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woodwoman
aluminum wiring overhaul

I'm sorry, but this is long.

I've got a 1970's ranch house w/ about 1800 square feet. It's wired with aluminum wiring and the inspector said it was safe when we moved in 8 years ago and that the only thing we'd have to do if we wanted to was to change out the outlet behind the fridge. Well, now if we run a small heater, or anything with a heavy duty cord (heavy duty carpet cleaner) an outlet is likely to short.

The first time this happened, (about 2 years ago)we had a small space heater operating off a receptacle in the bathroom but the socket that shorted was in our den. A small flame came out of the socket, we turned off the breaker for that outlet and I replaced the outlet and had no problems until this Xmas. We were cleaning our carpets with a HD carpet cleaner (cord was 1/2" diameter) plugged into a socket in our hall when the circuit shorted. Lights on that circuit went out, but the breaker didn't trip. There were no flames and it turned out the outlet that shorted was one in our den that we didn't know was on the circuit, because the lamp that was plugged into it still operated.

The electrician found out which socket shorted, replaced the outlet and used copper wire which he crimped to the aluminum with a special tool. He said we should overhaul the entire house this way and that it would cost approx $3500. Two weeks after he replaced this outlet, the outlet next to it shorted, which my husband replaced.

My questions are this:

-Is my house in imminent danger of burning down?
Does $3500 sound like a reasonable price? (I'm in Greensboro, NC)
-Is there some way we can do this in stages? I don't have the money to do this and would have to put it on a credit card or put it on the equity line account I have for home maintenance/improvement.
-Is there something I can do myself to fix this?

If I had known this would be a problem, I never would have bought the house. My last house had knob and tube wiring, which an electrician friend told me was the safest type of wiring. I certainly will never by another house w/ alum wiring again.

Thanks for your help.

JLMCDANIEL
Re: aluminum wiring overhaul

Aluminum wiring in its self is not unsafe. The problem is usually caused by replacement outlets and devices that are not rated for aluminum wiring, not using anti-oxidant paste on the wiring at the connections, and not periodically tightening connections. Crimping copper wire to the aluminum adds nothing, unless the proper connector and anti-oxidation paste is used and then only helps with the connection to the receptacle. The best thin to do is replace the wiring and yes this can be done in stages but will probably cost you more.
Jack

woodwoman
Re: aluminum wiring overhaul
JLMCDANIEL wrote:

Aluminum wiring in its self is not unsafe. The problem is usually caused by replacement outlets and devices that are not rated for aluminum wiring, not using anti-oxidant paste on the wiring at the connections, and not periodically tightening connections. Crimping copper wire to the aluminum adds nothing, unless the proper connector and anti-oxidation paste is used and then only helps with the connection to the receptacle. The best thin to do is replace the wiring and yes this can be done in stages but will probably cost you more.
Jack

I have replaced several outlets using a standard outlet from Lowe's or Home Depot. Can I go back through and replace these newer ones with ones rated for aluminum wiring? Every outlet that's blown is one that I replaced. Is anti-oxidant paste something I can apply after I replace the sockets? Will going back to the sockets I've replaced and periodically tightening them help? When you say replace the wiring, do you mean pulling all the wires out of the house and replacing them w/ copper? That sounds like it would cost a whole lot more than $3500 even if done all at one time. Thanks.

JLMCDANIEL
Re: aluminum wiring overhaul
woodwoman wrote:

I have replaced several outlets using a standard outlet from Lowe's or Home Depot. Can I go back through and replace these newer ones with ones rated for aluminum wiring? Every outlet that's blown is one that I replaced. Is anti-oxidant paste something I can apply after I replace the sockets? Will going back to the sockets I've replaced and periodically tightening them help? When you say replace the wiring, do you mean pulling all the wires out of the house and replacing them w/ copper? That sounds like it would cost a whole lot more than $3500 even if done all at one time. Thanks.

