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By: Kendall Jones on October 30, 2020

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5 High-Tech Ways To Control Construction Site Theft

Construction Technology | Operating Insights

Jobsite thefts of tools, equipment and materials continues to be an issue plaguing the construction industry. Unattended construction sites are easy targets for thieves, especially those lacking adequate security measures. Heavy equipment, power and hand tools and materials such as copper are the most targeted items. According to the National Equipment Register (NER), heavy equipment theft has been on the rise the past couple of years with 11,625 thefts being reported to law enforcement in 2014.

The cost of being the victim of construction theft runs deeper than just the value of the items stolen. You also have to factor in the delays in work, the cost to replace materials and supplies, renting or replacing equipment and tools along with the increased insurance premiums you’ll have to pay going forward.

Check out these five high-tech ways to help combat and control theft at your jobsite. Implementing these systems into your security plan and antitheft programs can go a long way in deterring thieves from targeting your jobsite.

Geo-Fencing & GPS Tracking

The ability to receive text or email alerts the moment a piece of equipment is moved off the jobsite or if the engine started up outside of work hours is a good way to thwart theft of your construction fleet. If your equipment already has a telematics system installed you should be using the features available to control theft.

Telematics systems uses GPS technology, monitoring sensors and onboard diagnostics to track location, performance and operation of equipment and report specific data points like working hours, fuel consumption, engine temperatures and idle times. The real-time data collected is sent via satellite or cell signal and can be accessed through a website or be sent to your smartphone as a text message.

Geo-fencing allows you to create a virtual perimeter around your construction site or within a specified area on the jobsite. During working hours geo-fences can be used as a safety feature, shutting down the engine if a piece of equipment is operated outside a designated area. After hours it can act as a security feature to notify you of unauthorized movement like when a thief is trying to make off with your equipment. GPS tracking allows you to easily locate and recover your stolen equipment.

More and more manufacturers are installing telematics systems as standard equipment on new machines. Most offer access to the data on their websites free for the first few years after purchasing new equipment. You should already be using telematics to better manage your fleet, improve job costing, reduce operating costs and better maintain your equipment. It makes sense to use the system for theft prevention since it can act as a deterrent by shutting down the engine when thieves try to drive your equipment offsite and as a recovery tool to locate stolen machines.

Security Cameras

Highly visible security cameras act as a strong deterrent to would-be thieves at your construction site. Solar powered units with battery backups offer the flexibility of placing cameras wherever you need them without having to time them into an additional power source. You typically have the option to record continuous video or take time-lapse photos at scheduled intervals. Motion detection and infrared sensors, which measures changes in thermal activity, can be used to activate idle cameras and begin recording.

Security cameras can be equipped with Wi-Fi or cellular communication to transmit the video or images for cloud storage or for live monitoring through a web portal. The benefit of an internet connected camera means you can also get text alerts when a camera is activated by the motion or infrared sensors. This allows you to immediately notify the authorities when unauthorized access to your jobsite is detected. Internet enabled cameras also give you the freedom of accessing live feeds from virtually anywhere. Some models even allow to control the camera so you can pan, tilt and zoom in on different areas you are monitoring.

Camera technology continues to improve while prices continue to drop meaning you can find security camera systems that capture high resolution images for a reasonable price.

Jobsite security cameras can also serve a dual purpose. Sure, they’re great for keeping an eye on the site when everyone’s gone home for the day, but you can also use them during working hours. They are a great tool for monitoring workers for safety and productivity and also for recording progress on a project. Time-lapse videos can edited and used as to market your construction company. Solar powered cameras equipped with infrared sensors and built in Wi-Fi or cellular are great options for construction firms because they are self-contained units that can be easily deployed and mounted throughout the jobsite.

RFID Tracking

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology can help you manage assets and reduce theft at construction sites. RFID systems consist of a reader that transmits a signal to an RFID tag. Tags contain a microchip that can store and process information along with an antenna that receives the signal from the read and transmits data back. RFID readers emit electromagnetic waves to power the tags, allowing them to transmit data back to the reader.

