Can Pink Manhole Covers Deter Theft?

Municipalities sometimes resort to unconventional means to keep its metal infrastructure from ending up at the scrapyard.
Can Pink Manhole Covers Deter Theft?
With thefts on the rise, the City of Danville, Virginia, has painted its manhole covers pink, like the one shown here, so the covers are easily identifiable if thieves attempt to turn in the metal for scrap.

Interested in Manholes?

Get Manholes articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Manholes + Get Alerts

The theft of manhole covers seems to occur in waves. Rising steel prices tend to encourage the theft of manhole covers and associated metal infrastructure. At the same time, economic hardship sometimes encourages thieves to target manhole covers as an easy mark, even when scrap prices are low.

“The price of iron ore has been especially weak with the fall-off in demand for steel in China,” notes Alex Carrick, chief economist with commercial construction information provider, CMD. “But with the U.S. economy coming back more energetically, maybe the situation is about to turn around.”

The City of Danville, Virginia, experienced a rash of thefts of manhole covers in February 2014 with just short of 50 covers disappearing from remote areas of the city.

“We had a spike of thefts that occurred when the price of steel and metals rose,” says Richard Drazenovich, P.E., Director of Public Works with the City of Danville. “However, it wasn’t just manhole covers—it was any large metal item they could easily lift, including air conditioning units. In six or seven cases, they used chains and possibly heavy equipment to tear the manhole frames right off the concrete base as well.”

At the time, Danville police said that the thefts totaled about $15,000 — a manhole and frame cost the city about $420 in materials to replace. However, the value of the metal at scrap yards typically totalled no more than $20 apiece. 

Drazenovich says the “entrepreneurs” were stopped in their tracks by a concerted effort between police, area scrapyards, utility employees and a little paint.

“As soon as we realized what sort of enterprise these people were running, we branded our manhole covers by painting them a bright pink,” he says. “That way police, recyclers and city employees would be on the lookout for pink scrap metal, which you could pick out even at the bottom of a large pile of scrap. Some of our residents called to complain about the bright color, but when they realized what we were trying to do, they said they could understand why we did it.”

All city employees were alerted to be on the lookout for any suspicious scrap metal seen in the backs of trucks, or delivered to any premises in the area.

Virginia State Code already requires scrap metal dealers to be vigilant about what they buy. Dealers must record the government identification and license plate numbers of unauthorized sellers of “proprietary articles.”  If no bill of sale or receipt can be produced, the buyer is required to document a “diligent inquiry” into the origins of the items, report purchases of such items to police and hold the items for 15 days following the purchase. Similar regulations are in place or being drafted in other states.

Scrap metal firms, including those outside the immediate Danville area, were on heightened alert to contact both police and the utility when any suspicious metal was delivered to their premises.

“Many of the scrap dealers were on board with us and reported on unusual deliveries until a suspect was finally arrested,” says Drazenovich.

Since the rash of thefts, Public Works has moved to replace some manhole covers with lids made of polyvinyl chloride. The lids are slightly more expensive than cast iron and aren’t traffic rated, so they can only be used for raised manholes at sewer outfalls and isolated areas.

“We’re also implementing a new policy that any contractors replacing sewer lines must bring us the metal castings so that the city can recycle them,” says Drazenovich. “In many cases, people selling these items illegally use a cover story that they’re contractors working for the city. Local scrap companies have been made aware of our policy, so anyone claiming to be a construction contractor working for the city is obviously misrepresenting themselves.”

Sewer utilities have also found other solutions to the problem. Tack welding the lids makes theft challenging enough that thieves may be discouraged — although utility workers will also find it more difficult to access those manholes, especially during an emergency. Bolting down lids also disincentivizes thefts, forcing would-be thieves to do more work and risk being noticed while they engage in a lengthy unbolting procedure.

Companies such as Stabiloc have developed products that not only lock down sewer lids, but also provide an escape route for sewer gas or an explosive force from inside the sewer line.

Daniel C. Bryndle, product development manager with western New York-based VPC Fiberglass, has been working on the company’s manhole cover line since its inception. The product offerings include anything from light-duty covers to a hinged, lockable cover that’s traffic rated at 40,000 pounds.

“Most of our customers are buying lighter fiberglass covers because of ergonomics,” he says. “Injuries from lifting or dropping cast iron manhole covers cost municipalities an average of $60,000 per incident.”

Theft is the second-biggest sales motivator. However, liability issues over deaths and injuries resulting from missing manhole covers far exceed replacement costs as the major concern of most customers.

“Some of the thieves use very elaborate methods,” Bryndle notes. “In some cities, they outfit themselves with reflective vests, construction helmets and orange traffic cones and pretend they’re utility crews.”

While scrap metal thieves targeting sewer manholes may continue to pull up anything that isn’t bolted down, Carrick has a final piece of advice for them:

“I would suggest to individuals engaged in such activities that they’d probably have more rewarding and emotionally stable lives if they simply applied themselves to finding more normal employment.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.