Copper vs Aluminum Conductors

September 30, 2015

Copper vs Aluminum Conductors

What Is the Difference, and Why Does It Matter?

Without fail, we get at least one call a month from that concerned customer – “I just bought this house – and our inspector said we have aluminum conductors mixed with copper and we have to get it replaced.  How much will that cost?  Is our house going to burn down?  He said this was really serious!”  Can electrical hazards be of vital importance?  Absolutely!  But as a homeowner and a consumer of service-oriented businesses like electricians, it’s important to be informed and make good decisions – to understand why aluminum wiring was and can be considered hazardous, what methods can be used to remediate or eliminate such problems, and what it really means for homeowners who have aluminum wiring in their homes.

The first and primary thing to keep in mind is this – aluminum conductors are being used every day, especially  by local utilities to provide electrical service and infrastructure, and in industrial applications .  Aluminum conductors, in and of themselves, are not bad.

Whole homes were wired with aluminum in the 60’s and early 70’s due to a copper shortage – but the problem was that the aluminum alloys produced during that time were not especially designed well for electrical service, and they could lead to fires; when not caught in time, those fires led to deaths.   Aluminum is not as forgiving as copper, since due to its chemical properties its’ conductive capacities are very specific.  This is the same time frame in which steel screws and stab-in terminations became popular, however steel and aluminum interact in a completely different way than steel and copper – and electrical workmanship was hardly ever guaranteed, especially with such a specific conductor as aluminum.  Even though the alloys have improved and electrical wiring with aluminum has become widespread, the advent of do-it-yourselfers and rising ‘safety awareness’ for would-be homebuyers means that alarmist media (such as Geraldo Rivera’s/60 Minutes ‘exposé’ on aluminum wiring) and insurance companies concern for these aging systems is coming to light – and in some cases, it is totally warranted.

During this era in our construction history (the sixties to mid seventies) code-enforcement was not a priority – and neither were local building regulations.  In addition, aluminum wiring also requires maintenance and inspection, regardless of whether it is a residential or industrial application.  Is it considered hazardous?  Not in and of itself.  Can it be dangerous?  Absolutely – most especially in a circumstance where it has been abused, neglected, and incorrectly terminated.  Even the US Consumer Product Safety Commission has ceded that:

…hazards occur at connection points to old technology aluminum wire, such as at outlets or switches or at major appliances such as dishwashers, furnaces, etc.  Corrosion of the metals in the connection, particularly the aluminum wire itself, causes increased resistance to the flow of electric current and that resistance causes overheating…

The biggest concerns during this time period (and any other time you use aluminum) are of course related to the metal itself – is it the right size conductor?  Copper and aluminum wires need to be different sizes for different circuits/currents.  Is it a ‘new technology’ aluminum, which has built in safeguards against corrosion and deterioration?  Has it been forged recently – so that you know the alloys are of the best possible mix?  Are the outlets, fixtures, and switches you are using compatible with mixed copper and aluminum wiring?  Keep in mind – stranded conductors work better than unstranded when it comes to aluminum, but if your home has single-wire aluminum conductors and you work on your own electrical wiring systems – aluminum has specific limits to which it can safely be bent or crimped.  Excessive twisting or bending force causing overheating when carrying current is the number one cause of aluminum wiring fires so be smart!  Don’t ever be afraid to call a licensed and insured electrician in to resolve your aluminum wiring concerns and issues.

Are there methods for repairing, remediating, or eliminating these kinds of hazards?  Of course!  Just keep in mind that some are more expensive than others – and while your most affordable solution is the inspection and maintaining of your current aluminum wiring – should you have any – it isn’t always the most ‘comfortable’ for some people.

The least expensive (and most popular) of remediation options is to hire a licensed electrician to install copper pigtails on your aluminum conductors.  Why?  Because it will prevent future termination problems, and make it easier to buy copper-compatible outlets, switches, fixtures, etc.  While not a complete fail-safe, it is the safest option for the price point – and the electrician has different options too, which will depend on the space available to work with and the kinds of circuits running through your home.  It can get expensive, too – since every possible switch, outlet, fixture, cord, and any other electrical connection will need to be modified.

The best option would of course be to rewire your home – but that is relatively cost-prohibitive, and not always a necessity for the conscientious homeowner.

The reality is, awareness of your aluminum conductors is the biggest step in the prevention of fire danger and wiring hazards.  Aluminum wiring, in and of itself, is not a threat – but ignorance can be!  If nothing else, call a licensed electrician to do a thorough inspection of your electrical system and ask for pricing on options to alleviate your concerns as a home-owner.

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This is an original article written by Mai Bjorklund for Swartz Electric. This article may not be copied whole or in part without the express permission of Swartz Electric, LLC.

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