You should be able to get a tube of the anti-oxy paste at Lowe's. As long as the receptacles are rated for aluminum wiring, you coat the end of the wire you wrap around the receptacle screw with the paste. Either use and maintane the aluminum wiring properly which means making sure the equipment you connect is aluminum rated or completely replace the wiring. Crimping copper to the aluminum eliminates the problem with the connections to the receptacles but you still have a connection that needs to be properly maintained, the crimp connection.
Jack
Jack

woodwoman
Re: aluminum wiring overhaul
JLMCDANIEL wrote:

You should be able to get a tube of the anti-oxy paste at Lowe's. As long as the receptacles are rated for aluminum wiring, you coat the end of the wire you wrap around the receptacle screw with the paste. Either use and maintane the aluminum wiring properly which means making sure the equipment you connect is aluminum rated or completely replace the wiring. Crimping copper to the aluminum eliminates the problem with the connections to the receptacles but you still have a connection that needs to be properly maintained, the crimp connection.
Jack
Jack

What about light fixtures? I've replaced five ceiling fixtures and didn't look for aluminum ratings. I've also replaced the light kits on 3 of our ceiling fans from the branch style to the single bulb type. Do I need to redo those as well? Thanks for sharing your expertise!

JLMCDANIEL
Re: aluminum wiring overhaul

There are special connectors made to connect the copper wire to the aluminum rather than wire nuts. I would suggest you check out http://www.inspect-ny.com/aluminum/aluminum.htmTo educate yourself about how to handle aluminum wiring. The COPALUM crimp connectors are commonly used but I have seen them poorly installed or installed with the wrong type of crimp tool, that' why I don't like them. I prefer the Aluniconn(http://www.kingsafety.com/press-alumiconn.html) connectors for the pigtails and to replace wire nuts, plus you can disconnect and reconnect without cutting the wires.
Jack

JLMCDANIEL
Re: aluminum wiring overhaul

Buy the way here are two on-line sources for the Alumiconn connectors
http://www.alcopstore.com/index.asp?PageAction=VIEWCATS&Category=2
And
http://www.connectorcountry.com/

As you can see they are expensive (about $3.50 ea.) but with them you can make your own pigtails (no special tools required) replace the wire nuts you used on the lights etc..
Jack

woodwoman
Re: aluminum wiring overhaul

Can't sleep. I went to the AlCop site and see the connectors you're talking about. How do they work/where do they go? Do they fit in the box like right next to the receptacle? Do you use them in addition to replacing the non-rated receptacles with rated ones? The house I'm in was built in '76, so it doesn't have the earlier aluminum wiring that is so unsafe. I don't have a problem with making the changes myself, but I don't want to try to fix my wiring and burn down the house. I can do basic stuff, but it's like my father-in-law used to say: You can change your own oil, replace your own battery but have a professional fix your brakes. If this is something only a pro should do, I need to know that. Just as I have no problem in attempting basic stuff, I have no problem in admitting something is over my head and I need to call a professional.

If I install these connectors, do I need to pigtail the outlet? What exactly does that entail? Do I need a special crimping tool?

canuk
Re: aluminum wiring overhaul

As already mentioned , aluminum wiring isn't necessarily unsafe ..... though it does have special considerations than that of copper ..... and doesn't mean that it all needs to be replaced.

The main problem with aluminum wiring is a thing known as " cold creep ".
When the aluminum wiring warms up ( from current flow ) it expands .... when it cools it contracts. When the aluminum wiring goes through many warm / cool cycles it looses some of it's tightness on the connections .... which can cause arcing. This arcing also contributes to oxidation / corrosion along with the oxidation / corrosion of the aluminum that occurs when in contact with certain metals.

Because of this the resistance of the connection goes up ..... which causes it to heat up and corrode/ oxidize more. Eventually the wire may start getting very hot, melt the insulation or fixture it's attached to, and possibly even cause a fire.

woodwoman wrote:

I have replaced several outlets using a standard outlet from Lowe's or Home Depot. Can I go back through and replace these newer ones with ones rated for aluminum wiring? Every outlet that's blown is one that I replaced. Is anti-oxidant paste something I can apply after I replace the sockets? Will going back to the sockets I've replaced and periodically tightening them help? When you say replace the wiring, do you mean pulling all the wires out of the house and replacing them w/ copper? That sounds like it would cost a whole lot more than $3500 even if done all at one time. Thanks.

Unfortunately this is an all too common problem.
Many homeowners or even handymen unknowingly replace receptacles, switches and lights with those that are only to be used for copper wiring. By doing this has created a serious problem for the reasons mentioned above.

Instead , the correct ones that should be used are labeled either "Al/Cu" or "CO/ALR".

