Aluminum Wiring: Safety Issues & Electric Codes

You’ve probably heard negative stories about aluminum wiring, and it might be partially true. But since I can’t read your thoughts, this post will try to dispel the myths, deconstruct the issues and give you full-blown answers on the topic.

You can use certain types of aluminum wiring, but copper wire is more widely used and conducts electricity more effectively. Aluminum wiring has many downsides, including rust and creeping. Solid aluminum wiring is particularly unsafe, causing arcing which can cause a house fire. While aluminum wiring does have its risks, there are ways to mitigate them and allow the usage of aluminum wiring in your home.

To answer whether aluminum is suitable for electric wiring, let’s see where it all started.

First of all, forget the controversy; aluminum has a rich electrical wiring story as well. Of course, it is not as highly decorated as that of copper but worth mentioning nonetheless.

Common Problems and Safety Issues with Aluminum Wiring

Aluminum has several issues that make it a less attractive wiring option. These issues were discovered when many homes started using aluminum extensively. These are three of the common problems that affect aluminum wiring:

1. Rust

Usually, rust is an oxide formed as a result of a chemical reaction with oxygen. Aluminum forms a white substance that hinders electricity conduction.

On the other hand, copper develops a green substance like rust but still retains its electric conduction superpowers. Plus, the same rusts cause overheating in the aluminum wires.

2. Aluminum Is Soft

Electrical wiring requires cutting and joints and some bits of coating removal. When working with aluminum, it’s easier to cut through it because it’s soft. Aluminum is a lightweight material and quite soft.

3. Aluminum Creeping

Typically, when electricity travels through the wire, they heat up. In the case of aluminum, its wires tend to overheat because of its disposition.

When there’s continuous contraction and expansion, the wire creeps out under the screws causing losing connections in the process.

Is Aluminum Wiring Bad?

For the most part, aluminum wiring gets a bad rep, and it’s with good reason. We’ve already seen why copper has wider usage than its wiring counterpart.

According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a house with aluminum wiring is 55 times more likely to catch fire than others, let’s say with copper wiring.

Even so, the idea of electricity at home is a fire hazard regardless of the material used. Most homes with aluminum wiring were built between 1965 to 1972, as we had described earlier.

In that case, it’s not bad to have aluminum wiring as far as safety is concerned. After all, it’s not like aluminum wiring is causing fires by the minute. Again, there are measures put in place to reduce the fire risks.

Aluminum wiring significant risks stems from the connections.  If you install the wrong receptacles and conductors, you increase the risk of aluminum fires.

Aluminum wiring presents a problem when connected to the light switches and outlets or even other wires in JBs. Considering the number of connections your home might have, you get an idea of the underlying risks.

The signs we highlighted earlier make the issues easily identifiable, including warm cover plates, overheating, and flickering lights. Overheating is the primary cause of fires by aluminum wiring. It can overheat more than copper, which means the coating deteriorates over time, exposing the wires.

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Why Home Inspections Are Important

Rusting alleviates the problem, but other factors individually or collectively cause overheating in these wires. Again, its lightweight character contributes to its quicker wear and tear. The houses with aluminum wiring are 50 or more years old; thus, the wear could be extensive.

If you come across a home with aluminum wiring, all you need is to put the proper precautions and measures to reduce the risks. Because tearing down your walls to replace the aluminum wiring is costlier than the alternative.

Is It Okay To Buy a House With Aluminum Wiring?

I have only inspected a few homes with aluminum wiring, and all of them turned out okay. But this is because the homeowners of these houses hired professionals to ensure safety.

