Homeowner Fearful of Aluminum Wire

Jul 20 2007

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: My home was built around 1970 and the electrical wiring is aluminum. I’ve never noticed any of the danger signs commonly associated with aluminum wire, such as warm face plates on outlets and switches, flickering lights, etc. I may soon be selling the home and am wondering what to do. Since I’ve gone this long without any problems, would you recommend that I upgrade the wire ends? If I do nothing, do you think the aluminum wiring may be a deal breaker? Michael

Dear Michael: You have raised two separate issues: the safety of aluminum wiring and the effects that aluminum wire could have on a real estate sale. Let’s take these in order.

Aluminum wiring has been the cause of numerous house fires. This is because the wire connections at outlets, lights, switches, and breakers can become loose, and these slack fittings are prone to overheating. The recommended upgrade for aluminum wire connections is to add copper wire ends, commonly known as “pigtails,” and to secure these to the aluminum wires with connectors that are specifically designed for this purpose.

Aluminum wire was commonly used for outlets, lights, switches, and other branch circuits from the late 1960s through the early 1970s. When aluminum connections were recognized as a significant fire hazard, this practice was abandoned.

Many homes with aluminum wiring have shown no apparent signs of loose or overheated wires, but it should not be assumed, in such cases, that all is OK. Overheated outlets may not be located where discovery is likely. A hot cover plate behind a bed or refrigerator, for example, might go unnoticed for years, until a wall fire suddenly occurs. In some homes, removal of drywall during a remodel has revealed wire insulation that was charred to a blackened crisp. With aluminum wire, the potential for disaster is always present, and one never knows when a loosened connection could cause a fire.

For these reasons, a retrofit of all aluminum wire ends by a qualified electrician is highly recommended. In matters of electrical safety, it is best to err on the side of caution; to weigh the risks in terms of potential consequences, rather than the seeming unlikelihood of an occurrence. A fire might never happen, but if it did, what are the potential results? From that perspective, it is always wise to play it safe.

As for the effects of aluminum wiring in a real estate transaction: a qualified home inspector will definitely identify aluminum branch wiring as a safety hazard and recommend upgrade. Prudent homebuyers will take such disclosures very seriously. Instead of waiting for “red flags” to disrupt a purchase transaction, have the wiring addressed prior to listing the home for sale.

As a final note: Aluminum wiring is still used for 220 volt circuits and is regarded as safe for that use if the connectors are rated for aluminum wiring and if the wire ends are treated with an antioxidant compound to prevent corrosion.

The House Detective is distributed by 1000WattConsulting. Do not republish without written consent. To purchase reprint rights please contact marc@1000wattconsulting.com

Questions regarding home inspection please email Barry Stone at questions@housedetective.com

2 Comments

  1. I enjoy your weekly column. As a retired electrician I’m going to put my two cents in the pot. This is concerning the aluminum house wiring.Sence as you stated that the biggest problem with aluminum wire are the terminators,there were different methods of dealing with this problem such as pigtails and compounds. For quite a few years now, wiring devices approved for copper (CO) or aluminum (AL)wire are available.I would suggest that the person that wrote to you could save money and hire a licenced electrician to change out the existing devices sence special care must be taken in dealing with the aluminum terminations. Hope this helps.

    James McCormick on
  2. I am no electrical expert – far from it. I tried to replace an outlet one time and almost short circuited the whole house. When the electrician came he told my wife to tell me to leave it alone! Which I have. And I’ve had worries about my parents home as it has aluminum wiring. Here is my take on it. We bought an older home 30 years ago – copper wiring. But we had some plumbing problems over the first few years so I got the bright idea of having the whole house re-plumbed. Disaster. We had a lot more plumbing problems AFTER it was re-plumbed than before. The plumbers had to come back two or three times to repair leaks, etc. It made them mad – there is no telling what they did under my house. And electricians – We’ve had a lot of re-wiring done – once about 2 hours after the electrician left the ‘repair’ started smoking, about to burst into a fire. We called him back and he actted like it was no big deal. We had some other work done by a guy that we later found out was noted for his shortcuts and sloppy work. Just great…. he did a lot of work that was out of sight…no telling what he did either. And then there was the electrician who refused to put all the screws in the new ceiling fans….and got mad when I pointed it out…and then left leaving the last one almost falling out of the ceiling. And then my cousin was having to have some re-wiring on her business – ‘electrician’ put in a new meter. Caught fire – business gone. We all have lots of these stories. AND…..there is a shortage of really qualified honest plumbers and electricians… And the ones who are hard to get – which makes one worry about someone who isn’t working and immediately available. MY opinion – and it is mine – you make your own decision – is that to spend a lot of money getting a house re-wired is about as risky as just leaving it like it is.

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Barry Stone

Barry StoneKnown today as "America's House Detective," Barry advises readers from coast to coast about home inspection and real estate disclosure, providing honest clarity, fresh wit, consumer protection, and even-handed fairness in his responses to real estate questions. Read more.

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