ALUMINUM WIRING: 7 points you need to consider

This report expands on the information presented in AN INTRODUCTION TO ALUMINUM WIRING. Should you feel comfortable about your aluminum wiring or be afraid?  Bring up the subject of residential aluminum wiring and you will receive a diverse range of responses.  Some believe aluminum wiring…

This report expands on the information presented in AN INTRODUCTION TO ALUMINUM WIRING.

Should you feel comfortable about your aluminum wiring or be afraid?  Bring up the subject of residential aluminum wiring and you will receive a diverse range of responses.  Some believe aluminum wiring is dangerous and will be afraid of it.  Others will say the dangers are overblown, and feel  it is safe.  Depending on a particular installation, they are both right.  The only way to know is to have it inspected properly. Repairs will then be required if the wiring is found to be faulty. In this special report I will take an in-depth look at residential aluminum wiring.  I will provide you with information about its history, problems, and solutions.  Recommended repair methods that can be used to improve the overall safety level of a faulty aluminum wiring system will also be included.

                                                                                                                        Improper aluminum to copper bond wire connection

                                                                                                                     An improper aluminum to copper bond wire connection

Aluminum wire has been around for a long time.  The National Electrical Code has permitted the use of aluminum wire since 1901.  Underwriter’s Laboratories evaluated and listed aluminum wiring for interior wiring applications in 1946. In wasn’t until the mid 1960’s, when copper shortages and high prices made aluminum an attractive alternative to copper.  Between 1965 and 1972 it is estimated that over 450,000 homes in Canada were wired with aluminum wiring. Homes continued to be wired with aluminum until the late 1970’s.

Note: when talking about residential aluminum branch wiring this report refers to the solid core conductors used for general circuits. It is the connection points in these circuits that have been the problem. The multi strand conductors used for heavy loads for such appliances as a water heater, washer, and stove have not been considered a problem.

These are the 7 key points I advise my clients to consider if they own or are buying a home with aluminum branch circuits.

POINT #1 Aluminum wiring is not an automatic show stopper.

Aluminum branch wiring can be more dangerous than copper wiring systems. Any wiring system can have flaws caused by age, workmanship, abuse, and neglect, including copper systems. The characteristics of aluminum alloys added new challenges to residential aluminum wiring, and increased the potential for flaws in the wiring. Aluminum wiring done properly, using current materials and knowledge, can approximate the performance of  copper. If you really like the home you are looking at and the aluminum wiring is your only concern, then I would not consider it an automatic show stopper. Continue reading and learn what you need to know to make an informed decision.

POINT #2 Safety: The main concern about aluminum electrical wiring.

In the late 60’s failures at the connection points in aluminum branch wiring systems were documented. These problems were generally found in homes wired from about circa 1965 to 1972. Some of these failures led to fires and deaths.

A survey conducted for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission showed that homes built before 1972, and wired with aluminum, are 55 times more likely to have one or more electrical connections at outlets reach “fire Hazard Conditions.”

POINT #3 Understand the problems.

Understanding the factors that contribute to failures associated with aluminum wiring will help you make the decisions that will take it from the system it is today to what you want it to be.

The main point to remember is, resistance causes electrical energy to turn into heat. In a light bulb the electricity flowing through the tiny wire filament (a point of high resistance) causes it to glow white hot. Some of the characteristics associated with aluminum wiring create resistance in connections, which cause a build up of heat. If the connection is poor and the current is high enough the heat build up that results can reach fire hazard conditions. Following are some of the major factors that contribute to increased resistance.

All materials have their own thermal expansion characteristics. Thermal expansion is the tendency of a material to change in volume in response to a change in temperature. Aluminum has a higher coefficient of thermal expansion then the other metals that were currently in use at connection points in residential wiring systems. The coefficients of thermal expansion of copper is similar to brass and steel. The thermal expansion of aluminum is similar to brass but is not similar to steel. Aluminum and steel expand and contract at different rates when heated. About the same time that aluminum conductors entered residential wiring, the device manufactures replaced brass terminal screws with steel screws.

Expansion and contraction creates differential movement at connection points.  Over time the difference in movement of the dissimilar metals loosens the connection. This results in a reduction of the contact surfaces between the two materials. As the contact surface gets smaller, the resistance increases. Oxidization contributes to resistance as well. When aluminum is exposed to air it forms a thin layer of aluminum oxide.  This thin powdery film is a poor conductor of electricity, adding a bit more resistance at the connection.

