Forget collecting those aluminum cans—salvaging wire and cable is where the real money is.

Electrical contractors routinely create scrap metal products such as wire and cable, aluminum conduit, cable tray, copper pipe, and even switchgear on the jobsite, but they may not realize the value of these materials can significantly boost their bottom line. The keys to getting the highest price for these items are knowing exactly how to collect and sort the material and bringing it to the proper scrap processing facility.


All scrap yards typically accept recyclable material from contractors, but many of them act only as the middleman and resell the material to specialized processors outfitted with the necessary high-tech equipment to efficiently process the material. Knowing whether or not a particular scrap operation has the capabilities to process the material on site can make a big difference in the price you receive for your material.

Scrap material is normally classified as either ferrous or nonferrous. The ferrous, or magnetic, materials are steel items, typically worth $.01 to $.04 per pound in today's market. The nonferrous materials include stainless steel, brass, aluminum, and copper. They yield $.10 to $.60 per pound. Aside from the money you can earn for this scrap, you'll also feel good about helping the environment by keeping these items out of our landfills.

What happens to the materials after you drop them off? They are sorted by material and sliced into smaller pieces. The processed scrap is packaged and shipped to a company that re-melts the materials and makes new products out of it.

How can you make your scrap work for you? Just gathering your jobsite refuse and taking it to the scrap yard isn't enough. Follow these tips on your next project to maximize revenue.

Separate wire by type.

Separating high-voltage electrical cable from low-voltage communications wire allows the scrap dealer to weigh and grade each type of wire based on its copper or aluminum content. Recoveries vary, so keeping them separate takes the guesswork out of measuring the exact weight of each type of conductor. Also separate aluminum and copper wire for processing.

Don't strip insulation from wire.

Stripping insulation by hand is a dangerous task and does not add any value to the wire. Wire value is based on known metal recovery formulas for each type of wire. The insulation is ultimately removed from the conductor by high-speed wire-chopping machines. You can even leave the wire on its spool because the machine will also separate the wood content from the wire. Never burn wire to remove its insulation — it's a wasted effort and could lead to a fine from the EPA.

Remove all contaminants.

The highest valued insulated copper wire, called #1, is copper wire with no other metallic contaminants. The next best classification of copper wire, called #2, contains contaminants such as brass connectors, solder, and plating. Connectors, end fittings, and plated or lead items are worth far less than copper, so, if possible, remove the noncopper items. You can raise the value of your wire scrap by removing these contaminants ahead of time and thereby raise your scrap material from a #2 grade to a #1 grade.

Deal directly with a scrap processing specialist.

If you work with a scrap yard that has on-site wire processing capabilities, you can eliminate middleman costs. Companies without this capability will likely sell the material to a wire processor. This additional step will lower the value of your scrap.

Only trust calibrated scales legal for trade.

An independent firm should regularly calibrate scales and provide certifications. Be wary of portable scales as they do not travel well. Scale inaccuracy can severely reduce the value of your scrap.

Do not overload your vehicle.

Wire and cable can be extremely heavy. If you can't safely haul the material to the scrap yard yourself, ask the scrap dealer to provide containers and use their pick-up service to transport the items instead. If you have a large amount of material — 5,000 lb or more — this service should be free. Note that lockable containers can be made available for security.

Watch for other recyclable materials.

Other material found on jobsites, such as aluminum conduit, cable trays, copper pipe, brass fixtures, control centers, and switchgear can also be of significant value. Bring these to the scrap dealer for additional trade-in value.

Work with someone you trust.

Develop a relationship with a dealer who has a good reputation, is well established in the community, and is the most qualified to process your specific scrap. The value of scrap metal can change daily due to market price fluctuations. Be wary of scrap dealers that offer seemingly ridiculous prices.

Find a fast operation.

Your time is valuable and better spent on the jobsite completing electrical work. Make sure the recycling center is equipped to handle your material and quickly expedite the transaction.

Insist on working with a clean operation.

Scrap recycling centers are often dirty, crowded, and hazardous work environments that present several opportunities for flat tires and other vehicle damage that can cut into your bottom line. Work with a clean and organized center.

Follow these simple but important guidelines to maximize the value you receive for your scrap metal products. It will also show your customers you're a good corporate citizen for doing your best to keep America clean.

Morency is the COO of United Scrap Metal, Cicero, Ill.