Manhole covers and sewer grates are being stolen from city streets. This is not only costly for municipalities, but dangerous for passersby.


Thieves have become increasingly brazen and gone to creative extremes when it comes to heisting manhole covers and sewer grates from city streets.

In April 2012, a man in his 40s wearing a reflective safety vest took two manhole covers from the New York City borough of Queens and placed them in a pickup truck. To complete the ruse he had an orange “Men at Work” sign in the bed of the truck and placed orange safety cones around the open hole before driving away.

In November 2014, two men parked behind a Best Buy in the San Antonio, Texas, area were caught on video tossing a heavy object into their truck.

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And in January 2014, an 11-year-old San Antonio girl escaped serious injury after falling into an open manhole. The city has since begun placing locks on the covers it replaces.

In Augusta, Maine, two men were charged with stealing several dozen storm drain grates and manhole covers over a three-week period in October. Most of the covers were later recovered at a recycling center.

Brian Tarbuck, superintendent of the Greater Augusta Utility District, says the stolen covers weigh about 200 pounds each and are not easily dislodged. Sold to recyclers as scrap for about $15 each, they would have set the utility back about $8,000, including labor, to replace.

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“It was a lot of money, but fortunately the police recovered them quickly,” Tarbuck says. “Nobody got hurt. Nobody drove a car into them. Nobody fell in. We were very lucky.”

So what is a utility to do when its covers go missing?

1. Consider welding

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Tarbuck says the utility looked into welding the covers in place but decided it wasn’t cost effective.

“It just wasn’t worth it given the low risk of this happening again,” he says.

That wasn’t the case in 2011 when a man was arrested for selling 22,000 pounds of stolen sewer grates and manhole covers to a scrap dealer in Washington’s Puget Sound region.

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Scrap metal is an $85 billion industry in the United States, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington, D.C., and thieves follow the money.

To cover his tracks, the suspect in the Washington case told scrap dealers he worked for an asphalt company, and the grates were being replaced as part of a road project.

Although that suspect was apprehended, the thefts continued. In Kent, a city of 120,000 residents about 18 miles between Seattle and Tacoma, thieves made off with about 40 storm drain grates and manhole covers. To get a handle on crime, the utility began visiting recyclers in the area.

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2. Visit scrap shops

“We visited all the recycling areas within a 20- to 30-mile radius and showed them details of our castings and lids and asked that they watch out for them and call,” says Greg Reed, utilities superintendent with the City of Kent.

“Really, I think that was the biggest piece of the puzzle: going to the recycling centers and letting them know what the problem is and how dangerous it is to be missing a manhole that could be 20 feet deep. Somebody in the dark could step in there and we’re talking some serious injuries or death.”

Reed says showing the recyclers what to look for helped put a lid on the crime, which despite a decline, remains problematic. Each year the city loses about four covers to thieves.

To further combat the problem, Kent has been bolting its lids in place, but it’s a gradual process with 20,000 grates and 16,000 manholes to secure.

3. Bolt in place

Reed says the city uses a standard locking lid with a 5/8-inch hex-head bolt.

“Most of the thieves don’t have a big 5/8 hex Allen wrench,” he says. “That seems to have helped quite a bit, but what really made a difference was notifying the recycling centers.”

Hardly a crime confined to the United States, Bogota, Columbia, sees about 10,000 manhole covers go missing each year.

4. Plant a bug

When a manufacturer noticed his inventory shrinking, the owner randomly placed GPS tracking chips on the covers and was able to trace them to Neiva, Columbia.

5. Go plastic

Across the pond in the United Kingdom, North Somerset has been giving plastic a try after 19 wrought iron manhole and drain covers were stolen in 48 hours. The plastic replacements are one-tenth the cost of their metal counterparts and have no scrap value.

Here are a few other ways to keep your manholes and sewers secure:

  • Manhole Barrier Security Systems manhole locks Tamper-proof manhole locks from Manhole Barrier Security Systems can be installed in less than five minutes by a single worker. A coded T-wrench or key prevents unauthorized access. The locks are available in diameters ranging from less than 32 inches to more than 44 inches.
     
  • Stabiloc Manhole Security System The Manhole Security System from Stabiloc can be installed on most new or existing manhole covers. It can withstand 12,000 pounds of lifting force and rests flush with the cover surface. The customizable lock is available with a user-specific bolt head/socket.
     
  • McGard manhole covers FiberShield manhole covers from McGard, constructed of a durable, fiber-reinforced polymer material, have no scrap value. Weighing 80 percent less than cast iron, the covers have H20 and EN124 traffic ratings. An integrated locking system prevents removal and requires a registered T-key to open. Intimidator ManLocks, also from McGard, satisfy the security requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and other military and government security requirements.
     
  • GMI Composite covers Fiberglass composite manhole covers from GMI Composite have zero scrap value and are compatible with a variety of retention and high-security locking systems, including the quarter-turn paddle lock, cam lock and Titus TwistLIFT lock for retro-fit applications. The high-strength, corrosion-resistant covers feature a slip-resistant tread pattern.
     
  • Hamilton Kent Lifespan System The Lifespan System cast iron manhole cover and rubber frame from Hamilton Kent locks together using theft-resistant bolted lugs. Using a 1 1/4-inch socket and wrench, the locking cams on the bottom of the cover swivel into designated slots on the inside of the frame.
     
  • SewerLock manhole security barriers Manhole security barriers from SewerLock are designed to keep people out and prevent falls where street-level manholes have been stolen. Made of corrosion-resistant stainless steel, barriers can be attached to the manhole covers to prevent theft.
     
  • LockDown-XP safety and security system The LockDown-XP manhole safety and security system prevents unauthorized entry to underground vaults and infrastructure while protecting against accidental falls into manholes. Constructed from 12-gauge stainless steel, the device provides a barrier under a standard manhole cover that will stay in place if stood upon by a pedestrian or driven over by a vehicle. It is locked in place via a combination of a steel ledger-bar fastened underneath the device via a stainless steel, threaded rod and locked above with a stainless steel puck lock that comes standard with a Van Lock removable core lock.

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