Aluminum Wiring – What are the Dangers?

Mark: Hi, it’s Mark from Top Local Lead Generation. We’re here today talking with David Fairbairn of Fairbairn Inspections in Vancouver and we’re going to cover a very interesting topic, aluminum wiring. How are you doing today David?

David: Hey, I’m good Mark. Are you ready to talk about electrical safety?

Mark: Yeah, so I guess we’re in a spot where we can actually see an electrical panel where you are today, so aluminum wiring, what year was aluminum wire sort of started to be installed in homes?

David: Just for today we’re actually looking at an electrical panel. This house was built in the mid 80’s. You’re not going to find aluminum wiring in a house built in the 80’s. Aluminum wiring was used from the mid 60’s to the mid, late 70’s and I’ve seen it as late as about 77, 78 and here’s a thing about it, because it was manufactured and installed around this time it doesn’t necessarily mean it stopped after the 70’s, I’ve actually seen back stock of it used in unpermitted work. Sometimes it’s an electrician whose got a bunch of extra in his truck and he’s going to throw it into your panel so that’s why you always have to check every single panel even if it’s from the mid 80’s, I always pull them open and once or twice I found old aluminum but the main thing it was used from the mid 60’s to mid 70’s.

Mark: So why are we even concerned about aluminum wiring?

David: Well we are concerned about aluminum wiring as it overheats so the draw with aluminum wiring was that it was cheap and it’s exactly as easy to install as copper was, you know, as copper prices rose we said hey you know, let’s actually start using aluminum, it’s a lot cheaper, you can wire a whole house for a lot less than you can with copper and what we discovered later unfortunately was it overheats at connections, so aluminum handles current very poorly and it tends to overheat at places like we’ve got a switch, a light fixture, a junction box, those are all areas that you can actually get an overheating condition and it actually started fires and the statistic was that a home wired with aluminum wiring is 44 times more likely to have an electrical fire than a house wired with copper so you can see the statistical need to remediate aluminum wiring and for that reason let’s say you’re buying a house, a Vancouver special built in the early 70’s you know, if you’ve got aluminum wiring you’re going to have a hard time getting insurance on that house. The insurance companies understandably don’t want to see aluminum wiring in the house and if they do see it, they want to see it corrected or the house rewired.

Mark: So how do you tell if you got it in your house?

David: O.K. so what we’re going do is I’m going to pull up some photos of it because I want to show you what aluminum wiring looks like in a house, so let me know when you can see the photo appear that I’m going to be bringing up.

Mark: o.k.

David: Okay, so here we are, we’re looking at a receptacle that’s been pulled from the wall and it’s pretty easy to tell that you’ve got aluminum. Copper is kind of a shiny gold colour and aluminum is generally a silver colour so if you see this chances are you have aluminum. Now in some older houses particularly in character homes pre 1950’s you will see what’s called tin copper where they would actually take the copper, put some solder on the end of it in what’s called tinning and that can actually confuse a lot of newer inspectors and newer electrician where it actually looks like aluminum. The way to tell is that if you have a rubber jacket so here we can see black and white wired rubber jacketed, we also look at the time frame of the house and this is from a 70’s house, early 70’s house and we can see that it’s, you know if you look at the tips of the wire you can see that it’s aluminum all the way through. What we try to do, what they tried to do later, once aluminum had a bad reputation we started bringing out a new type of material called copper clad aluminum or CC8. CC8 was basically aluminum wire with a copper coating on it and it doesn’t work. The idea was that we would get the connectivity of copper without the cost of it. It doesn’t work and if you see CC8 you pretty much have to remove it. Let me go to the next slide here, this is the panel from an inspection in Richmond so this is sort of a Vancouver special in the Richmond area houses built in 72 and this is the best way to tell if you’ve got it. So go to the panel, we’re having a look at the bottom there, you can see those white wires coming out and going into that busbar, it’s sort of a horizontal bar at the bottom, that’s the best place to find aluminum.

I just want to outline that if you get a home inspection done make sure your inspectors are actually pulling the panel cover open. You cannot tell usually without pulling either some receptacles or the panel cover. Most home inspection standards do not require the inspector to actually open up the panel which actually scares me because I think every panel should be opened, it’s a huge, huge area where you can have safety concerns. So we open this up, this has got aluminum in it.

