Whats the deal with Aluminum wiring and why won’t you as an electrician sleep in an unserviced aluminum wired home?
Between about 1962 and 1975 (plus or minus a few years depending on your region) Aluminum wiring was used in homes due to the high cost of copper. Almost immediately it started causing issues including fires and fell out of favour quickly in market terms. Sadly it had already been put into millions of homes across North America. Various insurance and home inspection training programs and blogs cover this and it can be difficult or impossible to get house insurance if your Aluminum wiring is not properly inspected and remediated by a licensed electrician. Here’s a quick insurance industry link!
(If you want the 5 sentence version of this article click here for the TL;DR summary)
This is one example of what a proper aluminum wiring fix looks like at a main electrical panel.
This sounds silly. Why is it unsafe? It was used for years! Its a normal metal! Why did they use it?
In a nut-shell… The wiring is unsafe because aluminum is a terrible metal for small connections and corrodes/breaks easily. Aluminum wiring gets soft, connections loosen and corrode, overheating happens at vital points, insulation becomes brittle and breaks off with movement (such as renovations, unplugging and plugging things in, using light switches etc). It is generally not considered unsafe for larger applications such as main electrical wires to a building which are not subject to the same stresses and are easily inspected but they must be inspected annually and tightened as a best practice.
But WHY? Well, copper is expensive and in the late 60s/early 70s there was a great deal of upheaval and uncertainty politically globally that impacted industry. Think OPEC crisis, manufacturing industry at its peak, and shortages of material and workers due to war, politics, protest, and social change. We used Aluminum because we were foolish (one might even say stupid) and we attempted a product substitute that electrical and materials engineers must have shaken their heads at even then. Add on top of that notoriously poor wiring practices of the time like nail-through electrical boxes in walls, and terrible wire coatings made of paper and asphalt instead of plastic or PVC which were just being perfected and you get a recipe for disaster to save a few dollars. The wire insulation itself is even a lower quality plastic that can de-layer and separate when exposed to corrosion, heat etc. Aluminum moves 35% more than copper when exposed to heat (like every time electricity flows) and dissipates heat more slowly/unevenly so you get hot spots, breaks and loose terminations which cause electrical arcs that burn up plugs and switches over time. It even burns up the splice connections (marrettes) in electrical boxes done properly at the time of installation.
What do we do about aluminum wiring?
We fix it. It’s important to us.
Our premium service (which we want to make the standard for the industry) includes:
- A full replacement of all plugs and light switches that are not already a modern style, to eliminate weakened and corroded connection points.
- Any previous replacement work or copper pigtailing done in the past is undone, inspected fully and re-done. Nothing is skipped.
- Pigtail a small length of copper wire onto the end of each aluminum conductor in all wiring device boxes which is coated by a de-oxidizing compound which eliminates corrosion and connected by a specially rated splicing device (marette / wire nut) which is rated for both aluminum and copper. (These are expensive, and are a common corner to cut when doing the work “cheap”).
- Inspection of all wiring visible within accessible plugs, switches, junction boxes etc to locate damaged wires which can include melted insulation, crumbling splices due to heat, broken bonding/grounding wires (the most important as they protect you from shock), wires that are broken off inside the insulation, wires not properly installed into boxes due to age and movement, or burnt wiring which can extend sometimes into the walls from the plug or switch location. This includes checking as best we can the clamped portion in the box which can be crushed or broken invisibly.
- Repair of any necessary wiring on the spot, unless more serious measures are required in which case the client is involved and an estimate is created immediately while regular work continues.
- Photo documentation of what is found and repaired kept in our customer files and provided on request.
- At the main panel either a servicing and re-tightening of every wire on each breaker and damage inspection *or* we prefer a complete rewire to permanently eliminate the danger while also adding electrical capacity to the home. A main panel replacement is a great idea for homes of that age due to the deteriorating condition of main components and the technology used at the time. (Google search “Federal Pioneer Breaker Panel Fires”) or here allow me: Federal Pioneer Breaker Fires
- A thorough search in the attic, basement ceilings, crawl spaces, any accessible areas to hunt for indications of hidden aluminum wiring boxes or missed fixtures, plugs etc. This includes interviewing the homeowner about past renovations, what they may have known about the houses history since those events can indicate some work done or wiring altered.
- A Certification Letter from our company for insurance purposes which will describe the work performed, the address of the services, our assessment of safety and that the home has been thoroughly and properly remediated. In many jurisdictions this letter is required for any home insurance to be valid and some insurance companies have specific requirements for what must be included. We go above and beyond, including our corporate contact information and electrician qualifications along with job details and assurances where appropriate. This service is a commitment from us to you as it can have the effect of transferring liability from your insurance to us if anything were to go wrong in the future. We are forever on record as having performed your work and certifying your property. This work should never be done by a “bro” electrician whose liability insurance may not cover you (if it even exists) or could even invalidate your own by not using a licensed & insured contractor. For this reason some electricians no longer provide this letter and it is the key record for your homes future ability to sell or be insured. Pro’s over Bro’s when it comes to critical work.