Creep is another characteristic of aluminum that affects connections. Creep is the tendency of a solid material to move slowly or deform permanently under the influence of mechanical stresses. Creep is more severe in materials that are subjected to heat for long periods. Creep always increases with temperature. When a aluminum conductor is confined under a screw or in a twist connector, and is repeatedly heated, it will eventually creep and deform. The old aluminum conductors had a higher creep rate than copper building wire and resulted in connections loosening over time.

These three factors, thermal expansion, oxidation, and creep play a role in a cycle that too often loosens connections over time. The cycle starts with heat, which is always present in any kind of a conductor moving current. A loose connection and oxidation will produce more heat. The different thermal expansion of materials involved causes movement and creep which will loosen connections over time. These factors combine to create more resistance which results in more heat generated. We are now back to the beginning of the cycle. Each time current flows through the connection, a heating and cooling cycle will occur in the connection.  If this connection continues to be used it will eventually overheat and fail. This failure can result in a broken connection, a shock hazard, and has the potential to start a fire.

To solve the problems caused by aluminum conductors, manufacturers began to make changes to the equipment and materials in the late 1960’s. The first change was the introduction of wiring devices and equipment stamped with the markings CU-AL or AL-CU, indicating they were compatible with aluminum. No Underwriter’s Laboratories standard existed at that time for manufacturers to meet. These markings were added at the option of the manufacturers, sometimes with little or no changes to existing devices. It soon became apparent that connections on these devices were still failing.

In 1972 Underwriter’s Laboratories and device manufacturers agreed on a test standard for devices used with aluminum wire. The new devices that passed these standards were stamped COALR or CO/ALR which means “Copper Aluminum Revised.” This is now the standard required by the Canadian Standards Association for all switches and receptacles. Equipment stamped with AL-CU or CU-Al can still be used for other parts of the system, such as service panels and electrical boxes.

The other significant change in materials was the conductor. As stated earlier, the alloy used in the first building wire was a utility grade designed for utility transmission lines. In 1972 the first aluminum conductor was manufactured with an alloy (AA-8000) designed specifically for residential interior wiring. This new alloy has properties very similar to copper and is still used for manufacturing aluminum building wire today.

The new connection devices and alloy resulted in an improved connection with fewer faults. In recent years the Copalum and AlumiConn connection devices have been added to the list of new innovations to improve the performance of residential aluminum wiring. With proper workmanship, and new connection devices, aluminum branch circuit wiring can be considered to approximate the same standards as copper wiring. 

POINT #4   Investigation; finding out what you have and what to do.

The only way to know for sure what the condition of the aluminum branch wiring system is to carefully inspect the entire system. When I say the entire system, I am referring to every connection point in the entire house, including the breaker connections.  Some companies offer inspections that will take as little as 60 minutes of actual time spent in the house. In my opinion, and that of the electricians I have talked to, it is not possible to properly inspect and  assess the condition of the home’s entire wiring system in that short a time. Without a proper understanding of the wiring system condition it may not be possible to prepare relevant repair recommendations. Insurance companies may accept these reports and write policies based on their assessment, but some connections will not have been inspected. To get a good inspection I recommend finding a licensed electrician who has experience working with aluminum wiring and is knowledgeable about the newest connection techniques.  These are some of the items they should look for.

  • Are there non-conforming devices installed? The popular Decora switches are not allowed for connection directly to an aluminum conductor. They should be removed or be connected to a short piece of copper conductor that is then connected to the aluminum conductor using an approved connector. This is a method called pigtailing.
  • Switches and receptacles marked CU-AL or Al-CU are not allowed to be installed any longer, although they are not required to be removed if they were part of the original installation. Even though they don’t have to be removed, I suggest they be replaced or connected using pigtails.
  • Non-conforming connection devices , such as marretes should be identified. These connections will have to be redone with an approved connector.
  • Are aluminum conductors used in push-in terminals on the backs of switch and receptacle devises? If they are found, the switch or receptacle will have to be replaced. Connect the new devices with pigtails.
  • All screw terminals should be checked. The wires should be free of mechanical damage and corrosion. The wires must be properly wrapped under the screw head with a 2/3 wrap, no overlap and in a clockwise direction, with the screw properly tightened. If not they need to be redone properly. The device may need to be replaced.
  • Lack of anti-oxidant paste.  These connections need be redone properly even if they appear to be in good condition.
  • If signs of overheating are found at connection points, they need to be redone.
  • All connections showing poor or sloppy technique should be redone. Remember, it is not uncommon for someone who is not a licensed electrician to have tinkered with the electrical system.
  • Box fill refers to how many conductors and connection caps are allowed in a box. If the box fill surpasses the designated capacity of a box, connections in the box can be strained  when a switch or receptacle is mounted in the box. This can compromise  what was a sound connection before installation. Boxes may have to be expanded.

