When I’m performing a home inspection on a house built around 1970, I usually get the question, “Does it have aluminum wire?” Let’s talk about what the issue is, and what your options are if you are looking to buy a house that has aluminum branch wiring in it.
What are branch circuits?
Branch circuits are circuits that power the “small” stuff like your lights, outlets, and small machines (think dishwasher, disposal, etc.) Aluminum wiring was first used as branch circuits around 1965 during a copper shortage, and was used in homes until the mid 1970’s. It’s the small 15 and 20 amp breakers in your electrical panel. The larger wires (usually 240v stuff) and the main power lines coming into the home are typically aluminum but do not have any issues.
Facts about Aluminum Wiring
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released a “Repairing Aluminum Wiring” pamphlet that you can download here. Don’t be foolish and try to use it as a how-to guide. It’s meant to explain what can be done by an electrician who knows what he or she is doing. Here are some interesting facts for you:
- There are an estimated 2 million homes wired with aluminum wire.
- The problem is the connection points and splices at junction boxes, outlets, switches, etc.
- A national survey conducted by Franklin Research Institute for CPSC showed that homes built before 1972, and wired with aluminum, are 55 times more likely to have one or more wire connections at outlets reach “Fire Hazard Conditions” than homes wired with copper.
- On April 28, 1974, two people died in a home in Hampton Bays, N.Y. Fire officials determined that the fire was caused by an overheated aluminum wire connection at a wall receptacle.
When I find aluminum wiring, it seems I always get the question, “Do you think it will be a problem?” Another popular thing I hear is “If it hasn’t been an issue in 40 years, it probably won’t ever be one.” Wait….what? People downplay the issue in their minds because of the scope of the potential problem. It’s not convenient for them to have to deal with this right now. But it is real, and it can’t be ignored.
What are the issues anyway?
Aluminum wiring has several unique traits that its copper counterpart does not. All of these add up to the reason it’s no longer used.
- Aluminum is Soft – When you tighten the set screw down on an outlet or switch, the aluminum wire will actually continue to flatten out a bit over time – even after you stop torquing the screw. This will cause a loose connection. Loose connections cause arcing. Arcing causes fires.
- Thermal Movement – Everything moves with temperature. Aluminum wire is no different. When the wire has electrical current flowing through it, it heats up. When it heats up it expands. The issue is that aluminum expands more than copper. Over time this swelling and shrinking can cause a loose connections. Again, arcing and fire.
- Oxidation – When aluminum wire is exposed to oxygen it oxidizes. This byproduct is called aluminum oxide. This stuff can deteriorate the connection.
- Corrosion – When moisture is added to the mix of aluminum wire, you get galvanic corrosion at the connections.
I have aluminum wire. Now what?
The first thing you do is get an electrician experienced with aluminum wiring to come check every connection they can possibly get to in the house. Will they be able to check them all? Doubtful. Most houses have junctions behind drywall or in the attic we can’t see or know they are even there. According to the rules, there should never be concealed junctions, but the reality is that people don’t always obey the rules. Having ol’ sparky come check things out can be pricey, but his house call is much cheaper than a house fire.
What can be done to minimize the risk?
There are several products on the market designed to help minimize the risk when dealing with aluminum wiring.
1. One of the more popular products I find people know something about are the specially rated outlets and switches made for aluminum and copper wires. These are marked with a CO/ALR on them. CO=copper – ALR=Aluminum. Would you know to get these for your house if you had aluminum wire?
Here is a scenario for you:
Being the hip, young couple that you are, you’re ready to tackle some DIYing this Saturday. So your normal Friday movie date is replaced with a shopping trip to Lowe’s. You get your paint, brushes, tape, flooring and so on. Your better half proclaims those ugly almond outlets have got to go in lieu of some nice new white ones. No worries, right?
You stroll to the electrical aisle and reach for those shiny white outlets. You need 5 for the living room. Better get 6, just in case. How much? $.68 cents. No sweat.
You grab your 6 outlets and start to walk away. Out of the corner of your eye you see another receptacle that looks identical to the one in your hand, except it’s almost $4 bucks. What? $4 for one! I don’t think so. Let’s roll babe.
2. There are special connectors called AlumiConn available. These are approved by the CPSC, but at nearly $4 each, they are not a cheap option. Understand that is $4 per wire; per connection.
3. Another product is the COPALUM connector. This system uses a special clamp, crimping tool, and heat-shrink to create a copper pigtail off the aluminum wiring. You must be certified to use this system. Some areas don’t have anyone available who is certified in using the COPALUM system.
