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Aluminum wiring---BAD juju!

     For some time now (without getting overwhelmingly technical) I have wanted to do a blog about Aluminum Wiring---the solid conductor stuff that was widely used from 1965 to 1975.  It originally became popular as the prices of copper when through the roof.  Like copper it was widely used in residential construction for 15 and 20 amp branch circuits.  By the early 70's there was already evidence that there were problems related to the wiring being brittle, so the alloy was modified to be less brittle.  The aluminum wire expands and contracts a lot more than copper, so at the connections, as the wire expanded/contracted, gaps would start to develop which would lead to arcing.  Arcing is almost always bad juju when it comes to electricity---unless you want to weld something.

     In this first picture we see a beautifully wired 1967 vintage electrical panel.  It is interesting because "technically" the only defect is the improper terminations of the newer copper circuits that have been added (neutrals and grounds terminated together).aluminum wiring

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

      Another issue with the aluminum wire is that it is very soft, so much so that any knick could in effect reduce the wire size at the knick.   Such a nick acts like a fuse leading to:  arcing---as we now know---bad juju.  So imagine we start to do some remodeling in the home and we start to mix copper wire with the aluminum wire.  In this next picture we can see the combination of copper and aluminum wires at the red wire not and the completely burned away wire nut at the bottom right corner of the junction box

Camp fire in a Junction Box

 

  In this next picture we see splices of aluminum wire outside of a junction box in an attic with obvious melting.  In both of these cases the wire nut are not rated for use with aluminum wiring.<

More melting aluminum wiring

 

     As previously discussed these wire types have different rates of expansion and contraction and which can lead to:  arcing---everyone beginning to get the picture?  These are just a few of the more serious issues that are associated with aluminum wire and they all can lead to serious fire safety concerns.  Because almost every aluminum wired house that I have inspected has had some arcing related conditions that could have resulted in loss of property or life, it is perhaps the my least favorite issue to find in a home----and often results in my buyer walking away from the deal.

      While, there is some controversy over what to recommend and do about houses with aluminum wiring, the end result is going to be expensive.  There are specific repairs accepted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, involving installation of Copalum Connectors , that are considered by some to be an acceptable solution.  There are very few contractors certified to make these connections (and are only recommended on the "second-generation" type wire).  My concern with this approach is this:  is "every" "single" connection going to be locatedto be properly repaired?  (These homes are going to be at least 40 years old---has any remodeling been done that might have resulted in buried/hidden junction boxes?)  I have come around to the position that the "best" protocol is to rewire the home (especially those pre-1970 houses), and if that is not an option then to have the Copalum Connectors installed and add AFCI  type circuit breakers to the circuits.  These types of breakers are designed to pick up the kinds of arcing conditions associated with aluminum wiring.   

Charles Buell 

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Comment balloon 14 commentsCharles Buell • March 27 2008 12:15PM

Comments

Thanks for this article!  My home was built in the late 60's and DOES have Aluminum wiring through most of the house.  The first time I had to replace an outlet I had the good fortune of going to a small local hardware store (you know, the kind that no longer exist when the Big Box "depot" type stores took over) and the guy at the counter asked me in which neighborhood my house was located and proceeded to give me an education about using the proper aluminum wire rated receptacles, switches and Copalum filled wire nuts.

This is a topic which should be understood by agents working in areas where aluminum wiring is prevalent.  Thank you for your great article.  Keep up the great blogging! 

Posted by John Alesi, (Orange County California Real Estate) (Century 21 Award) over 10 years ago
Charles,  Great info again.  Excellent photos.
Posted by David Holden, DRH Home Inspection Akron, Ohio Summit (DRH Home Inspection Akron, Ohio Summit County Home Inspector) over 10 years ago
Charles, this is exactly why I never like to look at the inspection photos!
Posted by Richard Sweum (1st Security Bank) over 10 years ago

John, do you know about the Arc Fault breakers?

Thanks, David

Rich, but they are so much FUN!:)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 10 years ago
I noticed you statement about the AFCI / Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter in your original article.  I'll have to get them installed in my circuit box.  Is this a DIY type of replacement or do I need an electrician?
Posted by John Alesi, (Orange County California Real Estate) (Century 21 Award) over 10 years ago
John, definately an electrician fix.
Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 10 years ago
Had to catch up with your blogs tonight.  I was impressed with the great composition in the first photo above.  It could be turned into a painting....from the artist! 
Posted by Barbara S. Duncan, GRI, e-PRO, Executive Broker, Searcy AR (RE/MAX Advantage) over 10 years ago

Barbara, too cool that you noticed.  I actually used the full size version as my computer background for quite a while.electric  Here is the full scale version.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 10 years ago
For some reason I like the short scale better, composition wise.  It's the definite repetition of shapes that I liked in the first one.  The curves at the bottom lead me astray in the original.  You are a true artiste! 
Posted by Barbara S. Duncan, GRI, e-PRO, Executive Broker, Searcy AR (RE/MAX Advantage) over 10 years ago
In all my years of inspecting, I have yet to run into aluminum wiring in a house. I know that this type of wiring was prevalent in trailers, maybe that is why so many of them burned down. Good post and aluminum for 110 is not good!
Posted by TeamCHI - Complete Home Inspections, Inc., Home Inspectons - Nashville, TN area - 615.661.029 (Complete Home Inspections, Inc.) over 10 years ago
Michael, what do you mean by 110?
Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 10 years ago

Interesting information. I was very fortunate that when I was buying, fixing and selling homes that I never had to deal with aluminum wire.

Sean Allen

Posted by Sean Allen, International Financing Solutions (International Financing Solutions ) over 10 years ago
Excellent article Charlie.  You are absolutely right about a rewire being the best way to go.  It may also be the cheapest.  According to my local electrician, pigtailing may well be more expensive than rewiring.  I'm surprised that michael has never run into it.  It wasn't just used in trailers; there are many stick built homes from that era with aluminum wiring.  Every time I run into it I cringe (There he goes again, killing the deal!).
Posted by David Helm, Bellingham, Wa. Licensed Home Insp (Helm Home Inspections) over 10 years ago

Sean, definately bad juju

David, yup, at $75.00 plus per box it adds up fast.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 10 years ago

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