I frequently write about making money online, technology, gardening and home repair.
Copper is one of the most valuable metals due to demand for it in electronic devices and major infrastructure projects. Scrap metals have always been traded, but only since the 1990s has copper become worth trading for anyone who is not already involved in scraping. In this article, I cover:
- How Recyclable Copper Is
- Why Selling Copper Is a Lucrative Pursuit
- How Much Each Type of Copper is Worth
- How to Strip Copper Wire
- What You Need to Start Your Own Scrap Metal Business
- The Copper Content of Different Common Cables and Wires
Just How Recyclable Is Copper?
Unsurprisingly, copper wire is infinitely recyclable. According to CopperAlliance.org, copper products contain 35% recycled content. Copper doesn't lose its usable properties during recycling and is thus endlessly recyclable. Copper is the most efficient conductor that isn't a precious metal and is extremely valuable for electrical applications.
Why Should You Sell Copper Wire for Scrap?
In short, copper prices fluctuate with the economy. When the economy is in moderate to severe turmoil, the prices of metals go up. Metals are a reliable commodity, especially the highly conductive copper, which can be repurposed from old technology for use in new technology. Sites allow you to view the live copper prices, which can lead you to sell on the best days or weeks. Kitco is one of these sites; they provide an excellent live price report. Check out the live copper price report on Kitco for an up-to-date price listing.
What Are the Prices for Copper Wire on the Market Currently?
While copper prices vary by scrap yard, some websites like the iScrap App list the market price per type of copper. The types of copper include, in order of most to least expensive:
- #1 Bare Bright Copper Wire is 16 gauge or larger wire that is uncoated, unalloyed, and bare. While this category excludes copper piping, it is one of the highest-paid grades of copper.
- #1 Copper Tubing is copper tubing that is entirely clean. It's sold for a lower price than #1 Bare Bright Copper Wire.
- #2 Copper Tubing is all other types of copper wire or tubing that have any paint, soldering, or tin remains.
- Insulated Copper Wire is pretty self-explanatory; this is copper that is insulated by plastic. This category further stipulates the copper must be unalloyed, uncoated, and un-tined.
- THHN Wire stands for thermoplastic high-heat resistant nylon-coated wire. These wires are worth less than insulated copper wire due to their resilience to stripping.
- ROMEX® Wire has two layers of insulation and is thus even more difficult to strip than most copper wires. This is reflected in the price. ROMEX® Wire is a type of twin and earth cable.
Basically, if you have a wire that you can safely and efficiently strip to #1 bare bright copper wire, you'll make the most money per pound on that wire. The following are elements to consider when thinking about stripping common household wire.
How to Strip Copper Wire
Time is money, and if you're stripping wire to make money, you need to do it quickly. There are three basic methods, well, four including burning, but we're not going to do that, are we?
The Basic Components of Unstripped Copper Wire
Unstripped copper wire is composed of:
- Outer insulation
- Occasionally an end in the form of a plug
- Copper wire center
The amount of PVC insulation varies for different types of wire and can alter which method is best for stripping the wire. A manual wire stripper or a power drill-operated automatic wire stripper are almost always better options than pliers and a knife.
- Pliers and a Knife: So method number one is using just a pair of pliers and a sharp knife like a Stanley knife and a lot of energy. This method is acceptable if you only have a small amount of wire to strip but it is slow.
- Manual Wire Stripper: The second and best method is to use a manual wire stripper, this device basically just holds a blade and the wire is pulled by hand through the device to slice the insulation so the copper can be removed.
- Electric Power Drill-Operated: The third method, if you have a large amount of wire to strip, is basically the same as the method above but you use an electric power drill to do all the hard work. It is very quick and you can get through a large amount of wire very quickly.
Do Not Burn Copper Wire
One method of removing the PVC insulation from the copper wire is to burn it off, but this is the worst thing you can do. It creates toxic smoke that is extremely harmful if inhaled and is very bad for the environment. It is illegal too.
And if copper wire is burnt, the copper will be black when presented for sale, and no longer graded as "bright bare copper," which will reduce its value.
Why It's Important to Strip the Wire . . . Sometimes
All scrap metal is sold by weight. If scrap copper wire is sold to a scrap metal dealer with the PVC insulation on, because of the extra weight of the insulation, the scrap metal dealer will only give you a fraction of the value of pure or "bright" copper. The same weight of stripped wire without the PVC insulation is worth three times as much.
