Aluminum Wiring: A Fire Hazard?

The first time I found single strand aluminum wiring on a home inspection, both my client and the Realtor I was working with were in disbelief when I warned them about this potential fire hazard.

“What do you mean aluminum wiring is unsafe?” The Realtor, Pam, questioned. “We use aluminum wiring all the time!” Pam promptly called her husband to verify that indeed we use aluminum wire all the time. I was a new home inspector and it was evident to me that there was a trust problem. Luckily, I was able to recommend additional inspection from a local electrician who specializes in repairing this unique, single strand aluminum wire, and in the end my clients were able to negotiate an important and even life-saving repair.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC): Houses wired with single strand aluminum wire that is used for 15 and 20 amp circuits are 55 times more likely to have one or more connections reach “fire hazard conditions” than homes wired with copper. This wiring was primarily used in houses built between 1965 and 1972. If you are looking to buy a house built in this era, you want to check for this type of wiring during your home inspection.

However, Pam and my client were correct; not all aluminum wiring is bad or unsafe. In fact, most of our homes today are wired with aluminum wiring and it is perfectly safe. So what is the truth about aluminum wiring?

A fire hazard?

This article will help you understand where your risk lies with aluminum wiring and what types of aluminum wire are safe and which ones are problematic.

Is all aluminum wiring bad?

No, no and no! We still use stranded aluminum wiring in houses today. We have used it for years and it has never been discontinued or recalled. Stranded aluminum wiring is safe and has been performing as intended for decades. Do not confuse stranded aluminum wire used for 240 volt circuits with single strand used for 15 and 20 amp, 120 volt circuits.

Stranded aluminum wire is not subject to the same loose connection problems as single strand and anti-occident paste can be used at terminations to reduce risks from oxidation and corrosion.

Believe it or not, we even use some single strand wiring today: for 30 amp, 240 circuits you may find it in service for fixtures like dryers and AC circuits. This is code approved and apparently, safe, though this installation is much less common than stranded aluminum which is ubiquitous.

Why were houses wired with single strand aluminum wire from the mid 1960’s-mid 1970’s?

The demand for copper during the Vietnam War caused the price of copper to spike, so more affordable alternatives were sought.

 

Why is single strand aluminum a fire hazard?

Compared to copper, aluminum has distinct disadvantages as a conductor:

  • Aluminum is less ductile than copper making it more prone to metal fatigue when bending. Fatigued metal will not conduct electricity efficiently which can lead to overheating.
  • Aluminum has a greater thermal expansion and contraction compared to copper so wires can loosen over time. Loose connections lead to arcing (think sparks) and arcing leads to fires.
  • Aluminum has a higher resistance than copper so you must use a larger diameter wire to pass the same amount of current. These larger wires are more difficult to secure reliably which leads to loose connections and arcing at wire terminations.
  • Aluminum is more susceptible to oxidation and galvanic corrosion than copper. These forces can deteriorate the wire and make connections less reliable.

Where can I look to see if my house has single strand aluminum wiring?

Orca Home inspection services Bainbridge Island and the Seattle area

1970’s era single strand aluminum wire – only two safe repairs.

The best place to check the type of wiring in your house is at your electric panel. This should ONLY be done by a licensed electrician or a home inspector. You need to remove the dead front cover to the electric panel to see the wiring and this should only be done by trained professionals as it is a safety risk.

Check the terminations for the wires inside the panel and also look for extensive use of wire nuts and crimps that could indicate a prior repair.

If you can see the cable wiring you may even be able to read the listing on the jacket: look for AL in the listing.

 

What do I do if my house has single strand aluminum wire?

Single strand aluminum wiring, when used for 15 and 20 amp circuits, should be evaluated by a licensed electrician who is experienced in evaluating and correcting aluminum wiring problems. It is important to understand that the bulk of the safety concerns around this wire have to do with the terminations of the wire – where the wire connects to lights and outlets. The field of the wire is generally not a risk.

Many electricians are not trained or experienced at repairing this issue.  When it was discovered that this wiring was a problem, myriad crimping and pig-tailing devices came onto the market in an effort to introduce a solution. Most of these “repairs” did not result in safe wiring connections, so be sure you hire an expert.

According to the CPSC, there are only two safe ways to repair this wiring.

  1. Rewire the home with copper wire. This is the most effective repair and can be done by any licensed electrician, but it is also the most expensive repair.

    Orca Home Inspections recommends a licensed electrician should evaluate safety of wiring system

    Multi-strand wiring

  2. Use copalum crimps. This repair allows the aluminum wire to be kept in service, but wire terminations are repaired by crimping copper wire to the existing aluminum wire with a metal sleeve and crimping tool. Although effective, this is also expensive and must be done by a qualified electrician. It can be difficult to even find qualified electrical contractors who have been trained to repair single strand aluminum wire using this CPSC approved crimping device.

I hope this article helps explain some common questions about aluminum wiring. Remember, happy homebuyers are informed homebuyers.

Dylan Chalk is the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC – www.orcainspect.com. He is also the founder of ScribeWare software offering innovative and simple report writing solutions. He can be reached at [email protected]. Or see his blog @ http://getscribeware.com/blog

 

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Dylan Chalk

Dylan Chalk is the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC – www.orcainspect.com. He is the founder of ScribeWare inspection report software offering innovative and simple report-writing solutions – www.getscribeware.com. He is also the author of The Confident House Hunter – a book to teach home buyers how to look at and understand houses: Cedar Fort Press Due out July 2016 – www.dylanchalk.com

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