4. Total Replacement of the aluminum wire itself. This is, of course, the safest of all options. It is also the most expensive. Cost will vary, as every house is different in the process used to replace the wire. You’ll need to speak with an electrician to get an idea of what you can expect. Keep in mind this is typically thousands of dollars. It’s not a cheap process.
If you have aluminum wiring in your home, you need to get that electrician out there ASAP. If you are not sure if you have aluminum wiring or not, a reputable home inspector in your area should be able to come out and take a look for you. You shouldn’t take the cover off of your electrical panel yourself unless you know what you are doing. There are things in there that will kill you.
You have options in what can do. You can repair or replace. Either is better than nothing at all. And when it comes to situations like this; it’s never a problem until it becomes one.
WARNING – THE FOLLOWING GIVES INSTRUCTION ON HOW TO WORK ON PART OF THE ELECTRICAL SYSTEM IN A HOME. IT IS TECHNICAL IN NATURE AND NOT MEANT FOR EVERYONE. IF YOU DO NOT FEEL COMFORTABLE TAKING YOUR LIFE INTO YOUR OWN HANDS, OR POSSIBLY DAMAGING YOUR HOME, READ ON, AND THEN CALL A PRO.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Insulating your home is only half the battle when it comes to saving money on your energy bills. The other half, and some would argue the most important, is that you must air seal the outer walls/ceiling. This is also known as the building envelope. We must stop air movement from the living space and the outdoors too.
The Science Of Building Heating and Cooling
In physics, the second law of thermodynamics says that heat flows naturally from an object at a higher temperature to an object at a lower temperature; and heat doesn’t flow in the opposite direction of its own accord. This means hot moves to cold on its own. In the winter, your hot air air is trying to escape the house, and in the summer, the hot air outside is trying to get in. It’s a never ending battle. Every little crack and hole in your house is a path to losing money, comfort, and is making your furnace/air conditioning work harder.
Take a Peek
Behold the beautiful wonder of thermal imaging! I love my thermal camera. It has made me a hero more times than I can count during my home inspections. Thermal Imaging Inspections take inspecting to a whole new level. You can see in the image below, an electrical outlet in my house. I’ve marked the hi and low temps to make it easier for you to understand the colors. The blue area is all the cold air leaking in around the edge of the electrical box, and the holes where the wires come into the box.
Stopping these leaks is a small piece of a larger puzzle, but still a piece nonetheless. The first thing you do is kill the power to whatever you are working on. Don’t try any of this on a live circuit or you could electrocute and kill yourself. Don’t be stupid. Now that you’ve turned off the power you’ll want to remove the receptacle itself. GENTLY pull it straight back and out of the box. If the person who wired your house left the wires too short in the box to safely pull the receptacle up and out of the way, stop now. You could pull the wires off the receptacle, break a wire, etc… Call in a pro to have your wires extended. If you can pull out your receptacle and it looks like the image below, carry on.
Seal It Up
Now that we can work without fear of breaking wires and/or electrical shock, I use caulk and expanding foam to seal the box. Using a high quality painters caulk, caulk the edge of the electrical box to the drywall itself. I got lucky and the drywallers did a decent job of cutting out for my boxes, so the gap is not very large. Your mileage will vary on how much caulk it takes to seal this up.
Now that the box-to-drywall connection is sealed, let’s focus on the wire penetrations. You may have one, two, or even three sets of wires coming into the box itself. This number will vary on how outlets/switches are in your box. Treat them all the same here. I have two sets of wires coming in to deal with. A small shot of spray foam around each wire is all it takes. You can see here how the foam will spread itself around the wires and seal them up.
Expanding foam in the disposable cans can get pricey. Once you crack the seal on them the clock starts before it becomes useless. Remember, a little goes a long way with expanding foam. This stuff will grow and grow once you squirt it out. If you get trigger happy and get too much in the box; just let it cure and dig it out. Don’t try to touch it wet. You’ll just end up with a sticky mess on your hands. One can will likely do your whole house. So if you have to buy these types of cans, you may want to tackle the whole house at once to save on foam.
Here is another thermal image pic showing the improvement we made. This area is a full 6.1 degrees warmer. But more importantly, we have stopped the airflow from getting into the living space of the house. That airflow cost money and comfort 24-7-365.
But Ben, why is the area still blue and cold you ask?
Understand that what we are working on is air sealing of this box , not the insulation around it. We are still seeing cold temps and blue coloring because the insulation around this particular box is non-existent. This receptacle is above my fireplace where most builders do not attempt to insulate. I”ll tackle the insulation another time.
This procedure is good for just about every penetration in your home’s envelope. All your receptacles, light switches, hard wired smoke detectors, ceiling lights, ceiling fans, and any other hole you may have. It’s a quick process. Takes me about 2 minutes per box to seal it up, and you reap the benefits instantly.
