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How thieves swiped 500 auto batteries from Calgary’s Roads department

You’ve seen the big orange signs at the side of the road, flashing their warnings about upcoming traffic delays.

They’re known as variable message boards, and while you look to them for information, thieves in Calgary have been looking to them for something else – auto batteries.

Ravi Seera, the city’s traffic manager, said the batteries on the signs have become easy targets for those with sticky fingers.

“We have had problems with people stealing the batteries – we’ve had over 500 stolen just in the last year,” he said.

The signs run off solar power, but each contains a bank of batteries that charge during the day and keep the lights going at night.

“It’s become a real problem for the city but it’s not just us – it’s impacting a lot of businesses,” said Seera.

“Bus companies, construction companies and other businesses that use variable message board signs are all experiencing similar issues.”

Even though the signs are usually in high-visibility areas, they’re also always positioned on the side of the road, meaning thieves have easy access from their vehicles.

Seera said when the problem first emerged, they started wrapping battery boxes in chains, but thieves simply cut through those.

From there they tried a few other methods to at least save some of the cost. Seera said they switched from more expensive glass mat batteries (commonly used in RVs) to regular flooded batteries.

A Calgary welding company helped designed this secure box to stop thieves from stealing batteries off Calgary signs. (Courtesy City of Calgary)

The city also reduced the number of batteries that were going into each machine. But the thefts continued.

So now, The City of Calgary is spending $70,000 retrofitting its variable message board signs.

With some help from a local welding firm, the city helped design a lock box that keeps the batteries contained and makes it nearly impossible for thieves to cut the padlock.

Documents on the city’s website suggest that the Roads department is paying $70,000 for four prototype boxes, but Seera explained that’s actually a clerical error

“In fact, we want to produce as many battery boxes as we can with the limited budget that we have to retrofit the rest of the machines,” he said, adding that $70,000 would get about 50 anti-theft boxes.

The design has been offered up to the City of Edmonton, which uses similar variable message boards.

Catherine Kuehen, communications advisor for the city of Edmonton’s Roads department said the problem of theft has not been as acute in that city.

Last year they had 88 stolen, and so far this year they’ve had 190 stolen, but they also recovered 24 and made two arrests.

While the boxes are now being manufactured, Seera said some work by CPS may have at least temporarily slowed the problem.

“A few weeks ago, the police caught some people in the process of stealing batteries and arrested them,” he said. “Since then, we haven’t seen any thefts – even from the machines without the anti-theft devices.”