Here’s the same house, we’ve got a receptacle here that has overheated and if you zoom in a little bit, it’s not the best picture but there are scorch marks actually on the wires. This actually was a serious fire risk and the aluminum here was too far gone and they had to actually rewire the house and that cost I believe it was around ten to twelve thousand to rewire the whole house and that’s with all the drywall work so this was a big find. Very important to pull a couple receptacles if you do find aluminum wiring because you want to see how it’s actually performing and whether or not somebody’s done something to it.
The last photo I’m going to show you – this is a panel from Richmond, actually a different house and what we’ve used here is thermal imaging and we’re scanning the panel for overheating and the red cursor in the middle is an automatic hot point sensor was going to find the hottest spot in the panel and if you look at the top left, the camera actually gave up after about 270, that’s what that star means but it says it’s higher, it’s at least 270 degrees Celsius. This was when the stove was running so we had the stove with all the burners on and you get a bad connection you break your panel so thermal imaging can really help us identify if the aluminum that you have is a safety, an immediate safety risk or not.
Mark: So just to remind everybody water boils at a 100 degrees centigrade so 270 is what we would call really, really hot and really, really unsafe of a high risk of a fire.
David: A very high risk of a fire, yes, there’s been, you know, anecdotally I know several people who actually live in houses that’s loaded with aluminum wiring and it’s not uncommon to have the outlet, you hear a pop sound, shorts out and also you’ve got a big scorch mark next to it on the drywall and drywall is combustible and it’s really scary stuff.

Mark: What about the electrical use from that much heat?

David: I would like to see a study done on it but as far as I can tell it’s much more efficient not to have overheating going on so if you have overheating in your electrical system my immediate concern would be that it is extremely dangerous to live in a house that’s overheating from a fire and safety standpoint but then again if you’re converting electricity to heat you’re not converting electricity to the use that you want it so you’re wasting an enormous amount of power too, so it’s a bad deal all around.

Mark: So what if you find it, you do an inspection, you find it, it’s not safe, what do people have to do about it?

David: There’s a couple routes you can go; the most obvious route would be to rewire the house and in many cases if you don’t have issues with your aluminum wiring, it’s not really prudent to do that because there may not be a need, so the main thing is to get a certified licensed electrician out to review your electrical system so as a home inspector and almost any inspector you’ll find, if they find aluminum wiring the first thing they’re going to say is have an electrician who’s familiar with this type of material into to review your electrical system and they can tell you exactly what stage you’re at so that’s the obvious thing, is have an electrician come in and review it. At that point like that one in Richmond, that system is so far gone that it’s overheating everywhere that they had to rewire the house, they had to pull all the aluminum wires out, replacing with copper and it was a huge job. The other option is what’s called pig tailing. Now pig tailing is a method where you can put a small piece of copper onto the end of the wire, so let’s say I’ve got a receptacle and we’re going to actually take a small piece of copper wire connect it to the existing aluminum with a special paste called an antioxidant paste and that prevents oxidization of the aluminum and you twist it together with a special wire and then you send that into your switch and you do that for your hot’s and your neutrals. Now you can imagine the labour involved going through the house, if you were to count the number of receptacles, switches and lights in the room you’re sitting in right now and then multiply that by the number of rooms in your house and then multiply that by the labour it would take an electrician to go through and do that, it’s not uncommon for this to between 15 hundred to 3 thousand dollars to go and redo that all. It’s extremely expensive and generally if the system’s been pig tailed the insurance company will be okay with that.

Mark: So what does that accomplish?

David: It decreases the chances of overheating at the connections so like I said aluminum overheats at the connections, it just doesn’t overheat in the centre of the wire it actually overheats at the connection points, for instance that first picture I showed you of the receptacle where it’s actually screwed down, that’s where it’s going to overheat. It tends to expand and contract as current passes through it and it will tug at that and then you get oxidization and you get overheating going on so by pig tailing you are also giving it more space to move, that’s the big thing and then you’re also getting a good solid copper connection to the existing fixture and the third thing you’re getting is the antioxidant paste you’re preventing oxidation of the aluminum so that accomplishes everything that we want to, everything that we don’t like about aluminum we can fix by pig tail.

Mark: Does aluminum degrade with time; is its current capability kind of degrade as it gets older and older?

David: I think more importantly, the chances of having an overheating condition increases over time, so it’s not really a function of the material degrading it’s more that as you use a system for lets say for 40 years, so you’ve got a mid to late 60’s house that’s loaded with bad aluminum, you know as you are using this over time you’re going to get the likelihood that you’re going to have a failure at one of junctions is going to be, it’s just going to go up and up over time, it’s just a function of time. As I turn on a light you’ve got however many amps of current flowing through it and it expands and contracts, and if it expands and contracts for 40 years eventually it’s going to give way so it’s not really a function of the material failing it’s just the sooner you can pig tail or get an electrician correct it the better.