A few examples of aluminum wiring
Do not take the word (verbally) of any insurance agent or professional regarding your policy and its aluminum wiring coverage. Without proper certified remediation your policy can be voided in case of fire and the adjusters will not care what you were told. Getting it in conversation via email only offers you the opportunity to sue your agent or independent broker when something goes wrong and your claim is denied. Ensure your home is safely remediated and that proper documentation is provided to you by your insurance underwriter via your agent/broker. Whatever you are told should be supported by specific language in your insurance policy that can be explained by a qualified agent or adjuster. The customer must be comfortable and confident that they understand what they are being told and what is documented. Ask questions until you are satisfied and educated then get the answers in documentation form. Fire claims can reach millions of dollars and involve loss of life, don’t give insurance an opportunity to wiggle out after the fact. Many agents and brokers don’t understand the process for fixing aluminum wiring themselves, so check what the policy issuer says. This is a great opportunity to review your policy for coverage amounts and details with your broker.
Some potential surprise/unknown issues that arise during the work to expect:
As we proceed, there is no way to know what is damaged in advance so in some homes where the wiring was installed very well then never touched again we may have very few issues and a simple process. In other homes we may find:
- Wiring boxes that are damaged or bent from past renovation work
- Hidden wiring junctions sometimes not even in a wiring box
- Melted insulation showing bare wire sometimes several inches long (a common immediate fire risk from any movement).
- Insulation that crumbles in our hands requiring further repair of that location
- The need to open up the wall slightly around the plug or switch in order to fix the wire and replace the box
- Multi-Wire splices that are burnt and crumbling requiring multiple boxes be installed with copper wire jumpers in order to fix back past the damaged wire section.
- Broken bonding conductors in the back of the box which then require delicate time consuming surgery to correct without tearing the box out and opening the wall.
- Mystery renovation work from the past which is difficult to trace the source of in order to confirm we found all the termination points of the circuit
Efforts are made to incorporate these into estimates based on a visit, but much simply cannot be known until we start taking things apart. For this reason we are up front with customers and give an estimate based on past jobs, but promise to bill the customer actual time and materials used for their work. This way if their job is smooth their bill is less, and they will be prepared for any extra charges because they will have been informed during the progress of the work. Hours spent on site are verifiable and there is no padding of invoices or estimates this way. We want to build a trust relationship and demonstrate transparency.
How much does it cost to fix aluminum wiring?
One of those questions everyone needs to ask and still everyone knows is impossible to answer in advance. However, in the interests of transparency you can imagine your budget for this work something like this:
- How long it takes depends on how big your house is and how bad the wiring is. Expect a minimum of 2 Electricians for two days for the basic work as a fair idea. Extensive panel work or replacement takes an extra day. This means the cost will depend on the hourly rate not the bottom of the estimate for comparison. We share our hourly rates openly and charge a moderate $85-$95 per hour for Journeymen and a small fee daily for truck mobilization. Industry rates are therefore $700-$1100 per day & per electrician depending on how long the days go.
- Materials costs will depend on the size of the job and how much damage (if any) there is as well. If everything goes smoothly you use some regular copper wiring, special wire connectors, and de-oxidizing compound as well as generally some screws and hardware from making things tighter and nicer than when we arrived. Plugs, Switches, New Cover Plates etc all add up at several dollars per plug and switch by the time you roll those bits together.
- Permits can cost several hundred dollars. A permit is not required for a basic aluminum remediation as it is maintenance but any job including adding circuits or replacing the main panel will need to be covered by one of several permits.
At the end of the day a homeowner should expect to spend up to several thousand dollars for the service, more if the main panel requires replacement as well.
This is a vital service akin to removing lead pipes from your home so that your children aren’t poisoned, or asbestos removal to avoid known cancer exposure and should be treated with the utmost care and respect by the contractor to ensure you have a long happy carefree life in your home after it has been properly remediated.
No matter who you use, no matter what you pay, it is up to the customer at the end of the day to ensure that the job is done properly and legally and by the best people they can afford. There is a wide range of quality of work out there as this is a maintenance task not covered by most jurisdictions electrical permits and electrical work is notoriously hard to judge for quality.
I hope we can help you do just that, and bring the industry up to professional standards that we can all respect and be proud of.
Aluminum wiring causes a lot of fires and isn’t cheap or easy to fix. It is as important as fixing lead pipes or asbestos for your safety and often should include a complete main panel or service change to avoid future re-work.
It was used because of cost and because of foolishness in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
SolarNinjas fixes aluminum wiring in your home with a thorough remediation process and certifies the work for the insurance underwriter.
It matters who does this work and how they do it, it is serious corrective maintenance and assigns responsibility to the electrician.