Is Aluminum Wiring Safe?
If you have not changed an electrical outlet or opened the panel to your electrical distribution system you may not know what kind of electrical wiring is in your home. Why would you? It is not common knowledge to know the type of electrical wiring in your home, but it is good to know if you have electrical wiring that may pose a risk. Aluminum wiring in homes has been known to cause safety concerns, so we need to know if there is a problem and what can be done to resolve it.
Not all aluminum electrical wiring is a concern. The electrical wiring that powers our homes comes from a BC Hydro grid, to the hydro poles, and from the hydro poles to your house. These big wires are standard aluminum cable. This cable has been installed by professionals in the right application. It has routine maintenance by BC Hydro for safety reasons.
Why can aluminum wiring be unsafe?
We believe there is close to half a million homes in Canada that have aluminum wiring inside the home. Studies have shown that nearly half of these homes pose a greater fire hazard then homes with copper wiring. A majority of these houses were built between 1960 and 1980. The problem with the solid core aluminum wiring is that there is branch circuit wiring going from the electrical panel to the plugs, switches and fixtures in the house. Aluminum is a great electrical conductor. It is strong, lightweight, and much cheaper than copper. This being said, aluminum also has its downside and fails were copper does not. Aluminum can oxidize when exposed to air; resulting in overheating and failure at the outlets, switches, and fixtures. Aluminum also has a higher rate of expansion which causes it to expand and shrink thus results in arcing, melting, and even fires. If the aluminum wiring was not installed correctly and was nicked, over tightened, or damaged during the installation it can cause greater safety risks. As a result of the safety concerns with aluminum wiring – it is now banned from being installed inside homes for the branch circuits going to the switches, outlets, and fixtures.
How to Check for Aluminum Wiring
Unless you are a licensed electrician or you have the proper training it is not safe to open up electrical panels or touch electrical wiring. Electrical wiring may be visible if you have an unfinished basement, attic, crawlspace, or an unfinished room where you can see the wiring itself. Aluminum wiring will be marked with the word aluminum or it may have the abbreviations ALUM, AL, ALUM. To be 100% sure you have aluminum wiring I recommend you contact a professional electrician.
I Have Aluminum Wiring, Now What?
There are several indications that aluminum wiring could be a safety concern in your home. Here is a brief list of what to look for:
- A spark/smoke damage around outlets and plug-ins
- The smell of burning rubber or plastic when using an appliance like a vacuum cleaner or space heater
- Continuous tripping of breakers or fuses
- Burnt or discoloured electrical switches and plates
- Damaged or flickering lights that are not repaired by changing the lightbulb.
If you see these problems here are a few suggestions that can be done to improve this:
- The best and safest solution is to completely rewire your home -removing all the aluminum wiring and replacing it with new copper wiring. This is the most effective but it is also very expensive and can range approximately between $5,000 to $25,000 depending on the size and accessibility of your home.
- A remediating method often used is to ‘pigtail’ copper wiring with aluminum at all outlets. This is done by removing the outlet and replacing the existing aluminum wire at the end of the wire run with copper wire. This needs to be done by a professional due to the complications and technical details that must be incorporated into this installation process.
- The most affordable option and also a possible solution is to replace all of the outlets and switches in the home with copper and aluminum rated outlets (CO/ALR). A popular decorative outlet called “Decora” has often been used to update older homes that have aluminum wiring. These outlets are not available with aluminum wiring installation and may be a source of the problem. One component of a home inspection is just to check these outlets and be sure the house does not have aluminum wiring going to them.
There are many houses with aluminum wiring and it is not a major problem or they may never have any concerns. It is important to have a professional home inspector inspect your home for any amateurish electrical work or handyman specials that pose a safety risk. If you are ever in doubt, it is always safe to call a professional electrician and have your home professionally inspected for any unsafe wiring conditions.