Stripping the wire makes it worth more by weight, but since you lose some of the weight by stripping it, you will want to know if you will actually get more money for the wire in its stripped state. For example, if one lb of insulted PVC-covered copper wire is worth $1.40, and one lb of stripped copper wire is worth $2.20, the copper content must be above around 70% to actually make a given batch of wire worth more when stripped. More detail on this and copper recovery rate in the "Copper Content of Common Household Wires and Cables" section below.
What You Need to Start Your Own Scrap Metal Recycling Business
If you feel confident about the market and are interested in starting a scrap metal recycling business, it's easier than one might think. The basic steps for starting a scrap metal recycling business are similar to starting any business.
- Plan your business: Determine costs, target market, what makes price fluctuate, how to generate profit and what to charge your customers. Consider naming your business if you plan on expanding outside of a sole proprietorship.
- Form a legal business entity: File with your state, acquire an EIN, open a business bank account and acquire a business credit card. Do research about permits and licenses you'll need. Find the proper insurance for your business.
- Sourcing: Identify your primary sources for your scrap metal. Determine efficient processes to refurbish your scrap metal.
Once you've accomplished the above three things, it's time to clean some metal to sell! For more detail on how to work with other metals for scrap, check out this article on getting the best prices for your copper, aluminium and brass.
Is It Worth Purchasing a Manual or Electric Wire Stripper?
If you're doing a lot of scraping or starting a scrap metal recycling business, a wire stripper is absolutely necessary. Wire strippers are safer than using pliers or other household tools to strip wire. Both electric and manual wire strippers have their place.
- Manual Wire Strippers are cheaper and take up less space. They range between $7 and $40 and are great for stripping scrap wire from home improvement projects or small old electrical wires off of items from secondhand stores.
- Electric and Automatic Wire Strippers are considerably more expensive (they can cost between $80 and $200) but allow you to strip wire at a much faster rate than handheld wire strippers. If scrapping copper wire is something you intend to do a couple of times a week, an efficient automatic wire stripper will save you time and money in the long run.
Copper Content of Common Household Wires and Cables
Here I'll discuss a number of copper-containing wires you'll find around your home. You can also find these at your local secondhand stores. I have gone through and measured the percentage of copper for different types of cable available to me. This gives you a ballpark percentage for about how much copper content you'll acquire from a given wire, however, many wires will have a higher or lower percentage (and I simply could not test them all). Fortunately, you can calculate the percentage of copper in individual wires!
How to Calculate the Percentage of Copper in Different Types of Insulated Wire
These instructions were adapted from the iScrapApp website. These are the most detailed instructions I’ve found, but I’ve simplified them for this audience.
- Have your scale on, zero-ed out, and ready.
- Cut a 2” sample of your non-stripped piece of insulated copper. A cable cutter or even needle nose pliers might do the trick.
- Place the cut sample on the scale and record the weight of the sample (likely in grams).
- Slice the insulation and cover open and remove the copper from the casing.
- Weigh the copper by itself (without any insulation or casing). Record the weight. (This will work inverse as well; you can weigh the insulation and casing together and take down the weight instead and proceed to step 6.)
- Divide the weight of the copper by the total weight of the cable piece. Multiply this by 100; this is your copper recovery rate.
- Bonus: Measure the length of the scrap you took the sample from in inches and divide it by two. Multiply this number by the weight of the standalone copper cable pieces. This is your estimated total weight of copper after stripping the cable.
Don’t forget to inspect the quality of copper in the insulation before assuming its worth. Tin-coated copper, for example, is worth around the price of #2 Copper Tubing rather than the coveted #1 Bare Bright Copper Wire.
Why Is Your Copper Recovery Rate Important?
Understanding the copper recovery rate is critical to understanding the worth of your time stripping the wire. The following two examples illustrate when you would want to strip a cable for copper wire (Example 1) and when you would not want to strip a cable for copper wire (Example 2).
