How to Make Aluminum Wiring Safe
Aluminum electrical wiring can be a fire risk where it meets copper connections.
If your home was built from the mid-1960s to late 70s, it may well have the original aluminum electrical wiring popular at the time.
Aluminum was favoured over copper wiring during this spell because of the soaring price of copper before technology made it cheaper to mine.
The problem with aluminum wiring lies in the copper connections, which can work loose. This happens because aluminum and copper react differently to the warming and cooling cycle produced by electrical loads. Aluminum can over time lose its strength because it expands and contracts more than copper.
A loose connection can create sparking and arcing that can ignite surrounding combustible materials including the wiring insulation, wall insulation or wallpaper.
To make matters worse, aluminum can also corrode (oxidise). When a connection becomes loose or corroded, its resistance is increased, which disperses power in the form of heat that can melt insulation and fixtures, posing a fire hazard. Incompatible fittings and devices can also cause overheating.
The chief cause of electrical fires in Canada is faulty wiring. Although electrical fires can happen in any home through defective workmanship or just wear and tear, the risk of fire is regarded as significantly increased in homes with aluminum wiring.
A professional electrician can make your aluminum wiring safe by installing aluminum wiring pigtails.
What is an Aluminum Wiring Pigtail?
Special connectors with an antioxidant compound are used to splice a short length of copper wire to an aluminum wire to create an aluminum wiring pigtail that can then be attached to an electrical outlet, fixture or light switch.
Installing aluminum wiring pigtails is no job for an amateur. Expertise and meticulous attention to detail are necessary to ensure a safe, functional connection. For instance, hairline cracks can develop if aluminum wiring – less pliable than copper – is not handled with care. This can perpetuate the original issue, resulting in a fire hazard through overheating.
Insurance Issues with Aluminum Wiring
Because of the danger of an outbreak of fire, it can be difficult to get your home insured if it has aluminum wiring.
Safety experts say aluminum wiring in homes built before 1972 more than doubles the risk of fire breaking out at connection points.
The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors says aluminum has several properties that make it potentially dangerous as an electrical conductor.
Vancouver-based Square One Insurance Services says that in some homes copper and aluminum wiring may have been combined over time, posing an “extreme hazard” unless the correct copper-to-aluminum connectors have been used.
Aluminum wiring can also present insurance problems for potential buyers if you’re trying to sell your home. Canada’s Real Estate Magazine says insurance companies often insist that aluminum wiring systems are thoroughly inspected by a licensed electrical contractor.
Aluminum wiring pigtails installed by a professional electrician will ensure your home’s wiring system is safe while meeting the requirements of many insurance providers.
How Can I Tell Whether My Home Has Aluminum Wiring?
If you’re unsure whether your home has an aluminum wiring system, check wires at the electrical panel or those you can see in the attic or basement, or between open floor joists.
According to the BC Safety Authority, if your wiring is aluminum and was manufactured before May 1977, the outer covering will be marked at least every 12 inches with the word ALUMINUM or an abbreviation like ALUM.
Signs of Potential Aluminum Wiring Hazards
The condition of aluminum wiring can vary a lot from house to house and even among branch circuits within a particular home.
Signs of a problem with aluminum wiring include:
Other indications that all’s not well with your aluminum wiring are:
Static on equipment such as TVs or computers.
Discoloured switch plates.
Constant tripping of fuses or circuit breakers.
Sparking from electrical devices.
However, in some cases, aluminum wiring may be dangerous without any visible signs. Experts recommend that aluminum wiring systems should be inspected every four or five years.
Why Aluminum Wiring Pigtails Are a Popular Solution
Besides installing aluminum wiring pigtails, two other options are available to make your aluminum wiring safe:
Replacing wall receptacles and switches with devices specifically designed for aluminum wiring.
Changing of all Outlets and Switches to new CO/ALR approved devices is considered an incomplete and temporary repair. Not all points of connections can be replaced with a new aluminum approved receptacles/switches (such as GFCI’s and hardwired appliances and ceiling mounted lights) and these connections can loosen up more than copper connections creating unsafe gaps. Also, the connections can get loose over time.
If you decided to go with this solution make sure all connections are cleaned of debris and devices checked for previous damage. Also, the replacement should be completed with care by an experienced electrician and be tight. Poorly made connections can lead to an electrical fire.
Completely rewiring your home with copper wiring.
In certain cases, the insuring company may require replacement of the aluminum wiring with copper wiring. While a complete rewire may be the best long-term solution, it’s also the most expensive.
The most common method of solving aluminum wiring problems is the aluminum wiring pigtail option. Electrical Safety Authority Approved copper pigtailing remains the most commonly used method to make aluminum wiring safe.
Is Aluminum wiring pigtail legal to Code? Yes, that is what is required. The BC Safety Authority recommends hiring a licensed electrical contractor to complete the copper tailing work as it is very important that all connections are properly terminated or may cause further problems down the road. All connections and terminations in the home should be checked. The approved wire connectors are mandatory at all outlets including light plugs, range and dryer receptacles also have to be approved for aluminum. All termination points at the breakers and panel should also be checked and have a de-ox compound installed where the aluminum is exposed to the air as it causes oxidization.
A professional electrician familiar with aluminum wiring will be able to assess the condition of your wiring and recommend your best option to safeguard you from the risk of fire.
Most importantly, ESA states, do not wait for signs of overheating of the termination or signs of arcing within switches and receptacles. Electrical Safety Authority strongly recommends eliminating the risk by replacing the original devices with aluminum rated and properly marked devices or have copper pigtails installed. Aluminum wired terminations have been known to fail and overheat without any prior signs of problems.
WireChief Electric can help you with Aluminum Wiring Safety Inspections and Repairs, contact us today at 604-800-1665