Compounding the problems are when the aluminum wires are inserted into the push in or stab connections on the back of the receptacle .... they should always be done on the screw connections.

woodwoman wrote:

What about light fixtures? I've replaced five ceiling fixtures and didn't look for aluminum ratings. I've also replaced the light kits on 3 of our ceiling fans from the branch style to the single bulb type. Do I need to redo those as well? Thanks for sharing your expertise!

Yes .... the light fixtures are an issue as well.
In the majority ( if not all ) cases the lighting connections are done by connecting the wires together with a wire nut.
For the same reasons mentioned above ... overheating of the copper and aluminum wire connection is an issue. The heat can be high enough to melt the plastic wire nut.

woodwoman wrote:

Can't sleep. I went to the AlCop site and see the connectors you're talking about. How do they work/where do they go? Do they fit in the box like right next to the receptacle? Do you use them in addition to replacing the non-rated receptacles with rated ones? The house I'm in was built in '76, so it doesn't have the earlier aluminum wiring that is so unsafe. I don't have a problem with making the changes myself, but I don't want to try to fix my wiring and burn down the house. I can do basic stuff, but it's like my father-in-law used to say: You can change your own oil, replace your own battery but have a professional fix your brakes. If this is something only a pro should do, I need to know that. Just as I have no problem in attempting basic stuff, I have no problem in admitting something is over my head and I need to call a professional.

If I install these connectors, do I need to pigtail the outlet? What exactly does that entail? Do I need a special crimping tool?

The proper connectors and installation are the approved method of making a copper to aluminum transition. Essentially the connector being attached to each aluminum conductor on one end and a copper conductor attached to the other creates the "pigtail ". This allows you to use regular copper rated receptacles , switches and lights ..... which is a feasible alternative to rewiring the entire home.

To be honest .... this is something that should be done by a licensed electrician for a couple of reasons.

The tool used for the Tyco connector is a specialty tool and expensive.

Besides .... you are better off having a pro evaluate the condition of the existing wiring since you already have had some serious issues of arcing/overheating. This would include checking the condition at the service panel as well as the receptacles , switches and light connections.
There may be parts of the wiring that could require replacing if the integrity has been compromised.

This may also require an electrical permit and inspection depending on local code requirements .... also satisfy your home insurance carrier.

Just some thoughts.:)

Blue RidgeParkway
Re: aluminum wiring overhaul

The mostly overlooked and more often dangerous situation with aluminum wiring is back at the panel hidden from the Home Owner's view - the connections there need to be inspected regularly and occasionally re-torqued (tightened to spec). Usually not a job for the average homeowner, and especially if you do not have a MAIN shut off for the entire panel.

Usually every 7-10 years.

JLMCDANIEL
Re: aluminum wiring overhaul
woodwoman wrote:

Can't sleep. I went to the AlCop site and see the connectors you're talking about. How do they work/where do they go? Do they fit in the box like right next to the receptacle? Do you use them in addition to replacing the non-rated receptacles with rated ones? The house I'm in was built in '76, so it doesn't have the earlier aluminum wiring that is so unsafe. I don't have a problem with making the changes myself, but I don't want to try to fix my wiring and burn down the house. I can do basic stuff, but it's like my father-in-law used to say: You can change your own oil, replace your own battery but have a professional fix your brakes. If this is something only a pro should do, I need to know that. Just as I have no problem in attempting basic stuff, I have no problem in admitting something is over my head and I need to call a professional.

If I install these connectors, do I need to pigtail the outlet? What exactly does that entail? Do I need a special crimping tool?

The connectors I prefer are the Alimiconn
They screw type connectors, require no special crimp tool. Put the aluminum wire in with paste, tighten and then put you copper pigtail in the next slot and tighten. Periodically you open the unit and re-tighten the screw on the wires. You can use then to make the copper pigtails for the outlets so you can use standard receptacles and switches. You can use them for you lights by connecting you aluninum wire in one slot and your fixture wire in another. you can use them anyplace you would normally use a wire nut. This is a unit that a competent homeowner can use.

If the crimp connectors are used and the tools is not in good shape, or the alum wire loosens over time you have to cut the wires and install a new crimp. That's why I don't like them.

You should also tighten or have tightened the connections in your breaker box.

Jack

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