Example 1. Say you have three pounds (lbs) of heavy-duty cable, which unstripped would sell as an insulated copper wire at around $1.40/lb. The copper recovery rate of heavy-duty industrial cable cable is 70%, and the price of copper alone, bare, bright, and stripped, would amount to $4.62. By multiplying the copper recovery rate (70%) by the total weight of cable (3 lbs) you get the amount of bare bright copper you would yield, which in this case is 2.2lbs. Multiply 2.2 lbs by $2.20 and you'll be paid $4.62. Bring the recycler unstripped cable alone and you'll be paid $1. It's best to strip this wire.
Example 2. You've got 10 lbs of coaxial cable. With the copper recovery rate of 16%, if you stripped this wire it would yield 1.6 lbs of bare copper. At the price of bare bright copper, you would be paid $3.52 for the clean copper. By bringing this cable in unstripped, you would be paid $14.00. It is best to bring the cable in unstripped.
|Cable or Wire Type||Price per Pound (Unstripped)||Value after Stripping|
Gauge 3/4/5 Wire
|Type of Wire||Stripping (If Any)||Copper Content (Percent)|
Two-strand phone wire
Outer insulation removed
Four-strand phone wire
Outer insulation removed
Ethernet (Cat 5) cable
Outer insulation only stripped
Not stripped; copper-core wire
Electrical appliance cables
31% (for British cables; American may be less)
Cable for home wiring of power outlets and lights
Cable: twin and earth
Heavy-duty cable: twin and earth
Double-insulated heavy-duty home wiring
Heavy-duty industrial cable
Two-Strand Phone Wire
Uses: Two-strand phone wire is usually used between the phone and its handset, or between the socket and an Internet router.
Insulation: As with nearly all wire, each individual wire is insulated and then outer insulation is added to give the wire strength. Once the outer insulation has been removed, the wire is very thin, and it's almost impossible to remove the remaining insulation. I did not attempt to remove the insulation for each inner wire.
Two-Strand Phone Wire Stripping Potential
With only the outer insulation removed, copper only represented 11% of the total weight; without any insulation removed, I would expect it to make up less than 5% of the total weight. This wire would yield more cash sold unstripped.
It is not worth removing any insulation from the two-strand phone wire. It is best just to sell it with the insulation left on.
Four-Strand Telephone Wire
Uses: This cable is used between the phone socket and the telephone.
Insulation: It contains four insulated wires plus outer insulation.
Four-Strand Phone Wire Stripping Potential
As with the two-strand wire, once the outer insulation is removed, the remaining wire is very thin and the insulation covering each wire very difficult to remove. Again, I did not attempt to remove the insulation for each inner wire. With the outer insulation removed, copper represents 59% of the total weight and is worth stripping further if you have a wire stripper.
Uses: Ethernet cables or Cat 5, 6, 7 or 8 cables are used for computer networking. If your computer is connected to your router with a cable, it will be Cat 5 or Ethernet cable.
Insulation: As with telephone wire, the inner wires are very thin and it is very difficult to remove the insulation from them. There are eight inner wires in an Ethernet cable.
Ethernet Cable Stripping Potential
I did not attempt to remove the insulation for each inner wire. With the inner insulation on, the actual wire represents 65% of the total weight. If you have a wire stripper, the inner insulation is worth removing.
Uses: Coaxial cable is used in AV equipment, TV aerial cable and cable and satellite TV services.
Insulation: It is formed of a single solid copper core with an outer 'mesh' which is usually made of copper; however, in the coaxial cable I checked, only the center core was copper.
Coaxial Cable Stripping Potential
If only the center core of the cable is copper, this wire is 16% copper. If the coaxial cable contains a mesh metallic shield between the plastic jacket and the dielectric insulator, the cable will have a percent of copper wire higher than 16%. Even if this is the case, because of all the layers, coaxial cable is not worth stripping and is best sold as-is.
Electrical Appliance Cables
Uses: These cables are used for almost any appliance which plugs into a wall socket, from lamps to computers to kitchen appliances. Due to the different power consumption of each appliance, the thickness varies, so I stripped three to get an average.
Insulation: After removing the plastic, there was only a single layer of insulation. This wire is most likely worth stripping, price dependent, if you have a wire stripper.
Electrical Appliance Stripping Potential
I tested British power cables which have three internal wires–live, neutral and earth–as we use a 240-volt system where most items must be earthed (grounded). In the USA a 115-volt system is used, and not all plugs have a third earth wire, so the average power cable might contain less copper. The average copper content of a British appliance cable is 31%.
