Aluminum Wiring: Hazardous or Not?

By Randy Yates, Technical Supervisor and Technical Training Administrator, NPI/GPI Corporate

Aluminum WiringAs we in the home inspection industry know, the discovery aluminum wiring should be noted in a home inspection report. But as a home owner or buyer, you may wonder if there is cause for concern. Aluminum wiring was introduced as a result of a shortage of and escalating costs of copper in the late 1960s up to mid-1970s. It is estimated that aluminum wiring systems were installed in 1.5 million homes, and for these homes aluminum wiring systems are at the end of what is generally considered aluminum’s useful life, which is about 30 years.

In houses with aluminum wiring, some home owners discovered overheating was occurring, and this was attributed to the expansive and corrosive characteristics of aluminum wiring within the circuit connections. As a result, the National Electrical Code (NEC) declared aluminum wiring to be a potential fire hazard, and its use ceased.

The following are signs of premature failure of aluminum wiring observable to a home owner:

  • Unusually warm cover plates on switches and outlets
  • A burning plastic odor in the vicinity of a switch or outlet
  • Sparks, flame, smoke or arcing at switches or outlets
  • Flickering lights
  • Electrical features and appliances suddenly stop working and no circuit breakers have been tripped
  • Incandescent lights momentarily dim or brighten when a motor starts

If you have aluminum wiring in your home, you may wonder whether it is safe, legal or needs to be replaced. Here are some things to consider.

Is Aluminum Wiring Safe?
It can be, if the right components have been installed with the aluminum wiring and the system is in good condition.

Is It Legal?
The electrical codes don’t say that you can’t use aluminum wiring. In fact, it is recognized in the NEC. However, in some areas, insurance companies either won’t cover a house with aluminum wiring or will charge a higher premium to cover it.

Do I Need to Replace Aluminum Wiring in My House?
Maybe not entirely, but maybe in part. It really depends on whether the system is in good condition or you notice any of the signs listed above. However, to be certain the system is safe, you should have it inspected and evaluated by an electrician.

The NEC recognizes the use of aluminum wiring as long as all components used in installing the electrical system and components — switches, receptacles, fixtures and connectors — are rated for use in aluminum electrical wiring systems. Splice connectors also must be rated for use with aluminum wiring. Any component used must have an AL or AL/CU rating. (AL represents aluminum and CU represents copper.)

Only a thorough, invasive inspection — meaning removal of all electrical covers on junction boxes, all outlet and receptacle covers, and all receptacle and switches — can confirm that all components are rated for use in an aluminum wiring system, and this is outside the scope a home inspection.

The bottom line is that whenever a single-strand aluminum electrical system is discovered during the course of a home inspection, the inspector should recommend that the system be fully inspected by a qualified, licensed electrician.

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Condo Inspections Should Include Building Common Areas

Submitted by Doug Kendall, Global Property Inspections Franchise Owner, Kanata, Ontario, Canada

Condo BuildingPeople wonder if they should have a condo inspection and what the inspector should look at and report on. Condo associations and insurance companies tend to think inspectors should only look at the inside walls of the condo, as that is what the occupant owns. However, based on owning a condo, I believe my neighbors and I own the whole building, and we all help pay for the upkeep of the facility through the condo fees.

In performing a condo inspection, the inspector should look at the common areas, parking garages, exits, etc., as the new buyer may through our eyes and report find something the condo reserve has not seen, as condos usually do a building inspection about every three years.

Things you might find:

The wall and balcony photos below show brick joints that have been repaired and are starting to fail. There are balcony repairs made and balconies yet to be repaired in the attached photos. Does the reserve fund account for this?

Balcony deterioration

Balcony deterioration

 

Balcony deterioration2

Balcony deterioration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parapet damage

Parapet damage

 

Water intrusion due to exterior brick issues

Water intrusion due to exterior brick issues

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OutletIn this unit, the panel cover was painted so heavily we would have damaged the wall to open the panel. In opening an outlet (left) we found insulation packed inside the outlets as well as aluminum wiring installed on outlets and switches designed only for copper. This is a fire hazard.

The bottom line: Inspectors can provide important information to buyers that can help the condo association, as well as protect our customers from unknown costs and future grief.

As long as the reserve fund accounts for these things, we have done our job of protecting our client.

