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Copper-Clad Aluminum Wiring---it just isn't the same

 

When an inspector takes the cover off the electrical service panel, they never know what they are going to find.  Of course if they cannot take the cover off at all, like the one behind the mirror, in the picture to the right, there are a lot of things they won’t be able to talk about--either wrong or right. 

 

As a home inspector it is always very distressing when I cannot get inside the various electrical panels at a properly.  Typically I must recommend that they have me back for proper evaluation or to have the panel properly evaluated by an electrician.

 

 

 

 

 

If an inspector was to open the panel in the next picture, what would they see? 

 

Well since there is no single-breaker disconnect, the inspector should be asking themselves, is this split-bus type panel?  Of course it is a split-bus panel.  Such a panel does not have a single main disconnect breaker but has multiple breakers that constitute the service disconnect.  In this type of panel there will be a maximum of 6 breakers (throws) to turn off all the power to the circuits in the home.  This particular panel has 7 throws and therefore is in technical violation of the rule of having no more than 6 throws.  Typically those 6 breakers will all be 240 volt breakers, but as additional circuits are needed, some of the 240 breakers can be removed (if not needed or not present to begin with) and replaced with single pole breakers.

Another thing an inspector will note is the number of muti-wire circuits that are in the panel.  They will want to know if they are properly wired, because miswiring of multi-wire circuits is very common and can be very dangerous.  They are commonly miswired when single pole breakers are replaced with twin breakers.  The twin breakers allow for installation of two breakers (circuits) in one space in the panel.  It is super important for the red and black wires to terminate on different bus bars in the panel to not result in overheating of the shared neutral wire of the circuits.  With mini-breakers it is easy for unqualified parties to wire the breakers so that the wires end up on the same bus bar.  Without getting overly technical, just trust me this is bad electrical juju.

So far everything the inspector has seen is evidence of a service panel that is no longer adequate to the needs of the home--because the addition of circuits has left the panel possibly compromised.

Unfortunately there is actually a more interesting and complicated issue to consider. 

For me, the first thing that jumped out, even before the lack of a single breaker disconnect and the multi-wire circuits, is that all the wires to the 15amp and 20 amp breakers seem bigger than normal.  All the 15amp breakers have #12 gauge wires attached to them and all the 20 amp breakers have #10 gauge wires attached to them.

My immediate reaction was that this house is wired with copper-clad aluminum wiring.

This always represents a dilemma for the home inspector because we are required by our Standards of Practice in Washington State to report on “solid conductor aluminum” wiring found in homes and call for further evaluation by a licensed electrical contractor—including that it may be a safety hazard.  One electrician was called in by the seller to “evaluate” the wiring and he claimed that the wiring was not copper-clad at all, but was all solid copper type wire.  My reaction was to have the wiring evaluated by a different electrician as this one certainly did not know what they were talking about.  Even some of the wire covering in the panel should have been a pretty good hint.

And herein lays the problem.  There just is no evidence to support that solid conductor “copper-clad” aluminum wiring has any of the problems associated with its ugly cousin, solid conductor aluminum wiring without the cladding.  In fact according to Inspectapedia, “no corrective action is required.”

But because the home inspector is required to raise a red flag and wave it at the wiring, all parties in the transaction become affected.

Because the “ugly cousin” has made such a nuisance of itself in homes—and truly deserves the reputation it has—many people, including jurisdictional inspectors, cannot embrace the idea that, THE TWO TYPES OF WIRE ARE NOT THE SAME THING. 

To start with, the stuff is made with the 8000 aluminum alloy.  This alloy became the required standard for aluminum wiring to resolve the problems of the poor quality aluminum wiring used prior to 1970.  Adding the copper cladding allowed the wire to be connected to devices that did not have to be rated for “aluminum.”

In fact, brand new, 2014, receptacles that are Tamper Resistant, come rated for both copper and copper-clad wires.  This is a testament to the fact that receptacle manufacturers do not see a problem with copper-clad wiring.

The problem for homeowners is compounded when jurisdictional inspectors, due to lack of information, can decide to not approve any modifications to the electrical system, including changing the receptacles to new Tamper Resistant type receptacles, if the wiring is copper-clad.  There are “work-arounds,” but none that do not involve more expense and in some cases additional unnecessary connections to get the older wiring to the new receptacle.

In other words, the jurisdictional inspectors can create problems where there are none, resulting in additional costs to the homeowner.

 

PS.  In the case that this post was about, the local jurisdiction, based on the information the electrician was able to provide (based on my information), reversed itself and will allow the use of the approved receptacles saving my buyer thousands of dollars.

 

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Seattle Home Inspector

 

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Comment balloon 19 commentsCharles Buell • August 28 2014 08:15AM

Comments

Great read, Charlie. All of my wiring in the panel is behind a plate and the only thing I can see are the switches. Mine has two rows of 6, so they at least did that right. In the lower right there are two master switches to turn off the electricity, one blue one for the 15 amp circuits and one red one for the 20 amp curcuits. When I had it inspected a few years ago they said it was alright but outdated now and the panel should be upgraded.... But I see "USE CU/AL WIRE" on the inside of the cover. So if I upgrade to a new panel I still have the old CU/AL wire. If I could afford it I'd like to add some dedicated circuits to my 2nd bedroom which is my studio for computers, audio, and video. I'm thinking that would be real expensive?

