Know when to hire the pros for your electrical work
IS ALUMINUM WIRING SAFE?
Aluminum wiring is an acceptable wiring choice if properly installed and used in the correct application. Aluminum is a good conductor of electricity. It is light weight, strong and much cheaper than copper. In the 1960 most homes in the North East were wired with Aluminum wiring. Aluminum wire itself is considered reliable when used in the right application and if it is carefully and correctly installed and maintained.
SO, WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?
Aluminum Wiring is estimated that there are over 450,000 homes in North East United States that are wired entirely with aluminum wiring. Studies confirm that these homes are 55 times more likely to have a fire hazard condition present than homes wired with copper. Most of these homes were built in the 1960’s to late 1970’s. Problems began to surface where aluminum was used in branch circuit wiring. These are the smaller wires that bring electricity from the electrical panel to the plugs, switches and lighting fixtures. Testing revealed that aluminum wiring has some problematic characteristics that are not found with copper.
Aluminum tends to oxidize when exposed to air, resulting in overheating, and eventually failure at the termination points. Aluminum is not as resilient as copper and also has a higher rate of expansion, which can cause loose terminations and connections, resulting in possible arcing, melting and even fire. Breakage, due to improper stripping of the wires or over-tightening of the splices during the installation stage, has created further problems. Because of these concerns, aluminum wire is now banned from use in branch circuit wiring. Insurance companies are wary of homes with aluminum wiring and most companies require a complete electrical safety inspection by a trained and certified electrical contractor before policies are sold or renewed. Electrical modifications are usually needed and in some cases complete rewiring is recommended to reduce the risk of a house fire.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY HOME HAS ALUMINUM WIRING?
If you were not informed of the presence of aluminum wiring when you purchased your home, you may be able to check the wire yourself. Check to see if any of the electrical wiring visible in the attic, basement, crawl space or at the service panel (without removing the cover) is marked with the word “ALUMINUM” or any of its’ abbreviations, ALUM, AL, ALUM ACM, AL ACM. An electrical safety inspection would also confirm the presence of aluminum wiring, along with other possible safety concerns.
Some symptoms that may indicate aluminum wiring problems are:
- Flickering lights that cannot be traced to a failing bulb or other external cause
- Plugs that do not work even with the circuit energized
- Unusual static on the radio, TV or computer
- Switch plates and receptacles covers that are warped, discolored or warm
- Circuit breakers or fuses that trip for no apparent reason
- Strange odor similar to that of burning plastic around switches and receptacles
- Smoke or sparking around electrical devices
- If you notice any of these problems, it is important to have a certified, electrical contractor check the electrical system as soon as possible. Each home is wired differently and must be assessed on an individual basis to determine the best and safest solution to this safety concern.
In an effort to update the appearance of the home, some homeowners have unknowingly compounded the problem by replacing dated plugs and switches with more modern looking “Decora style” devices which are not rated for use with aluminum wiring. This has created an additional safety concern as the incompatible parts cause electrical resistance, resulting in overheating and possibly a fire.
IS THERE A SOLUTION TO MY ALUMINUM WIRING PROBLEMS?
Yes, homeowners have three ESA approved options, when addressing the concerns of aluminum wiring.
1. Installation of CO/ALR or AL/CU devices only.
This cost-effective method is a good start in improving the safety of your home’s electrical system. It involves replacing all the receptacles and switches in the home with ones that are rated for aluminum wiring. This takes care of both the metal expansion/contraction and corrosion issues. Unfortunately this choice is limited to some older style, standard devices as the popular decorator style “Decora” devices and the new Tamper Resistant receptacles are not available in CO/ARC form. This method alone does not address connections in lighting fixtures.
2. Copper Pigtails with Specialized Twist-On Connector.
The most common method of addressing this problem is bridging a new copper pigtail wire between the existing aluminum wire and any electrical device. This connection must be done using very specific wire connectors along with an applied anti-oxidant paste to increase conductivity and eliminate corrosion.
3. Complete home rewire using only copper wiring.
Obviously this is the best and safest long term solution to the aluminum wire dilemma. For obvious reasons, it is also the most labor intensive and costly method, with investments ranging from $7,000 to $20,000 plus, depending on the size of the home. Over all costs may possibly be decreased when rewiring is coordinated with other major or structural renovations.
All three of these methods should be performed by a trained and certified electrical contractor to ensure proper installation procedures are strictly followed. Depending on the circumstances, a Bailey & Shipp Electric electrician may recommend one or a combination of the above options.