The electrician should search out every connection point. The good news is the electrical code requires connection points to be in boxes and accessible. There are generally a lot of them and it will take time to check them all and then make required repairs. The bad news is that some boxes and open connection points are covered during alterations and may not be found. A single missed junction box means the investigation and repairs, if required, are incomplete. There is never going to be a no-risk electrical system, copper or aluminum, but you will want to know your system is as safe as possible. To achieve this goal the entire system must be properly inspected and repairs made. Even if a few connection points are missed it will be a significantly safer system.

POINT #5   Repairs, considerations and choices

After a proper investigation has been performed, choices of what kind of corrective action to take can be decided. Repairs of aluminum wiring in a home can result in a significant expense. I will present repair options from what I feel are the most effective and best to the least effective.

Replace all the aluminum conductors with copper.

While this is the most certain way to ensure a good system, it is also the most invasive and  expensive. Not only is there a cost for replacing the aluminum, there will also be a cost for repairs to the interior finishes. It may be an option worth checking if we consider how old the system is. We have many more power-hungry appliances today than we had when homes were wired in the 1960’s.  If the wiring system in place is not designed to supply power to computers, big screen TV’s, and other modern appliance, then maybe an upgrade is a good idea. This is a chance to replace the entire system with a modern one that supplies power where you need it for the appliances you want to use. It will probably increase the value of the property as well. Considering  the disruption of the work, time involved, and the costs, rewiring the home with copper is impractical in most cases. It may be a reasonable choice in a smaller home or one that has only one or two aluminum circuits. This option will require thorough research and careful consideration.

Pigtailing using the AMP TYCO COPALUM terminals

                                              Copalum drawing                                          Copalum Image

                                                                    Copalum connectors installed                                                                              Copalum connector installation sequence

The Amp Copalum connector is applied using special dies in a special power driven crimping tool. After the connector has been installed a heat shrink insulator is applied. This connector must be applied using a special crimping tool by an electrician trained and licensed by the manufacturer. When installed properly by a qualified electrician, it is considered to be a permanent repair. Some connection points may not be accessible with the crimp device and will have to be repaired using other connectors. Adding extra connectors can increase box fill and in some cases installing a bigger box may be required. Due to the specialized training and tools needed, it may be difficult to find an electrician who can do this work for you.

Pigtailing using the ALUMICONN connector

                                                                                                                                     Alumicon connector

                                                                                                                                                          An Alumiconn connector

The AlumiConn is a lug style connector that is widely available. When installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions it is considered a permanent repair. The manufacturer recommends the screws be tightened using a torque screw driver. If over tightened the conductors may be damaged. If not tightened enough they may loosen over time or by motion caused when they are pushed back into the box. The connector takes up about the same space in a box as other connectors and may create the same box fill issues described for the Copalum connector. This is the connection device I like because of its availability. The AlumiConn connector is considered a permanent connection.

Pigtailing using a twist-on connector

                                                                                                                             Ideal 65 twister

                                                                                                                                                         Ideal’s model 65 Twister

This purple “model 65 Twister AL/CU wire connector” manufactured by Ideal is approved in Canada and the U.S. but is not considered a permanent repair by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. If this is the connector chosen, I would suggest following Dr. J Aronstein’s recommendation for a method to more satisfactorily connect aluminum wires with a twist-on connector.

He recommends stripping the wire longer then required, using a stripper that does not nick the wire, and then applying a non-combustible corrosion inhibitor compound. Next the wire is abraded with the compound on it using a #240 wet -or- dry sandpaper maintaining the coating of compound during this process. He then recommends pre-twisting the conductors into a tight bundle before trimming the wires so they will be contained  in the twist-on connector. Insure the mating parts of the connector are coated with the corrosion inhibitor compound (if not factory prefilled.) I would re-inspect the system every 10 years if this connector is used.