Posted by Rene Fabre, Marketing in the Digital Age (First American Title) about 4 years ago

Wow Charles this one is way over my head.  I followed along and think I get it but I'm not quite sure.  That's why we hire guys like YOU!

Posted by Anna Banana Kruchten CRB, CRS 602-380-4886, Arizona's Top Banana! (Phoenix Property Shoppe) about 4 years ago

Charles- well that one flew over my head as well but I did come away with this... hire... no run to a professional inspector if you are purchasing a home.  One like YOU who leaves no stone unturned.

Posted by Kathy Streib, Home Stager - Palm Beach County,FL -561-914-6224 (Room Service Home Staging) about 4 years ago

A lot of information on electrical issues. I am glad that the inspectors have to deal with this and not me.

Posted by Than Maynard, Broker - Licensed to List & Sell - 405-990-8862 (Coldwell Banker Heart of Oklahoma) about 4 years ago

Sounds ineresting Rene, send me some pictures privately :)

Anna, I suspected this would hurt a few brains out there, but sometimes I have to do these more technical posts because there is not a lot of information out there about this.

Kathy, or in this case, no wire unturned :)

Than, yes, but sometimes these sorts of issues create a lot of problems on your end

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 4 years ago

We had a recent buyer have one of "those" conversations with zoning today.  He called us, we gave him an attorneys number because we can't give legal advice, but I know they are wrong wrong wrong in what they told him.

Posted by Tammy Lankford,, Broker GA Lake Sinclair/Eatonton/Milledgeville (Lane Realty Eatonton, GA Lake Sinclair, Milledgeville, 706-485-9668) about 4 years ago

I'm impressed - this it the type of stuff that makes a knowledgable inspector invaluable in the process of buying a home. You are so good at what you do - and like some of the others - I followed along, but the conclusion was left to you. :) 

Posted by Debb Janes EcoBroker and Bernie Stea JD, REALTORS® in Clark County, WA (ViewHomes of Clark County - Nature As Neighbors) about 4 years ago

Tammy, I think we all have something to learn, the key is to frame it so the other person thinks they came up with the idea themselves

Debb, it sure felt good to see the jurisdictional inspector come around on this one.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 4 years ago

Hi Charles - Well, I learned something new from that, since I haven't ever run into an issue involving copper-clad aluminum wiring, and now I wonder why. I'm going to ask my inspector the next time I see him.

Posted by Dick Greenberg, Northern Colorado Residential Real Estate (New Paradigm Partners LLC) about 4 years ago

I can't remember the last time I saw copper clad.  I see a lot of aluminum around here though.

The only way to tell would be the printing on the cover, or is there another trick too?

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 4 years ago

Dick it is possible that it did not make it everywhere but if you have regular aluminum in your area you likely have copper-clad too as it came at the end as a cure for regular aluminum.

Jay, you can look at the end of the wires but the most distinguishing "mark" is a whole bunch of #12 and #10 wires hooked to 15 and 20 amp breakers. You can almost always see the cut ends of ground wires---in most panels.

 

 

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 4 years ago

Wow,t hat is very thorough, complete information you gave, but I am not at all surprised!

Posted by Kristin Johnston - REALTOR®, Giving Back With Each Home Sold! (RE/MAX Realty Center ) about 4 years ago

Kristin, thanks---I know it is a bit "technical" but sometimes these things happen

Jay, here is a picture of a cut end of the stuff:

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 4 years ago

Can't say I've seen it. Also, what's up with the split buss panels. I almost never see one. 

As for your States regs, not too good. When regs get specific, things like what you describe happen. Not sure how those rules got passed, but I can tell you here there was a lot of involvement from the inspection community in writing ours. 

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) about 4 years ago

Jim when you get 20 inspectors in a room, you get 20 different opinions even if there is only one answer. Any "specific" requirements in an SOP had better come with and out for "exceptions."  You don't see split-bus panels?  Tons of them around here until the early 80's I would say.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 4 years ago

Your regs seem to get unecessarily into minutia, like this one.  Since I hardly ever see this, having to look for it is outside my current thinking.  That would cause me to "mess up" a lot.

But thanks for the head's up!

What?  Cut ends to ground wires?

Why not just look for the shiny, silver spots at mouse chew marks?

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 4 years ago

Jay, where is the minutia, even your own state's SOP's require reporting the "Presence of solid conductor aluminum branch circuit wiring."

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 4 years ago

We must've had less inspectors in the room here 

No, I very rarely see split bus. Must be a west coast thing 

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) about 4 years ago

But that's easy to see and we have a LOT of aluminum here! 

But looking for mouse bites is minutia...

; >)

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 4 years ago

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