BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Catalytic converter thefts have increased over 1,200 percent in the past two years, as the value of precious metals used in the devices have risen, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Local entrepreneur Tom Birsen has a solution.
Recently, a sign for CatStrap was installed on the front of his building at 6700 Cemetery Rd. in Whitehouse, but Birsen’s invention of the catalytic converter theft prevention device came about eight years ago, after one of his Varsity Motors customers had a fleet of vehicles put out of commission due to thieves looking to make a quick buck.
“These guys were so desperate. They were wiped out of every one of their catalytic converters,” he said. “So, I began with an idea to make a barrier to make it more difficult to steal.”
That idea led to the invention of the CatStrap. Made with three aircraft-grade steel cables placed on top of a strip of steel and sealed within a fiberglass strap that’s sewn together with heat-resistant tape, the bright orange strap is attached to the exhaust and catalytic converter with adhesive. When a thief wielding a battery-powered reciprocating saw like a Sawzall attempts to cut through, the cables move, destroying saw blades and making it nearly impossible to break through.
Coupled with CatEye, an infrared detection device that sounds off a 130-decibel alarm once movement is sensed near the converter, the result is 99-percent effectiveness when it comes to preventing theft.
“We want to make it so uncomfortable under the car that they go away,” Tom said. “It’s at the pain threshold of a human being – 130 decibels. It’s like having your finger in the light socket.”
Kim Birsen, a registered nurse who began working full time for CatStrap last year, recently led The Mirror on a tour of the shop, which now has 15 employees. Kim and Tom’s son, 2009 Anthony Wayne High School graduate David Birsen, travels home from the Washington, D.C., area every two weeks to work on-site, and he also helps manage the online orders remotely.
“Last year, we had three employees,” Kim said, introducing Cole Almroth, a Woodmore High School senior studying construction electricity at Penta Career Center. Cole is working 40 hours a week for CatStrap and, while trained in each one of the stations, was testing alarms last week.
He had multiple CatEye units lined up several feet away from a heat source to make sure that the alarms would react. He pushed a button to demonstrate the full-strength alarm that’s muffled by a cap. The sound was deafening.
“The strap vibrates when someone tries to steal a muffler and catalytic converter,” explained manager Eric Kuhlman. “When the eye detects movement or heat – like what’s caused by a Sawzall – the alarm goes off. It’s obnoxiously loud.”
Kuhlman and Tom shared the story of a Swanton resident who was awakened by the alarm one night. She looked out and found a man under her vehicle, passed out.
“The alarm shocked him, and he conked his head on the car and was unconscious with a gash in his head when police arrived,” Kuhlman said.
Rodium, paladium and platinum are all valued at much higher levels since the war in Ukraine, Kuhlman said. These are the metals used as a catalyst to convert fumes from the engine into less harmful gasses. Vehicles that are more environmentally friendly, like the Toyota Prius, have more of these precious metals. So, it’s no surprise that the Prius is the No. 1 target of thieves, who also go for the Honda Element, Honda Passport and most Nissans, Mitsubishis and Kias. Large pickup trucks and RVs are also popular targets because the exhaust system is easier to get to.
“Thefts from RVs are a huge problem,” Kim said. “They’re stored in a lot, so a thief just has to go ‘snip, snip’ and hit 10 different RVs in a night.”
The result can be devastating, because thieves don’t just take the converter – often, they damage much more while trying to nab a quick $300.
“I’ve seen some of the big trucks sustain $17,000 or $18,000 in damage,” Tom said. “They’re not too discerning when they’re under there.”
Even worse, getting replacement catalytic converters right now can be a challenge because of supply chain issues, material shortages and staffing challenges, Kuhlman added.
CatStrap is the only device of its kind on the market, and all of the business comes through Google or word-of-mouth, Tom said. The prices start at $149. Many of the customers are larger companies that have fleets of vehicles. Recently, the team wrapped up two orders of 1,500 each, creating customized straps to their clients’ specifications.
Tom, who has a master’s degree in manufacturing systems engineering, is always making improvements and updating provisional patents to the design, and he is also working on ideas for preventing smash-and-grab-type thefts from vehicles. It’s his way of finding a solution to a problem.
For more information, visit catstrap.net or call (419) 215-8549. The shop is located at 6700 Cemetery Rd. at the corner of SR 64 in Whitehouse.