Sunday, 18 August 2013 14:24

The Fire Dangers of Aluminum Wiring

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ACCORDING to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, an estimated two million homes in the United States were built or renovated using electrical circuits with aluminum wiring. And, according to the commission and specialists in the field, unless certain safety procedures are undertaken, every outlet, light switch and junction box connected to such circuits is a fire waiting to happen.

"This is an area we feel very strongly about," said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the commission. "Aluminum wiring in a house presents a very serious potential fire hazard. We feel that there are a significant number of homeowners who have aluminum wiring and who haven't yet taken steps to make their homes safe."

Tom Kraeutler, host of "The Money Pit," a nationally syndicated home-improvement radio show, said that from the mid-1960's to the early 1970's, many new homes — as well as some existing homes that were remodeled or enlarged — had aluminum wiring installed to feed branch circuits that run from the main electrical panel to the outlets and lighting fixtures.

But because of electrical failures involving the wiring, it became apparent that while a continuous run of aluminum wire does not present a problem, when that wire is connected to outlets and light switches — and even to other wires in junction boxes — the connection can deteriorate and become a fire hazard.

"And when you consider that a typical home can have 200 or more connections, that's a lot of potential fire hazards," Mr. Kraeutler said.

Daniel Friedman, a licensed home inspector in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said that the problem is caused by oxidation and other factors that lead to overheating where the wire is connected at splices, outlets and light fixtures. Although that typically will not trip a fuse or a circuit breaker — those are activated by excess current — enough heat can be created to cause a fire.

While it might be tempting to believe that a home with aluminum wiring is safe because the wiring hasn't caused a problem for 30 or 40 years, that is a dangerous misconception. In fact, Mr. Friedman said, the longer the connection is allowed to deteriorate, the more likely it is a problem will occur.

The best way to determine whether a home has aluminum wiring is to hire a professional, he said, but a homeowner may be able to identify an aluminum-wired system by looking at the cables that run through the basement or attic to see if the cable is labeled "AL" or Aluminum.

If a home does have aluminum wiring, he said, options are limited. Several methods are available, but the commission recommends only two.

One — complete replacement of the system — is typically too expensive for many homeowners, as it can cost $8,000 or more. The other, he said, is to replace every connection in every outlet, switch and junction box with a copper pigtail using a special Copalum connection — a short piece of copper wire is bonded to the aluminum wire using a tool designed specifically for the task. The copper wire makes the connection.

But the problem, Mr. Friedman said, is that only electricians trained by the Copalum manufacturer, Tyco Electronics, can rent the special tool necessary for installation. So it may be difficult to find an electrician to make a Copalum repair. Information about certified contractors is available through Tyco at (800) 522-6752, but there are only 55 in the United States. Since every connection has to be changed, he said, it is likely that the cost will be $3,000 or higher, depending on the house's size.



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