We just take it all in when we need to, and what you get is what you get.”

Still, those trips to the scrap yard add up nicely over the course of the year. Schumacher appreciates the cushion that another $10,000 or so annually can provide, especially during times of diminished cash flow. This year, he hopes to use some of the recycling money to fund an “extra,” such as a company outing to a sporting event. Moncrief also channels its scrap profits right back into its operating budget, although, Mutz observes, “Mentally, I’m thinking that the recycling pays for at least one person in our shop each year.”

In addition to being paid for its scrap metal, Thermal Services uses its large supply of cardboard as a means of managing costs: The boxes in which furnaces and AC units arrive figured prominently in Mayfield’s most recent negotiations with the company’s trash hauler. “I told the hauler, ‘You can either give me a better rate on my trash service, or I’ll sell the cardboard myself’—and they dropped the price so they could keep the cardboard,” recalls Mayfield.

Popular Targets

On the flip side, Mayfield had to unexpectedly spend nearly $1,000 to fix two company vans that were damaged earlier this year by vandals looking for copper parts. “Heating and air conditioning contractors definitely become targets of thieves when copper prices go up,” says Mayfield. “Then we also see the next level of thieves—the ones who cut the condensers at apartments, businesses, and churches and run off with the copper in the middle of the night.”

“In the last two years, we’ve had more customers who have had their air conditioners stolen than ever before,” adds Mutz. In one instance, Moncrief finished installing a 7½-ton rooftop air conditioning unit in the afternoon; by the next morning, both the new unit and its older counterpart had been stripped of all copper parts.

Mutz concurs with Mayfield, who notes that dealing with the aftermath of a thief’s visit “is not at all the kind of air conditioning replacement business we want to have!”

Nor are HVAC contractors happy about being burglary targets themselves. Even though a six-foot fence with locked gates surrounds Reliable Heating & Cooling and the neighborhood is well patrolled by police, Mike Schumacher knows how surprisingly bold a thief can be.

“In the summer, not long after we installed some security cameras, the tapes showed someone hopping our fence at about 6 pm. He stayed until about 7:30 p.m., going through the scrap and throwing any copper back over the fence—and then he hopped the fence into the plumber’s lot next door,” Schumacher says. Fortunately, Reliable keeps its Number 1 copper under lock and key within its offices, thwarting the thief from making off with “the good stuff.” Thanks to the security tapes and a little detective work of their own, Reliable employees discovered that their after-hours, light-fingered thief lived just up the street.

“We called the police, but they wouldn’t do anything because we couldn’t prove this person was really the thief or prove how much copper had been stolen,” Schumacher says, with more than a twinge of frustration in his voice. “The police looked at it as someone just going through our garbage.”

Catching the Bad Guys

“The theft of scrap metal can be tough to prosecute,” acknowledges Billy Johnson, ISRI’s director of political and public affairs. He notes that all states have laws to hinder the sale of stolen goods to scrap recyclers, such as requiring photo identification or signed affidavits from sellers or having the recycler videotape vehicles and license plate numbers.

ut such record-keeping and reporting requirements don’t necessarily stop the thieves. That’s why ISRI set up its own theft –deterrent system: www.scraptheftalert.com. Launched several decades ago, the free internet-based service enables victims of scrap metal theft to file an online report of the stolen goods, including any descriptions and photos of the people or vehicles involved. The system automatically sends that notice to every scrap dealer, law enforcement agency, and other interested parties within a 100-mile radius of the crime.

“Those notices alert the scale operators of what to look for,” says Johnson. Say, for example, someone drives into the scrap yard in a red pick-up truck filled with aluminum sheeting from air conditioning units. He explains, “If the vehicle and the aluminum match the Stop Theft alert, the dealer won’t buy the material and will call the police.

“Scrap dealers certainly don’t want to buy stolen goods, and this notification system brings us closer to catching and convicting the criminals,” Johnson continues. “Air conditioning contractors are some of our best and loyal clients, and we don’t want them getting ripped off.”

Sandra Sabo
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Posted In: ACCA Now, Management, Technical Tips

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