Aluminum Wiring

Many older homes are electrically wired with aluminum wiring.  The thought of this is enough to make some electricians’ hair stand on end (pun intended).  Most people know that aluminum is not a great conductor of electricity, but few know how dangerous it can be when running through a house.

What is aluminum wiring? Aluminum wiring is a type of electrical wiring that is made of aluminum. In the 1960s, aluminum wiring was used in homes instead of copper wiring because the cost of copper was extremely high. However, aluminum wiring was soon discovered to be an underwhelming alternative for the tried-and-true copper wiring.

In this article, you are going to learn about aluminum wiring, the safety risks of using it, and the current options available for addressing inefficient or damaged aluminum wiring.

Why Aluminum?

Aluminum may not seem like the best option when it comes to wiring because copper is a better electricity conductor.  However, in the early 1960s, it was prevalent because it was cheap. Electricians at the time knew copper wiring was a much more effective route to go; however, the demand for copper increased during the Vietnam War, which nearly tripled its price. (Source: Carson Dunlop)

The increased demand and high prices made it critical for electricians to find a cheaper alternative, and the majority settled on aluminum wire.  While it was able to conduct electricity, it required a much larger wire than copper to do so, which caused significant safety risks. (Source: Hack a Day)

Is Aluminum Wiring Safe?

The safety of aluminum wiring has been called into question since it began being used. There is significant data to back up the risks associated with the use of aluminum wiring.  According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, “Homes wired with aluminum wire manufactured before 1972 [‘old technology’ aluminum wire] are 55 times more likely to have one or more connections reach “Fire Hazard Conditions” than is a home wired with copper.” (Source: Nachi)

While we know it is not the safest wiring option, there are many homes in existence today with at least some aluminum wiring in place.  Fortunately, when purchasing a home, this is something an inspector will notice right away. 

How to Handle Aluminum Wire

It is essential to know the safety risks associated with aluminum wiring are not caused by the actual aluminum wiring. The problems that arise are caused by the way the wire acts at connection points.

Aluminum has a property that allows it to expand much more rapidly when electrical currents continuously flow through, known as creep.  When creep occurs, it can cause the screws holding the wire to loosen, which allow sparking to occur in the electrical box.

The rate of creep with aluminum wire is significantly higher than that of copper and makes the risk of fire even greater.  Remember, the aluminum wire gauge is already larger than that of copper wire, so the expansion can be significant over time. (Source: IAEI Magazine)

Do You Need to Rewire Your House?

The first thought that may come to mind is the cost of rewiring your entire home to remove any hazardous aluminum wire.  The cost and time to rewire a house can be quite high.  While it may be best to rewire your home eventually, there are things you can do to help prevent fires from occurring:

  • Add a short section of copper wiring to the end of the aluminum wiring.  This will allow you to connect with copper instead of aluminum. This connection can be made with a COPALUM connector.
  • Pigtail the wire. To do this, you attach a piece of copper wire to the aluminum wire with a twist-on connector.
  • Replace wiring in areas that may be more prone to fire or are used more frequently. 

These are all temporary things that can be done to add a layer of safety to your home with aluminum wiring.  It is crucial to know that if you have any areas where the aluminum wiring is connecting to switches or outlets, there is a risk of arcing and a fire starting. (Source: Family Handyman)

Insurance and Aluminum Wiring

After reading the things that can potentially go wrong with aluminum wiring, you may be thinking about the presence of aluminum wiring can affect the insurance for your home. Insurance companies can be extremely cautious when extending insurance coverage to homes, especially those with added risk factors.

Often, there will be requests made by the insurance company that will allow them to insure your home, such as.

  • Rewiring the entire home with copper wire
  • Repairing all aluminum and copper connections
  • Full inspection of aluminum branch circuit wires

Rewiring: This is an extreme request and will cost you a lot of money to accomplish. If this is the only option your insurance company will give you, it may be better to look for a different insurance provider.

Repairing connections: This is a more cost-effective method of making the wiring safe in your home.  It will involve the use of the COPALUM connectors mentioned earlier and will need to be completed by a licensed electrician.

Full inspection: Whenever you are purchasing a home, an inspection is necessary.  Because aluminum wiring can be so hazardous, it is not uncommon for an insurance company to request an additional inspection to ensure the circuit wires that connect to the breaker box are adequate.

(Source: Pocket Sense)

Aluminum Wire Compared to Copper Wire

When comparing the two types of wire, it is easy to see why copper is preferred over aluminum for wiring a home:

Copper WireAluminum Wire
Low creep factorHigh creep factor
Durable for an extended periodTends to rust or break down easily
Smaller gauge wireLarger gauge wire
SturdySoft and easily bent
Can be pushed into connectorsMust be screwed into connectors

As you can see, there are vast differences between copper and aluminum.  While it may take some time to experience the difference between the two, it is there.  Unfortunately, when the difference is seen, it will likely be in the form of a devastating fire.

Can You Fix Your Home’s Wiring Yourself?

Owning a home can be expensive. Because of this, many homeowners try to complete as many home projects on their own as possible. Not only does it provide a sense of accomplishment, but it also saves money.  However, it is not recommended that you complete the task of rewiring on your own unless you have been trained.

When looking at the wiring and connections, it may seem like an easy task, but there is a specific training an electrician must complete before being certified to upgrade the connections.  They must be trained to use the COPALUM connectors.

If you choose to change your wiring yourself, your home will likely not pass inspection, and you are ultimately putting your investment at risk of going up in flames.  This adjustment is much more cost-effective than rewiring, so it is worth it to spend the money to have it done by a professional.

Final Thoughts

If you are purchasing an older home, you may run into an issue with aluminum wiring. Do not let this send you running.  Consider your options and work closely with your insurance company and an electrician.  While this is a tremendous job, it is not impossible, but it does need to be completed by a professional to ensure your home is safe.  Aluminum wiring can be dangerous, but it does not have to be when proper precautions are taken.