As a note, the previous condo inspected for my client had two unsettled lawsuits and there was water intrusion into the ground floor, which was known by the condo corporation, but it had no plan to do repairs and no reserve fund in place to resolve the issue.

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Ask the Inspector: What Fire Safety Items Will My Home Inspector Check For?

Smoke detectorYour inspector may comment on any number of fire safety issues, as a key component of a home inspection is safety. Here are 12 of the more common fire safety items your home inspector should note:

  • The presence of smoke detectors. Depending on the circumstances, the inspector may not press the “test” button on smoke detectors. If detectors are wired together or to a security company, then pressing the test button (without having the system deactivation code) could cause the fire department to be called.
  • If the inspector has access to and can peer into dryer vents, then he may note that buildup of lint could be a potential fire hazard
  • The inspector should check the chimney flue for creosote buildup, which would warrant concern.
  • An exposed incandescent light bulb inside a closet (near clothing/shelving, etc.) is considered a fire hazard.
  • Curtains or draperies blocking heat registers can pose a fire hazard.
  • Any over-fusing in an electrical panel is a fire hazard. An over-fused circuit is a one that is protected from over-current by a fuse or circuit breaker that is oversized for the capacity of the circuit conductors.
  • Too many appliances or cords plugged in to an electrical outlet.
  • Single-stranded aluminum branch wiring — whenever this is discovered, the inspector should recommend that the system be fully inspected by a qualified, licensed electrician.
  • A door leading from the garage to the house should be fire-rated and perhaps self-closing.
  • Most inspectors use gas detectors during the inspection, and any indication of a gas leak would be a concern.
  • If there is a vantage point, the inspector would hope to find a “fire stop” in the space that fireplace flue occupies and the next floor above.
  • Any hole or breech in wall of a garage and next to the living space is a potential fire hazard.
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Play It Safe With Electrical Wires

Submitted by Roland Bates, President, National Property Inspections/Global Property Inspections

Bates_Electrical photoWhich wire in the photo can a homeowner touch? Let’s play it safe and say, ” “None.”

Over-fused, double tapped, open ground, reverse polarity, no GFCIs, fused neutrals, open splices, etc. There are so many potential safety issues they can’t all be addressed in a few short paragraphs. Adding to the confusion for most homeowners are black wires; white wires; red wires; green wires; copper wires; aluminum wires; and hot, neutral, traveler and ground wires. What does it all mean? I don’t know, but a scene from a movie just popped in my head: “The bells! The bells!

Assuming you are unfamiliar with wiring, I will first address wire color. Imagine the wall switch in your bedroom has not been turned off, the ceiling fan has been removed, and the wires have been pulled out and you can see and touch them. Keeping it simple, you will probably see a black wire, a white wire and a bare copper wire. Do not try this at home kids — I am a professional — if it’s wired correctly and I touched the bare copper wire, and the white wire, I would feel nothing. If I touched the black wire, I would get shocked. The black wire is the “hot,” the white wire is the “neutral” and the bare copper wire is the “ground.”

A wire does not know or care what color it is. If the black wire and the white wires were reversed in the electrical panel, and I touched the white wire, I would get shocked. Color coding makes it much easier to affect proper connections. Electrically speaking, the biggest mess I ever saw was here in Omaha: Every single wire in the panel was white — the hots, neutrals and ground wires were all white. Who knows why this happened, but it would make it very, very difficult to affect proper connections.

As a homeowner, and unless you are very familiar with electrical, don’t take anything for granted. You can get shocked or create faulty wiring in your home. Leave wiring to electricians or highly skilled handymen. It is just not worth the risk.

And speaking of risk, I will close with a quick word about electrical safety and complacency. Old-time electricians didn’t have the circuit testers and voltage sensors that we have today. To test a light socket they might stick their finger in the socket. Did they get shocked? You bet. Did most electricians from the 1950s have curly hair? You bet. Some electricians from that time played with their personal safety. Never do that at home.

I have done enough wiring to be too comfortable. When I replaced the ceiling fan in my son’s room, I simply turned off the wall switch. I was too lazy (complacent) to go to the basement and flip the breaker. It was one-in-a-million chance, but at the precise moment that I was twisting the hot wires together, my son walked into the room and instinctively turned on the wall switch. It knocked me off the ladder. His was 10 years old then. He’s grown now and we haven’t spoken since — but that probably would have happened anyway, right?

When it comes to home ownership and electrical wiring, take nothing for granted and never become complacent.

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