Buying a home with hazardous aluminum wiring? Here's my advice.

By
Home Inspector with Structure Tech Home Inspections

While the hazards associated with aluminum branch circuit conductors in homes have been known about for the last 40 years, there still seems to be a lot of disagreement about what should be done when aluminum branch circuit conductors are found during a home inspection.  I'm writing this post to give advice to anyone in Minnesota planning to buy a home with aluminum branch circuit conductors.

For the record, "Aluminum branch circuit conductors" refers to wires that provide power to 15 and 20 amp circuits in houses.  It's the wire that connects to outlets, switches, lights, and the like.  For the rest of this blog, I'm going to call it aluminum wiring, but I'm not referring to the aluminum wiring that is commonly used on 240 volt circuits or service drops on today's homes.  That stuff is fine.

Just in case you're unfamiliar with aluminum wiring, here are a few key points:

  • Aluminum wiring starting being used in single family homes as a replacement for copper wiring around 1965.
  • Between 1965 and 1972, over two million homes were wired with aluminum.
  • Many homes caught fire and people died as a result of the aluminum wiring causing fires.
  • The Franklin Research Institute determined that pre-1972 homes wired with aluminum were more likely to reach "fire hazard conditions" than homes wired with copper.  Not twice as likely, not ten times more likely, but 55 times more likely.
  • Aluminum wiring failed at the connection points, such as splices between wires, connections at outlets, circuit breakers, switches, lights, etc.
  • In 1972, the formula for aluminum wiring changed, making it a much safer product.  Aluminum wiring was used in single family homes for a few years after that, but was completely phased out by the mid-70's.

I've never inspected a home that was actually on fire because of poor connections at the aluminum wiring, but I've seen a few that looked like they were close.

Melted wire Scorched Aluminum conductor

There's a persistent myth that if a home was wired with aluminum over 40 years ago and it hasn't burned down yet, it's never going to.  Of course, that's just plain silly.

While there are plenty of houses with aluminum wiring that haven't started on fire, this doesn't mean they're safe.   The current occupants haven't burned the house down, but when the new owners move in, will they put different demands on the system?  Of course.  With a change in occupancy comes a change in use, and that's when problems often show up.

If you're buying a home with aluminum wiring, my advice is to have a thorough inspection of the wiring performed by an electrician and repairs made if needed.  This inspection would require the inspection of at least a representative number of connections.   This means pulling outlets out of the wall, pulling switches out of the wall, taking lights down to inspect the connections, pulling wires out of junction boxes, etc.  If any connections aren't proper, repairs should be made.

Repair Methods

The CPSC lists three potential repairs for homes with aluminum wiring: individual repairs with COPALUM connectors, individual repairs with AlumiConn connectors, or complete replacement of the aluminum wire.  You can read about how the individual repairs would be made here - Aluminum Wiring Repairs.

COPALUM?  Not in Minnesota.

Individual repairs with COPALUM connectors is not a viable option for Minnesotans.  This requires the use of a specialized product that needs to be installed with a specialized tool, by a certified COPALUM Retermination Contractor.  I contacted the company that provides this product, and was informed that there is not a single certified contractor in Minnesota.  So that's out.

AlumiConn?  Maybe.

Alumiconn ConnectorIt's possible to make individual repairs with AlumiConn connectors, but those connectors are ridiculously expensive.  Amazon currently sells them for $3.26 each, plus shipping & handling.  That's $3.26 for a single wire nut.  Yikes.  If you buy in bulk, you can buy a 1,000 pack for $2.59 each.

Besides the fact that this repair method would be very expensive, there's a chance that the repairs would be incomplete.  Would every single junction box be found?  Maybe, maybe not.  Seattle home inspector Charles Buell shared a story about a year ago where he was called back to verify repairs were made at a home that he had previously inspected, and he found at least one junction box that had been missed.  You can read about about it here - incomplete aluminum wiring repairs.

Replacement of aluminum wiring is best.

The surest and most complete repair is to have the aluminum wiring replaced.  This leaves very little to chance, and doesn't leave the home with a bunch of repair methods that the next semi-qualified homeowner might accidentally mess up.  The obvious drawback to this is the expense involved.  Of course, the expense depends on how much aluminum wiring is present and will vary greatly from house to house.  This is where the electrician comes in.

