by Nick Gromicko
A new wave of thieves has found solar panels attractive for the same reason that many homeowners are turned off by them: they’re quite expensive. And, unlike jewelry and other valuables, solar panels are conspicuously strewn about the home’s exterior, blatant as billboards,
and often unprotected. In Europe, where the solar industry is more firmly established, security measures are standard. But in the United States, especially in California, thieves have caught this new market completely off-guard.
It takes some know-how to remove solar panels without damaging them, but savvy thieves are learning fast. They’re even taking advantage of technological advancements, such as Google Earth, to pinpoint solar-clad properties, especially in remote areas where their actions are likely to go unseen. Stolen solar panels are winding up on eBay and Craigslist where unwitting customers quickly buy them up, making themselves complicit in the crime. Schools and churches, generally unoccupied at night, have been hit hard by this brand of theft theft, but no buildings are especially immune. Some interesting cases of solar theft are described below.
- The New York Times reports that in one case, someone tried to sell stolen solar panels worth almost $1,500 each on eBay for just $100 each. Detectives placed bids and won the panels, and arrested the man when he tried to complete the transaction.
- Police recovered more than $70,000 worth of solar panels stolen from a private school in El Cerrito, Calif., according to the Mercury News. Police learned the location of most of the panels after capturing the 42-year-old man who managed to leave with 56 panels from the school’s roof. Replacement and repair has been estimated at $100,000.
- California’s Napa Valley, with its endless vineyards that can hide ground-based solar arrays, is one of the areas hardest-hit by opportunistic solar thieves. According to National Public Radio (NPR), more than $400,000 worth of panels have been stolen from the area in the past year alone. NPR reports that Honig Winery fell victim to solar theft twice before the owner protected his array with an alarm system. When the thieves returned, they were promptly arrested.
Many homeowners’ insurance policies will cover solar theft, but policies may change as the theft levels continue to rise. And even if you are covered, it’s best to avoid a legal mess by considering the following measures that may reduce the likelihood that the panels will be stolen.
- Install an alarm system on your solar array. Alarms are perhaps the most effective way to foil a would-be thief, and they’re easy to install. An alarm can be set to activate if wires are snipped or if the panels become disconnected from the inverter, for instance. Audible alarms will scare off the intruder and alert occupants and neighbors, while silent alarms will notify police.
- Don't boast about how much you paid for the panels, as you may attract unwanted attention.
- Illuminate the panels at night. Security lighting is a great way to protect your home and ward off thieves. Lights that are activated by motion are especially useful because they eliminate the need for constant illumination, and intruders will know they have been spotted.
- Use one-way screws when securing the panels. These screws can be driven with an ordinary screwdriver, yet removal requires a special tool.
- Chain the panels to each other. Thieves might not bother with the effort required to remove an entire solar array in one piece, so do what you can to bind the individual components together.
- Fasten the panels securely to the roof with security cables and sturdy locks. Be careful, however, to not impede air flow between the panels and the roof, as this may decrease panel efficiency. Also, beware that significant modifications to the system may void the warranty or make roof maintenance more difficult.
- Do not leave ladders or other items around the house that make it easier for thieves to access the panels. Consider the possibility that trees and your cars can be used to gain access to your roof.
- Engrave clear identification, such as your name or driver’s license number, into the panel frames. Thieves will be less keen to steal them, and they may be more easily identified or returned if they are later resold.
- Have surveillance cameras installed on your roof. While this measure may not deter a thief, a video record of the event will certainly aid police in the subsequent investigation.
In summary, solar panels have become a hot target for thieves, but basic deterrence methods can prevent a costly theft.