Aluminum Wiring and
Pre-Purchase Home Inspections
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Homes, buildings, condos, and co-ops built between 1964 and 1973 may have branch circuit aluminum wiring. In 1974, two persons died in a home fire caused by faulty aluminum wiring. After an extensive investigation of the cause of the fire, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission issued Publication 516, Repairing Aluminum Wiring.
Aluminum wiring is typically marked with the word ALUMINUM or the symbol AL. Since most homes initially wired with branch circuit aluminum wiring have had additional wiring installed, it is important to examine visible labeling on the wiring. However, even a careful examination may fail to turn up the presence of branch circuit aluminum wiring.
The aluminum wiring that is of concern is branch circuit wiring (12 AWG and 10 AWG wire) manufactured before 1973. The hazard exists when aluminum wiring is improperly used in devices designed for copper wiring. Copper-clad aluminum wiring (usually marked CU-CLAD AL or CU-CLAD ALUMINUM) is not considered hazardous. When this branch circuit aluminum wiring was improperly attached to devices such as switches and outlets that were not designed for aluminum wiring, the junctions can become warm due to a poor connection. This heating can result in a fire. Over time, multiple factors cause the risks to increase.
Aluminum wiring is commonly used to provide electric power to larger equipment (air-conditioning compressors, sub-panel feeders, electric dryers, etc.). Aluminum wiring is also used to connect the electric meter to the circuit breaker panel, and as the main electric service drop from the power company to a building. Although you may not be able to tell from this photograph, the large wires connected to the circuit breaker at the top of the photograph to the right are aluminum. You can also see the aluminum neutral wire in the lower right-hand corner of the picture.
Aluminum wiring is widely used in electric power transmission. Aluminum wiring is found in industrial and other settings where large amounts of wire are needed. As long as the aluminum wiring is properly installed, it is not hazardous.
Any aluminum wiring manufactured in the United States after the early 1970s is likely of a different alloy than the hazardous aluminum wiring, and is at a lower fire risk than the earlier residential aluminum wiring. If the computer that you are reading this webpage on is plugged in, it is receiving electric power that is being transmitted through aluminum wiring.
Most houses that were originally wired with branch circuit aluminum wiring have had an extensive amount of copper wiring added. It is often virtually impossible to find the aluminum wiring unless the house is completely vacant. Because so much copper wiring has been added, the old method of opening a few boxes and looking for aluminum wiring often fails to find the aluminum wiring. Even opening a circuit breaker panel may fail to find aluminum wiring in a rewired house.
If the house you are purchasing was built between 1964 and 1973,have a Licensed Electrician remove the covers from the outlets and switches, and look for branch circuit aluminum wiring. Unfortunately, this may not be possible until after you own the house. This is because finding the branch circuit aluminum wiring requires opening multiple electrical boxes, many of which are blocked by furniture during the pre-purchase inspection.
The old trick of opening circuit breaker panel (which a Home Inspector should never do for safety reasons) often fails to find aluminum wiring. In any house that has been renovated or extensively rewired, it may not be practical to locate aluminum wiring during a pre-purchase inspection.
If the house is wired with Romex and was constructed between 1964 and 1973, it may have aluminum wiring. A house wired with metal-armored cable is unlikely to have branch circuit aluminum wiring. Since the use of Romex is limited in the City of New York, you rarely find branch circuit aluminum wiring in homes within the City of New York.
Historical Note: Aluminum (and steel) wiring was reportedly used in some homes during World War II due to the copper shortage. If aluminum or steel wiring was used, it is rare and there are no reported incidents of problems with this wiring. The rumors of wartime aluminum and steel wire are likely based on homeowners who were unable to obtain copper wire, and improvised with whatever metal was available.
Only a Licensed Electrician should open a circuit breaker because of the risks. A Licensed Electrician can correct hazards created by opening electrical panels. Someone who is not a Licensed Electrician lacks the experience to deal with hazards. If a problem develops because of opening the panel, the Inspector is not in a position to resolve the problem. A responsible Home Inspector will not open electrical panels.
Communities require electricians to be licensed, and prohibit anyone other than a Licensed Electrician from performing electrical work. (Exceptions are made for homeowners wiring their own home.)
Heimer Engineering's℠ Licensed Engineers can determine the condition of the wiring by visual examination. The question is why do some Home Inspectors insist on opening the circuit breaker panel when it creates a hazard. Can't these Home Inspectors see the risks and hazards on the outside? Are these Home Inspectors missing wiring problems because of their narrow focus?
During the inspection, the Heimer Engineering℠ examines, analyzes, and/or reports on (as appropriate based on the building):
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Heimer Engineering℠ performs home inspections, building inspections, condominium inspections, and co-op inspections in the State of New York. We do not perform inspections or recommend Inspectors or Engineers outside of the State of New York. We provide Licensed Professional Engineer consultation services including hurricane and storm damage and damage from adjoining construction. Expert witness services are provided regarding playground injuries, parking lot, walkway, and stairway slip, trip, and fall.
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