Buying a Home with Aluminum Wiring

Aluminum wiring-

As a Denver-area Realtor, home inspections are just a part of my business routine.  But, you should note, home inspectors in Colorado don’t need any particular licensing or certification.  Most of the good ones have a wide variety of business backgrounds that includes construction, remodeling, and even engineering.  Their certification usually comes from a professional association and includes ongoing education, as well as keeping up with the latest news in the inspection business.  That’s all well and good, but for my clients the home inspector becomes a pivotal character in their selection of their home.  They have to rely on their expertise, which can often be a variable.

Good home inspectors will always keep things in perspective and explain the pros and cons of any situation in the house to the perspective homeowner.  They’ll explain maintenance items, potential problems, little idiosyncrasies that come with every house, and give them a heads up on any big problems that need to be addressed right away.

For buyers of homes that were built in the late 60s and into the 70s, aluminum wiring is a problem that will often pop up.  For some home inspectors, aluminum wiring is the equivalent of the boogie man.  They’ll explain that home wired with aluminum wiring is a fire waiting to happen.  And to be fair that’s exactly the case with some aluminum wiring.  The flipside of that is that aluminum wiring properly installed is and will be a functional and reliable electrical system for many houses.

I recently ran into a home near Idaho Springs, that was built in the early 1970s and was discovered to have aluminum wiring by two home inspectors (one of the deals fell apart, hence the two home inspectors).  Both inspectors noted the aluminum wiring to the potential buyers, although one made it sound like a grave and almost impossible situation to overcome.  The other explained that aluminum wiring could be fine but to discuss the matter with a qualified electrician… always good advice.

I’ve done a fair amount of remodeling over the years and have run into everything from knob and tube wiring to aluminum wiring and some pretty suspicious looking copper wiring.  But I have talked to several electricians who know what they are talking about and I feel like I’ve gotten a fair assessment of aluminum wiring.

As one electrician pointed out to me, aluminum wiring is still being used and meets code in most circumstances. Although generally now, aluminum wiring is used to deliver service to a building and is seldom used for branch wiring within the house.  Using heavy-gauged aluminum wiring for service runs make sense because of the reduced weight and cost that aluminum provides.  Using aluminum wiring within the structure, particularly a residence, may save money because of the reduced cost over copper, but it comes with complications that most homeowners don’t want to deal with.

It sounds like, from my discussions with several electricians, the real problem with aluminum wiring comes from modifications that are done later, usually by do-it-yourself homeowners.

From what I understand, aluminum is often negatively impacted by time and oxygenation. If the wire isn’t tightly attached, vibration can occur which creates heat and potentially a fire.  When do-it-yourselfers, remodelers, and unqualified electricians make changes they often don’t use the proper techniques and supplies to ensure the aluminum wiring is well-connected.

The result of a poor connection with aluminum wiring inside the house will often result in failure of a light fixture, a light switch, or an outlet.  You may see an entire room or circuit with obvious problems due to a bad connection on the aluminum wired circuit. This is often a hint of larger problems.

On the other hand, a well-installed aluminum wiring system can give years and years of reliable service, if properly maintained and correctly installed.

The difficulties that come with purchasing a home that has aluminum wiring is that, legally, electrician can’t certify a system, the way a roofer can certify a roof.  They can look for obvious problems.  They can check the box for solid connections,  and they could open up outlets and switches to see how they are connected.  But, like most trades, they don’t have x-ray eyes and can’t examine what’s going on inside the walls.

I’ve seen differing opinions on the use of pig tailing, where short runs of copper wire are attached to the aluminum branch circuits.  The copper wire is then used to finish the run to switch, an outlet, or fixture.  But I’ve been told, one of the problems is that pig tailing often just moves the problem a few inches further up the circuit.  In other words, the bad connection is made at the pigtail instead of at the terminal on the side of an outlet.  Unfortunately, the good intention of pig tailing may simply create a problem that didn’t exist in the first place, assuming the system was well installed and hadn’t been monkeyed with over the years.

As a Realtor, I hate to see the homeowner or homebuyer stuck with expensive modifications to home when they’re not needed.  But, others will tell you not to trust aluminum wiring, and in some circumstances that would be good advice.

The trick is to align yourself with an electrician who isn’t farming for needless work and who will give you an honest opinion of that home’s electrical system.  Every home is different and comes with its own set of circumstances.  But don’t let, a well-intentioned home inspection divert you from a perfectly serviceable house.

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