A number of RFID systems have been developed over the past few years for the construction industry. RFID technology was primarily used for supply chain management initially, but is now being used in construction to keep track of tools and equipment as well as a replacement for timecards, since attendance can be recorded when an employee walks onto a jobsite.

RFID systems can be used to combat your company’s tools from magically growing legs and walking off the jobsite. RFID solutions are an ideal of keeping track of which tools were checked out and by which employee and when they were returned. Handheld and vehicle mounted readers can help you located missing tools on the site.

These systems can be completely automated, eliminating the need for manual processes. This will create better accountability among your employees and lead to better inventory control.

Here’s how it works: Workers are issued badges with RFID tags. When a worker passes through a reader into a tool crib trailer the system registers and records his entrance. The tools are embedded with RFID tags so when the worker exits the trailer the reader logs and records which tools he checked out and when. When the employee returns the tools to the trailer at the end of his shift, the systems acknowledges the items that were checked back in. At the end of the day a report can be run to identify any items that were not returned and who was responsible for checking them out.

Keyless Ignition/Transponder Chip Keys

Equipment manufacturers tend to use the same ignition across their entire product line meaning all the keys are cut the exact same way, creating a one key fits all system. The benefit is that owners can operate all their equipment from the same manufacturer with the same key. It makes it easier to get replacements when keys are lost or missing and owners tend to accumulate lots of spares to avoid downtime by operators not being able to start up equipment. The downside to this is that it is very easy for would-be thieves to get their hands on duplicate keys to steal your equipment. A quick search on Amazon and eBay reveals a number of vendors selling sets of keys for every major manufacturer of construction equipment.

The solution to this is to replace the factory installed ignition with either a keyless ignition system or a more secure ignition lock. Keyless ignition systems require an operator to input a PIN in order to start the machine. Owners can program PINs to expire after a certain number of days or delete them when an employee leaves the company or is terminated. Keyless ignitions can be equipped with wireless relays in the ignition or fuel pump circuit to prevent the system from being circumvented and hotwired. These systems can deter theft and also prohibit unauthorized use of equipment.

Caterpillar (CAT) created a Machine Security System that works the same way that your transponder, or chip, key works on your car or truck and another example of how RFID technology is being used. Each security key has a unique ID number which is read by an electronic control module and only keys that have been programmed into that particular machine can start it. Individual keys can be programmed into multiple machines. The system can also be unarmed so that any CAT ignition key can be used during working hours and then rearmed at the end of the day to prevent theft.

Drone Surveillance

In an earlier post, Construction Industry Gears Up For The Drone Revolution, we discussed how construction firms are currently benefiting from the use of drones to handle tasks like mapping and surveying of construction sites. We briefly touched on the fact to drones could one day be used to patrol construction sites at night equipped with motion sensors and infrared or night vision cameras. They could be automatically deployed from a charging station and fly along a preprogrammed route at regular intervals.

It’s uncertain if this type of use would be allowed by the FAA. Currently their proposed rules for commercial use would require a visual line-of-sight (VLOS) be maintained between the operator and the drone. It’s possible that exemptions would be allowed in instances like this since the drone would be operated at a pretty low altitude over a fixed area.

None of the systems and devices we covered should be used as your sole means of preventing theft. A solid security plan should involve multiple layers of theft deterrents and measures. A well-lit site encircled by security fencing topped with razor wire should be your first line of defense. Put up warning signs to discourage thieves and trespassers.

The harder it is to access your site, the less likely it is thieves will target it. When feasible, lock up all tools, equipment and supplies inside buildings or trailers. For heavy equipment, use wheel locks and other immobilization devices to prevent them from being driven off the site or winched onto a trailer and hauled off.

Contact the local authorities and ask them increase their patrols or consider hiring security guards to monitor the site on weekends or holidays when the site is unattended. Make sure you involve as many workers as possible in helping maintain a secure jobsite. Remember, no system is 100% effective, but incorporating multiple security measures will help to minimize your losses.

About Kendall Jones

Kendall Jones is the Editor in Chief at ConstructConnect. He has been writing about the construction industry for years, covering a wide range of topics from safety and technology to industry news and operating insights.