Replacing non- conforming devices with COALR devices

Replacing non-conforming devices with those marked COALR is an option that is still accepted in Canada. If these devices are already installed, all their connections should be checked for faulty, improper, and suspicious connections. They will have to be disassembled and redone if required. Many authorities believe this option may not significantly improve the connection issues in the system and suggest pigtailing as a better remedy.

Only replacing overheated devices and repairing overheated connections.

This is a short term repair that simply repairs the system the same way it was done originally. If the wiring system is only given a visual check for overheated and obviously bad connections, then many poor quality connections may be left to cause future problems. If the wiring system did not work the first time, over time it is likely the same problems will reoccur. This repair choice is not recommended. It will require monitoring and re-inspection of connections every few years to insure good performance.

Do nothing.

If you are purchasing a new home and require insurance this will not be an option. Insurance companies will require an inspection. If you already own a home, this would be a very poor choice. It is a bad idea to follow the advice of others who suggest the wiring has performed without problems so “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The photo below shows a connector from a home the current owner had lived in for over three years. They knew of no problems in the past and saw no signs of any kind that indicated there were problems within their electrical system. This was found only after they discovered aluminum wiring in their home and hired an electrician to inspect and then repair all aluminum connections in the wiring system.

                                                                                                                                  DSC01098

                                                                                                                   A failed copper to aluminum connection using improper connector

This connection could have resulted in a fire if not found. Poor quality aluminum connections have been shown to degrade over time.  A connection or device, such as a receptacle, may have deteriorated but show no visible signs of problems yet, perhaps for lack of any current flow.  The previous occupants may have used it with light loads. A new home owner may use it more and with heavier loads causing a connection to fail. Only a thorough inspection can determine the present state of the system.

There are a variety of choices of  corrective actions to choose from. If you own the home or want to buy it you will have to make some choices on how to proceed.  Your electrician would be a good source of information to help you understand which options best apply in your situation.

POINT #6   Insurance issues

If you are purchasing a home with aluminum wiring, check with your insurance broker before you finalize your purchase. Some companies will write short term policies to allow you time to have an inspection and repairs done. If you do the inspection after you purchase the property, you will have to complete any recommended repairs or risk losing your policy. One broker who worked with 9 underwriters provided the following information.

  • 2 underwriters would not write policies on homes with aluminum wiring
  • 4 may write policies if an inspection is done which meets their specifications
  • 3 would write policies, but required an inspection that meets their specifications

As you can see, getting insurance on a home with aluminum wiring is becoming an iffy proposition.

All companies that will issue a policy require an inspection with follow up repairs if required. The inspection requirements can be as basic as “inspected by a professional electrician to make sure there are no concerns.” Some require verification by the electrician that the wiring be rated medium risk, while others ask for a low risk rating. Insurance companies requirements can be more specific, for example requiring pigtailed connections, use of a corrosion inhibitor, and in one case a requirement that the system be re-inspected every 10 years.

Recently I have heard of some insurance companies requiring long term customers to have an  inspection of their aluminum wiring system done. I have been told of one homeowner having their insurance canceled for not getting an inspection done by a deadline set by their insurance company. Finding a new insurer under these circumstances could be difficult

POINT #7  Market value

There is not a definitive answer for this issue. I have heard of one realtor stating aluminum wiring absolutely had an effect on value, and that he always asks for at least $10,000.00 off the price. In discussions I have had, most opinions given supported the view it did not have a serious affect. Others I talked to offered a shrug and indicated they had not given the issue serious thought. A particular viewpoint may be dependent on the particular interests of those with opinions and where that individual lives or works. Opinions may differ in different regions. I know of one home owner who decided to accept the possibility of a modest financial hit in the future in order to live in a home they liked. No one can predict the effect of aluminum wiring in the future. I suggest discussing this with your realtor and then making a choice on the best information available to you.

The issues of aluminum wiring cannot be dismissed lightly. Ask questions, investigate the system, and then make the choices that will ensure the wiring you are considering is the best you can get. To do nothing is a gambler’s choice. At stake is your home, your financial future, and most importantly you and your family’s safety. When someone advises you not to be concerned, remember it is you who will live in the home, not them.

If you have any questions about aluminum wiring or about any other aspect of home inspections, please email me at [email protected]  or phone me at 250-212-5490.  I will get back to you as soon as possible.

Bob Hamm is a member in good standing with CAPHI(BC), is fully insured, and is licensed by Consumer Protection BC (license #57225).

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