We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
OK, so you’ve done everything you can to lower that damn electric bill. You’ve bought 15-watt energy-efficient light bulbs. You’ve installed airtight storm windows. You’ve replaced your insulation. You’ve even defenestrated your power-gobbling air-conditioning unit.
But the bills are still crushing you—$100 per month, $200 per month. What else could you possibly do to save on electricity?
How about stealing it? Do what hundreds of local power kleptos do every day, and rob the power company. It’s almost as easy as (if a lot more dangerous than) heisting a bike or a car stereo. The chances of getting caught and punished are slim, and you can’t argue with the lifestyle: 65 degrees of air-conditioned comfort in the summer; cozy warmth in the winter; lights on during vacations (all the better to deter more traditional thieves); and blaring rock ‘n’ roll 24-7-365.
For those who don’t mind risking a 20,000-volt shock, here’s a quick how-to: Disconnect the wires that come from your power meter. Now splice them directly into the gray-coated power line stemming from Pepco’s underground or pole-mounted power feed. If you haven’t electrocuted yourself, congratulations: You’ve completely bypassed your meter, leaving it as idle as a snowplow in July. Save your next Pepco bill—a sheet of goose eggs—as your badge of proficiency in home-ec.
Unfortunately for would-be robbers, Pepco does catch on eventually. A power enforcement crew will pull up at your house, cut your wires, and stuff them back into their housing pipes.
No problem. Just slice open the pipes, find the wire feeds, and repeat your scam. You have started a cat-and-mouse game with Pepco, a competition that a savvy electrician can play and win for years (more on this later).
Last year, Pepco reported 847 cases of power theft in its Washington metropolitan service area, which encompasses 670,000 customers. (These 847 heists only include, obviously, those that Pepco discovered.) The utility’s officials blame theft for losses ranging from 1 to 2 percent of annual revenues, perhaps as much as $35 million. The losses are passed along to Pepco’s faithful customers in the unwelcome form of higher rates.
Even though the annual caseload holds steady at around 800, Pepco has prosecuted only 119 cases—and obtained convictions in 53—since 1985. Instead of fighting most of its battles in court, Pepco has assigned four full-timers to investigate and punish power thieves. The four-person crew and a couple of building inspectors from the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) snip wires, reconnect meters, and otherwise foil the area’s anarchisthandymen.
Arecent Thursday-morning tour of the power-theft circuit reveals just how difficult stopping electricity robbers can be. The first stop is a tidy bungalow on upper 13th Street NW. The crewmembers quickly spot the first sign of electricity theft: The power meter in the front yard has been gutted, exposing a couple of truncated wires and twisted metal. But the real scene of the crime is around back, beneath the porch. There, a cable snakes from the basement and attaches precariously to the power line. This is a textbook bypass operation.
The power thief is not home, so the city inspector leaves the $1,500 fine ($500 for power theft, $1,000 for two building-code violations) with the thief’s young daughter. As the inspector explains the penalties that the girl’s father faces, the hallway chandelier flickers and then goes dark. The Pepco crew has yanked the bootleg cable and affixed a metal plate to the spot where it was connected, preventing a second bypass. The milk in the fridge will be sour by dinner time.
But the crew leaves the site with a clear suspicion that it will have to return soon. This, after all, is its third visit to the house, where it first discovered power theft in 1992. “He’ll be right back in there again,” says a crew member. The DCRA inspector adds: “If his insurance company knew about this, it would cancel his policy, and if the mortgage company knew, it would foreclose on him.”
The crew is equally familiar with the next site, a public-housing apartment building on Ridge Road SE where they have already played three rounds of power tit for tat. Last time out, they removed the meters and locked circular metal covers—“pie plates”—over the power feeds to prevent further tampering. But that proved about as effective as securing a bank vault with a padlock. The thieves tore off the pie plates and installed meters stolen from other residences. They also reconnected the wires that Pepco had cut before. In blatant violation of electrical safety rules, they left several exposed sections of live wire that sparked upon the slightest movement. The city inspector decides that the sparks, teamed up with leaking gas in the building’s basement, make for an “imminently dangerous” situation.
“This could easily cause a ball of fire to go to the furnace,” says the inspector. “And you’re gonna have a building go about three stories up into the air.”
As a Pepco cherry picker cuts the building’s power supply from the street pole, a soon-to-be-disappointed woman approaches the building toting a brand-new electric space heater. Another woman bolts from her apartment and slams the door behind her. “Who turned out the lights!” she screams. The inspector explains that two of the units had been stealing electricity and creating a hazard for all the occupants. “Your electricity may be out for quite a while,” he says calmly. She stamps her feet twice in protest, shaking the concrete staircase. This woman is an innocent victim of the power shut-off: She is the only resident of the building who actually pays for her electricity.
Pepco and city officials stress that power theft, in addition to being illegal, is extremely dangerous. Dave Owens, Pepco’s head of billing services, says that meter-tampering scenes are often littered with blood, burned skin, and hand tools welded onto meter prongs. Power theft officials are fond of the story of a District resident who tapped into a cluster of Pepco wires so many times that he frayed the insulation separating them. The wires crossed, overheated, and then exploded, singeing him and blowing up the fuse box of an innocent neighbor.
Chasing electricity thieves is no walk in the park, either. Last month, Pepco workers paid a visit to a power pilferer on Wheeler Road SE who greeted them with a gun and two pit bulls. Today, the crew returns to the site accompanied by three police officers. The uniformed presence induces a compliant approach from the power thief, who produces a Pepco receipt recording his last payment. The crew checks his account status, only to find that he’s still an outlaw. Pepco had cut him off again, and he illegally reconnected himself.
The electrical hookups of this thief bear witness to his history of skirmishes with Pepco. One of the electrical feeds is sliced into truncated sections, like a baguette. The air is thick with the smell of burned rubber. A neighbor’s gutter is blackened by the soot: A fire erupted when the amateur electrician tried to run an extension cord from the neighbor’s power feed. And to round things out, the perpetrator has also stolen cable TV, cracking his neighbor’s cable box and running the wire under his front door.
The cherry picker rises again, hoisting a Pepco worker gripping a pair of long-handled pliers. Within minutes, the line is disconnected. The crew is three for three on the day.
There will be no ESPN tonight for the day’s last thief. His options now are unpalatable: Go without electricity altogether (yeah, right); tap into his neighbor’s line (Pepco will spot the increased power usage); buy a gas-powered electric generator (too noisy—can’t hear the tube); string a line directly from the pole (the most dangerous choice: You need a long ladder, and it’s easy to fry yourself).
The final option—settling with Pepco and reconnecting legally—is a nonstarter. That requires paying back fees (Pepco collected $500,000 in such compensation last year) and playing by Pepco’s rules. Plus, Pepco line workers do all the reconnecting—an unthinkable proposition for a do-it-yourselfer.