The last thing I want to point out is that there are some receptacles, fixtures, switches that were manufactured that there’s a stamp saying CUAL and it basically means copper aluminum so it’s, the idea was that it was a special fixture that would actually accommodate aluminum wiring and render it safe and I’ll let you guess if that worked or not, spoiler, it didn’t work. We tried a few things, we tried copper clad aluminum that didn’t work, we tried CUAL fixtures, that didn’t work so your only two options that are really feasible and what we see out in the field are pig tailing and rewiring the house so you got to choose one of those two. In some very rare cases electricians will come in and say you know what this particular situation that you have here where it’s all set up is actually in good shape and I’m passing it with, here’s a letter for your insurance company, but I think I heard of that ever one time happening so it not very common. So call a certified electrician, have them check out your system and make sure to get inspector who’s actually familiar with this type of material because it’s a big deal.

Mark: So in having torn houses apart and found all kinds of electrical shenanigans and say someone’s redone their own basement or you know, whatever and maybe they’ve done some brilliant things like marrying copper and aluminum, just pig tailing it without the proper procedure . . .

David: I’ve seen it done with electrical tape that was a good one . . .

Mark: And or maybe just being crazy with junction boxes that are completely hidden will all kinds of connection points by using aluminum wire, is there any way for you to actually spot that stuff?

David: We can’t guarantee it Mark; we can certainly do our best. What I do as part of my
inspections and I make sure this is in this time period of house, is to find the oldest outlet in your house, oldest receptacle in your house, let’s say you open up your electrical panel and you see copper all the way the way through but you suspect it may have aluminum, it’s right in the hay day of aluminum and other houses in the neighbourhood do have aluminum and I see brand new copper wiring coming out, I suspect that there’s a splice box somewhere where somebody’s actually hidden the aluminum wiring from you because they want to be dishonest about it. Now most homeowners are honest, once in a while you get somebody trying to hide bad wiring in which case you’re going to want to find the oldest receptacle in the house, maybe a light switch or two, generally in one of the upstairs bedrooms or bathrooms, pull it open and have a look there and that’s happened to me one time that somebody had actually hidden a splice box, it was actually pretty obvious from the panel. We saw this brand new lumex coming into the panel, you know and we’re talking like a couple years old and we’ll the house has either been rewired or they’ve just shunted in a bunch of a copper into the panel so that would be an area where we can’t guarantee anything but a good quality inspector knows what to look for would hopefully be able to find that.

Mark: And would this be a case where if it’s that age of house where it’s almost imperative that somebody gets a thermal imaging done of the house in case there are hidden junctions that are overheating.

David: Absolutely, I would recommend someone again, do it 100% of the time with certain types of scenarios and aluminum wiring would be an area where I would always have an inspector who offers thermal imaging. The other time would be if you have a flat roof because in Vancouver flat roofs there’s not attic to inspect so if you’re going to get thermal imaging done, get it done if you have a flat roof or aluminum wiring. That’s where the thermal camera really shines and we can uncover these problems that you can’t see with your eyes, so aluminum wiring, definitely. Yeah get thermal imaging, have somebody scan the panel, you don’t run it under load, run a dryer, run the oven and all your burners, run the air conditioner all at the same time, you know, if you can find out what is going to happen when you move into the house and you’re running all the stuff with your family, find out how hot that gets and that’s what we can do with the thermal imaging camera. That’s what we did in Richmond and saved the customer a considerable amount of, we may have saved him from a fire, who knows but certainly that’s something that wouldn’t have come up otherwise.

Mark: We’ve been talking about aluminum wiring in home inspections with Vancouver home inspector David Fairbairn of Give him a call at 604-395-2795 or go to his great website, tons of information, he’s very active on Facebook and Google+ as well. Search him out; this is the guy you want to get doing your home inspection if you want to live safe, plain and simple. Thanks David.

David: Thanks Mark, talk to you soon.

About the Author DavidFairbairn

Author David Fairbairn is a certified, licensed home inspector serving Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. He has been featured in the media and has contributed to "24" Newspaper, and Global TV. He has spent years working with residential and commercial building projects, and holds a Power Engineering License in BC. Why not give him a call for your next Home Inspection? Call 604 395-2795 or email today!

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