So far, we’ve identified the issues affecting aluminum wiring,
and these issues present a risk when buying a house. It is okay to buy a house with aluminum wiring provided that the following are considered first:

  • Consult an electrician to help you examine the type of wiring installed in your potential home. They can observe the extent of the tear and whether you need to replace some of the installations. Of course, the electrician works alongside the inspector. Mostly, they look for any critical issues with the wiring.
  • The electrician report should determine your next move. If they recommend a replacement, go ahead and come up with costing for the entire replacement. In this case, the new installations will run on copper wiring because it’s better. Remember you may use this during your home negotiation.
  • As a precaution, wires should not be overloaded. The electric loads should be distributed among the many cables in use. Under normal circumstances, aluminum overheats from continuous expansion and contraction. Now can you imagine what would happen if one wire is overloaded? You get the picture; that’s a potential fire hazard right there.
  • You need to know the insurance costs for a house with aluminum wiring. Insurance companies have a problem with ensuring aluminum wiring homes. In that case, you could do some shopping around to see whether any insurance company will be willing to insure your home.

Should You Replace Existing Aluminum Wiring?

Aluminum wiring is plagued with several issues that are hard to ignore. Most homeowners console themselves with the fact that their wiring has been around for more than 50 years. In normal circumstances, that is a commendable achievement.

Because it means that your wiring served you well for a long time, due to the potential risks, the replacement could be the best solution. You replace the aluminum wiring with copper wiring. Even so, there are considerations you need to make before settling on a replacement. Here are some of them:

  • Aluminum wiring replacement does not come cheap. You must pay for the labor to take out the old wiring and replace it with the new stuff, not to mention the cost of materials and tools.
  • The replacement process can be tedious. Since the process is quite rigorous, it might force you to remodel your house. While this is not a disadvantage per se, some homes are best left as they are. Remember, these homes still have fixtures or designs from 50 years ago you would want to retain. It could be that’s what attracted you to the house in the first place. However, if the aluminum wiring calls for remodeling, you may go ahead and remodel it.
  • Forfeiture of insurance. Most people will never use it because of bad publicity, and few insurance companies are willing to insure a home with aluminum wiring. Replacing your aluminum wirings may also remove the insurance that comes with it.

One of the reasons aluminum got so much bad publicity was because of the problems affecting it. Realistically, there’s no way aluminum would have competed with copper in electrical wiring. When manufacturers and authorities discovered the issues affecting aluminum, they went to look for a solution.

Some of the solutions they found improved the performance of aluminum considerably. They even created a better-performing aluminum alloy. The only problem was that they discovered the solutions when it was too late.

By then, most people had dropped aluminum as a choice in wiring. Manufacturers had a hard time marketing aluminum to the masses. This explains the myths associated with aluminum wiring.

Due to the cost implications, homeowners decided to retain their wiring while adopting these newfound solutions. Ironically, aluminum wires are still cheaper than copper, but people are unwilling to use them. Note that authorities did not ban aluminum.

Additional Options

The bottom line is that remodeling is the best solution, then go for it. But, if you wish to check out other options aside from replacing aluminum wiring, I compiled some of them for you:

1. Leave The Wiring As It Is

If you get to the specifics, there are some practical solutions you could try. The easiest is to leave things as they are. I mean, do not touch anything; allow the aluminum wiring to remain as it is.

Why is it easy to do nothing, you ask? For one, in all practical sense of the word, the electrical system is functional. And not just that, it would be better performing than one with copper wiring.

In addition to that, real estate brokers would have taken care of any problem that existed previously. Then they’ll convince you that the electrical system is in perfect condition, which could be entirely accurate or not.

But that doesn’t mean that aluminum wiring isn’t a potential risk as it is. Don’t get it wrong, but the issues we’ve been highlighting are legitimate. So ignoring the fact is not advisable.

2. Rewire The House

Next, you might decide to rewire the entire home. This will cost you more if the wiring is in working condition. But as stated earlier, you might use this during your price negotiation process.

While you get to dig deeper into your pockets, this is an ideal solution for your home. On average, it will cost you between $15k -$35k. An electrician will help you come up with a specific number for your potential home.

3. Pigtailing

The third option is pigtailing. It’s a standard repair method in such situations. From the previous observation, aluminum wiring weakness is worse at outlets and switches.

Pigtailing is connecting a copper wire at the edge of the connection. But you should know most local authorities do not allow copper pigtailing.

You may confirm this with your local electricians before undertaking any repairs. Let’s look at different methods of pigtailing.