Uses: A cable like this is used in home wiring for power outlets and light fittings. There are three insulated wires and one uninsulated wire.
Insulation: With three out of four wires being insulated, this cable requires some stripping.
Electrical Cable Stripping Potential
The copper content of this cable is potentially 40%. The cable is definitely worth stripping.
Twin and Earth, or Nonmetallic or ROMEX® Electrical Cable
Uses: This cable is used in home wiring for power outlets and light fittings. There are two insulated wires and one uninsulated wire. Each wire consists of a twisted strand of single-core wires.
Insulation: Twin and earth cables are not insulated.
NM Cable Stripping Potential
The copper content of nonmetallic (NM) cable is between 55% and 56%.
Double-Insulated Heavy-Duty Home Wiring
Uses: This cable is, I believe, used to carry power to the main breaker switch before it is distributed to the power outlets and light sockets.
Insulation: It is double-insulated and contains multiple solid cord strands.
Double-Insulated Heavy-Duty Home Wiring Stripping Potential
Double-insulated heavy-duty home wiring has a copper content of 60% - 72%.
Heavy-Duty Industrial Cable
Uses: Due to the increase in voltage and amperage in the use of heavy-duty industrial cable, copper cabling used in power distribution, factories, electric railways and trams contain a considerably higher copper content than the different grades of wire listed on this page.
Insulation: The insulation of heavy-duty industrial cable varies from cable to cable but is usually in the +70% Range.
Stripping Potential of Heavy-Duty Industrial Cable
I do not have access to any cable of this type, but considering the number of people who die here in the UK attempting to steal live copper cable from the railways, it would be safe to assume it has a considerably high copper content!
Conclusion: Is Stripping Copper Wire Worth it?
In essence, for a part-time metal recycler, it is worth stripping heavy-duty cable used in the home or commercial wiring, or any thicker grade of wire, assuming you have legal access to it. This is especially true if you have a wire stripper. Again, the key is to strip wires with a higher copper recovery ratio than the ratio of the payout for the unstripped wire to stripped bare bright wire.
Part of metal recycling is knowing to buy cheap and sell high. For instance, you could buy thick, unstripped copper wire at the going rate, strip it and make a decent profit.
So is stripping copper wire worth it? Yes, absolutely if you have a wire stripper. If not, then sometimes, but most likely only if you have wires you're sure have a high copper recovery rate.
Thanks for reading!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2014 SpaceShanty
Andrew Walczak on August 19, 2020:
try using a good grade potato peeler for stripping most wire
not to good on small gage stranded wire, but still works take a little longer ,you have to work a little lower
murray mclean on June 12, 2019:
how much will i get for 60kg of electrical cable
Ash on December 07, 2017:
What's the difference between the two household wires at 40 & 55
SpaceShanty (author) from United Kingdom on April 22, 2016:
It is very hard to estimate the value from a picture. I suggest you call some local scrap metal dealers and ask how much they pay per kg/lbs.
David on April 21, 2016:
Dear sir i have a large amount of copper wire used in street lights and a large amount of reticulation electrical wire used to run the retic from a hocky pitch. If i showed you some photos of the collection could you help value it?
All of this has been legally obtained through my work in construction.
SpaceShanty (author) from United Kingdom on August 14, 2015:
Baldo, The copper wiring from an entire house would be worth a few hundred dollars!
Baldo on August 14, 2015:
Recently had my house rewired and the electrician stated they'd not take the waste away otherwise they'd need to increase the quote due to disposal costs. At the end of the job I had 8 bags of waste to deal with but missing all the copper - taken by the electrician instead!
How much value do you think there is in the eletrical cables from one detached house? Want to approximate how much they've made off with.
SpaceShanty (author) from United Kingdom on April 30, 2015:
Well giving it to Goodwill is still better than sending it to landfill!
American_Choices from USA on April 29, 2015:
I have sadly turned in thousands of coaxial wire to our Goodwill (a local center for re-purposing). Very well done post, I may have to rethink my recycling methods.
SpaceShanty (author) from United Kingdom on April 15, 2014:
Thanks for your comment!
Michael-Milec on April 15, 2014:
Practical advice, everyone can do stripping copper manually , just as fun.
Voted useful and interesting.
Have a nice day.