The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: My home was built around 1970 and the electrical wiring is aluminum. I’ve never noticed any of the danger signs commonly associated with aluminum wire, such as warm face plates on outlets and switches, flickering lights, etc. I may soon be selling the home and am wondering what to do. Since I’ve gone this long without any problems, would you recommend that I upgrade the wire ends? If I do nothing, do you think the aluminum wiring may be a deal breaker? Michael
Dear Michael: You have raised two separate issues: the safety of aluminum wiring and the effects that aluminum wire could have on a real estate sale. Let’s take these in order.
Aluminum wiring has been the cause of numerous house fires. This is because the wire connections at outlets, lights, switches, and breakers can become loose, and these slack fittings are prone to overheating. The recommended upgrade for aluminum wire connections is to add copper wire ends, commonly known as “pigtails,” and to secure these to the aluminum wires with connectors that are specifically designed for this purpose.
Aluminum wire was commonly used for outlets, lights, switches, and other branch circuits from the late 1960s through the early 1970s. When aluminum connections were recognized as a significant fire hazard, this practice was abandoned.
Many homes with aluminum wiring have shown no apparent signs of loose or overheated wires, but it should not be assumed, in such cases, that all is OK. Overheated outlets may not be located where discovery is likely. A hot cover plate behind a bed or refrigerator, for example, might go unnoticed for years, until a wall fire suddenly occurs. In some homes, removal of drywall during a remodel has revealed wire insulation that was charred to a blackened crisp. With aluminum wire, the potential for disaster is always present, and one never knows when a loosened connection could cause a fire.
For these reasons, a retrofit of all aluminum wire ends by a qualified electrician is highly recommended. In matters of electrical safety, it is best to err on the side of caution; to weigh the risks in terms of potential consequences, rather than the seeming unlikelihood of an occurrence. A fire might never happen, but if it did, what are the potential results? From that perspective, it is always wise to play it safe.
As for the effects of aluminum wiring in a real estate transaction: a qualified home inspector will definitely identify aluminum branch wiring as a safety hazard and recommend upgrade. Prudent homebuyers will take such disclosures very seriously. Instead of waiting for “red flags” to disrupt a purchase transaction, have the wiring addressed prior to listing the home for sale.
As a final note: Aluminum wiring is still used for 220 volt circuits and is regarded as safe for that use if the connectors are rated for aluminum wiring and if the wire ends are treated with an antioxidant compound to prevent corrosion.