If you're buying a home with aluminum wiring and you hire an electrician to inspect and/or repair the wiring, make sure they have experience with aluminum wiring repairs.  We had a young electrician recently ask us how he was supposed to repair the aluminum wiring in a house.  Our advice was to partner up with an electrician who had experience doing this work.

For a more detailed discussion regarding the specific hazards with aluminum wiring, here are some excellent related documents:

Comments (22)

Jay Markanich
Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC - Bristow, VA
Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia

Good information Reubs.  I like it! 

My previous house had aluminum wiring (with an FPE Stab-lok box!).  I bought it from an electrician.  He lived there 13 years, and we 12.  His advice to me was to turn off the box once a year and tighten all the lugs in the box.  He also said to never fast wire receptacles should I replace them.  We never had a problem.

I still see these boxes all over the place.

By the way, what was the flavor of that jelly bean in the right photo?  Caramel creme?  Popcorn?  Oh!  Root beer float?

Come clean, what was it?

Oct 02, 2012 09:43 PM
James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC - Wallingford, CT
Connecticut Home Inspector

Is that a marshmallow in the second panel? The last house I found wired with aluminum, the buyer opted to replace all the wiring instead of repairing with splices. Smart choice I thought. 

Oct 02, 2012 10:11 PM
Clint Mckie
Desert Sun Home, commercial Inspections - Carlsbad, NM
Desert Sun Home, Comm. Inspection 1-575-706-5586

Hi Reuben,

A common comment by the sellers and the electricians as well.

"If it has not burned down by now it never will". Oh yes, that's when the home was not trying to draw 100 amps on a 60 amp style panel.

Have a great day in Minneapolis.

Best, Clint McKie

Oct 02, 2012 11:01 PM
Brian Kuhns
Coldwell Banker Roth Wehrly Graber - Fort Wayne, IN
Fort Wayne Real Estate by Brian Kuhns

great information and knowledge for agents to be aware of. Another great reason to have a home inspection done prior to purchasing a home...not all that looks fine is fine.

Oct 02, 2012 11:07 PM
Michael Setunsky
Woodbridge, VA
Your Commercial Real Estate Link to Northern VA

Reuben, we have quite a few homes that were built during that time period and have aluminum wiring. One of the problems I've seen was corrosion.

Oct 02, 2012 11:11 PM
Charles Buell
Charles Buell Inspections Inc. - Seattle, WA
Seattle Home Inspector

Reuben, I am never in favor of any "repairs" to the early vintage aluminum wiring---just replace it.  The cost of repairs is huge and when you are all done you still have aluminum wiring :)

Oct 02, 2012 11:38 PM
Bill Gillhespy
16 Sunview Blvd - Fort Myers Beach, FL
Fort Myers Beach Realtor, Fort Myers Beach Agent - Homes & Condos

Hi Reuben,  A home close to me had the aluminum wiring and eventually had a total rewire done to get it sold.

Oct 03, 2012 12:36 AM
Debbie Cook
Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc - Silver Spring, MD
Silver Spring and Takoma Park Maryland Real Estate

This is important stuff to know!  I've had only two houses in my career that had aluminum wiring.  I was the selling agent for both houses.  Deals almost fell apart because of the wiring but hefty seller concessions to update wiring saved both transactions.

Oct 03, 2012 01:35 AM
Nan Jester
Exit Real Estate Gallery Jacksonville Beach, FL - Jacksonville Beach, FL
Realtor, Exit Real Estate Gallery

Once again, the case for a thorough home inspection. A few hundred dollars on the front end could save a life.

Oct 03, 2012 01:46 AM
Adrian Willanger
206 909-7536 AdrianWillanger-broker.com - Seattle, WA
Profit from my two decades of experience

I appreciate your time line when the homes we're wired with aluminum and what additional inspections should be done.  Thanks,

Oct 03, 2012 02:51 AM
Robert Butler
Aspect Inspection - Montreal West Island, QC
Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection

Good article Reuben. Inspectors are often called alarmists over this issue and while it is serious, it's no cause for panic. Replacement will always be the best and surest recommendation.

