Mike White, left, service manager of Central Monitoring, and Maurice Barton, general manager, discuss the newly developed Pivot Alarm. White developed and tested the new alarm system, designed to alert owners of agricultural irrigation pivots of attempts to steal copper wiring from the units.
ALBANY -- In 2011, Mike White, service manager for Central Monitoring in Albany, had a friend at church who just wouldn't "let him be." The friend was a farmer, White said, who's irrigation "pivots" were repeatedly ripped off for the value of their copper cable. White was in the alarm business -- couldn't he please do something to help?
"We wound up cutting a deal with him," White said, "If he'd let us work on his (pivots) and play with them, we wouldn't charge him for his (system). He's been pretty happy about that."
According to Maurice Barton, general manager of Central Monitoring, the problem had been gathering for several years, since the price of copper began its serious climb. Farmers were being victimized repeatedly. Insurance companies were raising premiums and deductibles or even canceling policies. While the average copper haul from a single pivot might be just $300 to $400, depending on the overall length of the pivots, the greatest losses were from damage to the systems themselves, associated down-time and loss of crop irrigation. A single pivot rip-off could amount to a loss of more than $10,000, Barton said.
Barton said that pivot makers offer optional systems to alert the farmers when units are tampered with, but they're bundled with features to monitor such data as pivot movement and water flow, and that makes them expensive -- typically several thousand dollars per pivot. Cost for the Central Monitoring Pivot Alarm is "less than $500," plus a monthly monitoring fee.
Over the course of a few months, White designed and built an alarm system to notify the central station when the span cable of an irrigation pivot was disturbed, Barton said. The unit, hardly bigger than a laptop computer, is powered by small battery, coupled to a single solar panel. According to Barton, the devise has been been tested to function properly even in the harsh and unpredictable conditions of a farming operation, including dry dusty fields and water spray from misaligned spray heads.
"A lot of the farmers were saying, 'The only security I have is Smith and Wesson, and if I use that I'll get in trouble,'" Barton said. "Staying up all night, riding around in your truck to protect your pivots gets old after a while."
Barton said that since completion of the testing phase, "around 200" of the units have been sold within the alarm company's service area and just last week a unit was placed in St.. Cloud Minnesota. At least one would-be perpetrator has been chased from the scene by arriving law enforcement officers and one has been arrested.
"Crisp County actually caught someone and charged him with stealing from about 15 pivots," Barton said. "He was kind of a kingpin, we were told. He had a nickname. They called him 'Pivot-Picking Phil.'"
According to Barton, the Pivot Alarm, which is trademarked and has a patent pending, activates whenever cable tampering is detected. The pivot owner is then notified by text or email via cellular radio. Simultaneously, dispatchers at Central Monitoring's Albany Central Station are notified to contact appropriate authorities of an alarm condition on the particular pivot.
"The object is to detect, notify and ultimately to deter," Barton said.
According to Barton, Pivot Alarm units are now being assembled at the Central Monitoring location at 522 Pine Ave. in Albany for local -- and national -- distribution. Plans are being discussed to contract an outside manufacturer.
"The development of the Pivot Alarm is an exciting opportunity to provide a badly needed service to farmers," said Judy Randle, owner of Central Monitoring. "I grew up on a farm, own a farm and stay in touch with farmers. Farmers are already dealing with weather, crop costs, labor costs. If we can protect their pivot irrigation systems they have one less thing to worry about."
"(Copper theft) is not an area problem or a south Georgia problem," Barton said. "It's a national problem."