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Why Your Home May Be 55 Times More Likely To Catch Fire
by Annette West, CCIM, MBA, CPA
If you own property built between 1965 and 1973, you may want to read this...
I will start this article with a caveat: I am not an electrician. But recently I became aware that wiring matters. We were ready to close on a property only to learn we could not get insurance coverage because the property had aluminum wiring.
Why is aluminum a problem? In two words: fire hazard.
Aluminum has a tendency to "cold-flow" over time. This means that electrical connections which were tight at installation can become loose and cause a fire hazard. Warning signs: warm-to-the-touch face plates on outlets or switches, flickering lights, circuits that don't work, or the smell of burning plastics. If you have any of these warning signs, take note: they can indicate electrical arcing, which can result in a serious fire within the walls of your home.
Making the problem even worse are high-tech appliances and products that draw more current.
Popular in the late 1960's and early 1970's, aluminum was used for a brief period of time when copper prices soared. Aluminum wire was less expensive and thought to be as good as copper. An estimated 2 million homes were built with aluminum wire during this timeframe. Even if your home was not built during the aluminum craze, additions or renovations made during this time may have aluminum wiring.
If you are not sure if your home has aluminum branch circuit wiring, look at the markings on the surface of the electric cables which may be visible in attics or garages. Aluminum wiring will have "Al" or "Aluminum" marked every few feet along the cable. A home inspector or qualified electrician also can assist in identifying aluminum wiring.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CSPC) advises that "consumers should not open the interior of the panelboard or circuit breaker compartment - this can expose live wires and pose an electrocution hazard".
Insurers supposedly haven't moved industry-wide to limit coverage of aluminum-wired houses or to require the recommended fixes. However, when brought to their attention, they are likely to decline writing coverage until upgrades are made, which was the case for me.
Says Michael McKee, an Agent with State Farm Insurance for 14 years, "some insurance companies see a red flag on properties with aluminum wiring".
The Consumer Safety Products Commission (CSPC) has been warning since the early 1970s that homes built or renovated from 1965 to 1973 with aluminum branch-circuit wiring are a fire risk. The CSPC recommends using a COPALUM crimp connector as a complete and permanent repair that reduces the fire hazard in aluminum wire circuits. The COPALUM connector repair materials and power crimping tools are only available to electricians who receive training from the manufacturer, to ensure that repairs are properly made.
However, Jeff Billings, a licensed electrician with Current Electric in Las Cruces, NM, has an even easier fix: checking, tightening and then applying NoAlox to the connection wires.
NoAlox is an anti-oxidant and anti-seizing compound that, according to the manufacturer, reduces galling and seizing on aluminum conduit joints and improves the service life of aluminum electrical applications. Says Jeff: "the repairs are relatively easy compared to the hassle and cost of a fire in your home".
For more information on this issue, you can obtain a free copy of the booklet "Repairing Aluminum Wirin