I’m a bit later than I wanted to be getting this written, but hey, better late than never. If you missed the first part of this post you can see it here: Best of Home Inspections 2014. So without further ado, the second half of the Best of the Worst pictures of 2014.
A waterfall in the crawlspace – This house was about 15 years old. This was the 3rd person selling it. What you are looking at is the master shower that was NEVER connected to the home’s plumbing. It has been dumping shower water under the house since the day it was built. How many other inspectors missed this little gem because it was in a tight spot that took a bit of extra effort to get to? And do you know what I had to craw through to see it? Go on…tell me you’ve never peed in the shower.
NEW Insulation in the Attic – That is what the listing boasted. In fact, the buyer even commented to me on how this flipper (not the dolphin) did everything just right. I may be a bit cynical, but I have never seen a flipped house “done right.” When I climbed through the tiny hole in the ceiling to get into the attic I saw this pile of batt insulation (the worst possible choice for attic insulation, mind you). Well…in the sellers defense, there was new insulation in the attic, it just hasn’t been installed yet.
Leaning Crawlspace Tower of Pisa – Truth be told, I could make one of these post every week with the crap I find in crawlspaces alone. This beauty was in an old house, circa 1900. There were probably a dozen or so of these wonderfully crafted modern marvels scattered throughout. What do you say other than “Um…no.”
Air filters are important – Who doesn’t like clean, fresh air? The people who owned this house, that’s who. This was a 10yr old gas furnace that I don’t think has ever had a filter installed it. I was getting very little air flow out of it and when I took the unit apart I found this fan so clogged with crud it could barely draw the air through it.
Casting a shadow – It doesn’t hurt to turn off your ceiling fans every few years and wipe them down. The dust on the edge of this fan blade was nearly 3/4 inch thick. So fellas, the next time you start to catch heat about not pulling your weight in the house cleaning department, just show the them this pic and point out how it could always be worse.
My last and final picture is not of a house, but of a fortune cookie message I received a few weeks ago. It only took 30 years to get one that actually made sense.
I’ve got enough pictures to write a novel of funny, awful, and scary things I’ve found during my home inspections, and I’ve already started compiling my list for next time. I had record numbers in 2014 because of you and the trust you put in me. I love what I do, and I love helping people. Thank you for choosing ABI.
Another year older, one or two more gray hairs found, and a stack of pictures to choose from. It’s hard to whittle it down to just a handful, but I selected the top 10 problems found during home inspections this year.
A Cold Fireplace – This is a picture from a one year old home. The owners paid extra to have a vented gas fireplace insert installed. What they didn’t realize is they would be paying extra on their heat bill forever because of it. You can see through the eye of my thermal imaging camera that the lower section of the insert was not insulated or air sealed. It’s constantly letting cold in air. The room temp was 68, the outside air was 17. This is why thermal imaging home inspections are awesome. It put visual reasoning to a problem you can feel. This problem is fixable, but it would requiring removing the mantle and fireplace to air seal/insulate the back wall.
Structural Window – Ok, there is no such thing, but this window in this custom garage is acting as one. The owners of this two month old custom built garage called me when they started to have trouble with water leaking in. I came out to find what the water problem was. I did, and found this beauty as well. Whenever we have masonry spanning the top of a window or door or opening, there should be a piece of steel installed above the window, called a lintel. This L shaped support is what holds everything up in the air. These concrete blocks are resting on the window frame only. No steel. Only water leakage.
Flooded Crawlspace – There is not much I won’t do for my clients. I have been bitten and stung. I have crawled through dead animals, piles of poop, puddles of pee, and everything you can imagine to get the low down on a house. But I drew the line with this crawlspace. I took one look in there with the exposed and flooded electrical lines and “noped it.” The buyer just laughed and said “I don’t blame you.”
Rotting Creatures – In keeping with the creepy, nasty crawlspace theme; one day I turned the corner and stumbled across this guy. I think it used to be a possum at one time. It may not seem too bad now, but imagine yourself in a dark, wet crawlspace. You’re crawling on your belly, turn the corner and find this dude 6 inches from your face. It’s a bit startling. Oh, and wet, decomposing hair smelled great!
See Through Drain – Ever wondered what your bathroom sink drain looks like? Yeah, me neither. But if by some chance you do….wonder no more. This thing is flat out gross. It was almost like a lava lamp for hair and dead skin cells.
So there is the first five. It’s tough picking a top ten with thousands of pictures to choose from for sure, but you can see part two here- ABI Home Inspection – Best of 2014 Part 2