Here co-al connectors, specific connection techniques, larger wiring-to-load specs (or reduced breaker amperage) and antioxidant paste properly applied, system wide by an experienced (with aluminum systems) professional electrician can remediate the conditions for less cost. But still that's not cheap.

Add that to the fact that when the property re-sells in 5, 10 or 15 years the incidences of aluminum wiring will be rarer and less well known and surely a continuing impediment to a worry free sale.

So you can tinker with it or.....

Just replace it. It'll be value added and safe.

Oct 03, 2012 03:06 AM
Evelyn Kennedy
Alain Pinel Realtors - Alameda, CA
Alameda, Real Estate, Alameda, CA

Rueben:

You bring up another scary electrical situation which I had never heard about.  So now I need to be sure to check the electrical wiring on my listing which were built in the the mid 60's to mid 70's.

 

 

Oct 03, 2012 04:24 AM
William Feela
WHISPERING PINES REALTY - North Branch, MN
Realtor, Whispering Pines Realty 651-674-5999 No.

I was told this many years ago.  All connections should be checked every 5 yeas or so to make sure none have come loose.

Oct 03, 2012 09:54 AM
Athina Boukas
Virginia Capital Realty - Richmond, VA
Certified Residential Specialist (CRS)

"55 times more likely"  Now, that is scary!  I bought a 1972 rental last year and it has had a lot of new electrical demands placed on it since the 70's.  

I had an electrician look it over and tweak it a bit. But now I am going to have it checked again.  

Oct 03, 2012 12:56 PM
Carol Zingone
Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Florida Network Realty - Jacksonville Beach, FL
Global Realtor in Jax Beach, FL - ABR, CRS, CIPS
Reuben, good post. I've had a few run ins with aluminum wiring in the past, and it's a headache.
Oct 03, 2012 11:07 PM
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Delivering the Unbiased Truth.

Ginny - agreed, aluminum wiring can be a big obstacle to get over.

Dorie - thanks.  Writing this blog forced me to do a little more research on the repair methods... I'll never mention the COPALUM method in my area any more :)

Jay - wow, I'm glad you never had any issues!  I grew up in a home with an FPE panel, and we never had any electrical fires at our house either, but given the track record of FPE panels, my dad chose to replace his panel several years ago.  

The shocking part about that jelly bean was that I couldn't actually get it out of the panel to taste it.

James - ha, it sure looks like it.  I've never seen a jacket puff up like that since. 

Clint - those wires sure don't get any better with age, do they?

Oct 08, 2012 08:10 PM
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Delivering the Unbiased Truth.

Brian - you got it.

Michael - that will definitely cause heating problems, oxidation, resistance...

Charles -  agreed.  Even if all of the repairs are done perfectly, you're left with a home that has the 'stink' of aluminum wiring, and what happens when the next person wants to do work?  No thanks.

Bill - that's certainly the best option.

Debbie - it sounds like the buyers insisted on the right course of action in both cases. 

Oct 08, 2012 08:13 PM
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Delivering the Unbiased Truth.

Nan - you're right about the 'thorough' part :)

Adrian - thanks.

Robert - I totally agree.  It's a lot of work to have a home that still has aluminum wiring.

Evelyn - Just one more thing we look for :)

William - but realistically, who would ever do that?

Athina - that is a scary number, isn't it?

Carol - I'm sure.  I'm glad I've never had to deal with it at any of my own homes.

Oct 08, 2012 08:16 PM
Chris Smith
Re/Max Chay Realty Inc., Brokerage - New Tecumseth, ON
South Simcoe, Caledon, King, Orangeville Real Esta

Reuben, we have subdivisions in my marketplace built in the 1970's and have Aluminum wiring.  Your information is appreciated!

Oct 17, 2012 04:03 AM
Frank Rubi
Frank Rubi Real Estate, LLC - Metairie, LA
FrankRubiRealEstate.com

Reuben, had this issue on aluminum wiring come up today during an inspection. Not sure what we will do but it is a challenge which has to be met. 

May 20, 2014 12:28 PM