1. Twist-On Nuts – Before you start using them to pigtail wires, ensure that you only work with the authorized ones. If you use typical nuts, they’ll overheat, which beats the idea we are trying to correct in the first place. The authorized nuts have anti-rusting properties.

2. Copper Aluminium Connectors (COPALUM) – these are specialized connectors used for pigtail repairs. They are excellent because they are approved by the US consumer product safety commission (CPSC).

In a real sense, this form of pigtailing is considered a long-lasting solution, at least in comparison with the previous method. This method requires an electrician to use special tools to fix the pigtail—one of the special crimping tools that rely on pressure to improve the connector in place.

Afterward, a heat-shrink insulator is applied after a connection is achieved. Ensure that it’s the only authorized person that performs this action.

3. AlumiConn Connectors – This method has been around for 15 years now. The US consumer product safety commission (CPSC) recommends this method as an alternative to the COPALUM.

Unlike the COPALUM, the AlumiConn uses a collection of screws to link with the pigtail edge. You need to ensure that you tighten the screws as indicated in the manual for the best results. If done correctly, the tight screws will offer a safe and long-term solution you may rely on. 

Issues with Homeowners Insurance and Aluminum Wiring

The challenge with aluminum wiring is that most insurance companies shy away from covering such dwellings. In such a case, you will do a lot of shopping before finding an insurance company willing to insure your home with aluminum wiring installed.

To simplify the insurance acquisition process, start by performing any repair methods we’ve highlighted above. Afterward, you can get the proper documentation to indicate that you had the repairs done accordingly.

On the flip side, if you are selling a home, it is better to do the necessary repairs before putting the house on sale. In such a way, the potential buyer is aware that the repairs are done correctly.

In addition to that, the certification you get will make the process of acquiring homeowners insurance simpler. In essence, when the repairs are done in advance, they quicken closing the deal.

It’s not a surprise to see a potential buyer ending the contract after the inspection is done, especially if they are not aware of the solutions available. Plus, they could be avoiding the aluminum wiring repair problem altogether.

The bottom line is that doing the repairs is good for business.

When Did Aluminum Wiring Start Being Used in Construction?

Electricity was invented in the 19th century and mass adoption followed shortly afterward. From the start, the inventors were aware that copper is an excellent conductor of heat. So copper was adopted earlier on, even when wiring at homes became a thing.

Some other metals or elements are also good conductors of heat; aluminum is one of them. But aluminum pales in comparison with copper. A few changes allow aluminum to perform almost as well as copper.

Aluminum wiring started gaining popularity in North America after copper prices shot up in the 1960s. Aluminum became a cost-effective option. However, aluminum was affected by several issues which had to be corrected.

The mass adoption of aluminum meant that builders would make some changes because of consumer complaints. Among the manufacturers’ changes was to use a larger wire than the one used in copper wiring.

In a real sense, aluminum packs a 12 gauge wire while copper packs a 14 gauge one. And for your information, a 12 gauge wire is larger than a 14 gauge wire.

Aluminum got several problems after widespread adoption. Overheating was one of the significant issues that riddled aluminum wiring. Other issues include warm cover plates on receptacles and switches and flickering lights.

Final Thoughts

If you plan to buy a home with aluminum wiring, you may solve the problem through the methods we’ve discussed. Aluminum’s primary concern is not in the wires themselves but the connections at outlets and switches.

That’s why some of the less expensive repair methods call for adding copper wires at the connection. Once you put up these solutions, your home is safer. Aluminum wiring overheating is a cause of fires.

The other question people ask is whether it is okay to buy a home with aluminum wiring. There’s nothing wrong with buying a home with aluminum wiring as long as you factor in the cost of repairs (if need be) or replacement.

It is best for the home seller to conduct the repairs before putting up the home for sale. One of the disadvantages of aluminum wiring is the lack of insurance. Most insurance companies refuse to insure homes with aluminum wiring. You’ll have to shop around before you can get one that is willing.

Copper usage is widespread because it is superior to aluminum in more ways than one. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find many homes with aluminum wiring.

Sources

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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