6 Mistakes Electricians Make When Repairing Aluminum Wiring
Updated: Nov 22, 2018
I have been educating people for many years about the dangers of aluminum wiring and choosing the right electrician for this job. In my 10 years of doing electrical in Edmonton, Alberta, I have only seen one home repaired properly and I have inspected/repaired aluminum wire for hundreds of homes. I cannot say if this is the same anywhere else in Canada but I would guess that it is not much better.
The fact is, electricians are not trained how to repair aluminum wire. It takes 4 years of education to become a journeyman electrician and in my 4 years of training, the college I went to has not had aluminum wire repair in their curriculum. When I ask my colleagues that came from other provinces or just graduated if they learnt how to repair aluminum wire in school, they told me they never mentioned it.
The problem with this is, in recent years, insurance companies have been getting more pressure to make sure that homes with aluminum wire are being repaired by an electrician. The same people who have never been trained to repair it!
A good amount of the jobs I take on have been “repaired” by electricians but I will end up going through the entire home again fixing all the things that should have been fixed in the first place. Usually I get these jobs because there was an electrical fire caused by not completely repairing the home.
Moving on, here are 6 things that electricians usually miss in aluminum wire repairs that can cause an electrical fire:
1. Repair ALL the Connections in the Home.
Most electricians will only do the plugs and switches. It is important to do every single connection in the home because an electrical fire can start at any connection point if not repaired properly. Make sure that the light fixtures, breaker panel, bath fans, dishwasher, stove, and dryer are done as well. For some reason electricians also don’t do the exterior plugs too, probably because of the weather in Canada but that’s what winter jackets are for.
2. Use Aluminum Rated Marrettes / Wire Connectors.
This is often overlooked because most people think that it is overkill or because these marrettes are expensive. It is very important to use aluminum rated marrettes because when you mix copper and aluminum together, it creates galvanic corrosion. This will build up a dust like substance that will get in between the metals and will ruin the conductivity of the metals, which creates sparking around connections and then starts a fire.
3. Use De-oxidant on Exposed Aluminum Wires.
This is a creamy liquid that should cover all exposed aluminum conductors. When bare aluminum wire is exposed to the air, it starts to oxidize. Like galvanic corrosion it creates a dust that ruins conductivity. I find electricians will either not use it at all or they put a small bead of it on the wire which barely covers the conductor.
4. Pinched Wires or Packing the Electrical Boxes Too Tight.
In the old electrical plug and switch boxes, they used to have big nails that would go through the inside of the box to support it to the stud. When you are sometimes doubling the wires in the box, it can get pretty tight in there which causes the wires to get pinched and could potentially start sparking, this can cause an electrical fire. I avoid adding bigger devices such as dimmers and replace the old nails with screws to make more space inside the electrical box.
5. Using Aluminum Rated Devices Instead of Doing a Copper Pigtail (splice)
There is specialty made receptacles and switches that can have aluminum wire touch the metal terminals. This fixes galvanic corrosion but the problem with this is, aluminum wire will expand and contract with the change in temperature that happens within your home. When this happens, no matter how tight you screw in the terminal the wire can still become loose and will cause an electrical fire.
6. Add Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter Breakers (AFCI breakers).
A big myth about aluminum wire is that to repair it, you have to remove the wire completely. Now if you remove drywall, exposing the aluminum wire, then you will have to replace the aluminum wire exposed with copper wire because of code requirements. Replacing the aluminum wire throughout your house with drywall on is not a bad thing to do but I would recommend repairing it properly and installing arc fault breakers. This is a much cheaper and effective repair compared to replacing all the aluminum wire in the home.
AFCI breakers are like your normal breakers but can also find any minor sparking within the circuit and shut off power before it catches on fire. When you have AFCI breakers in your home, it will notice if any of the wires in the circuit are being pinched or have minor cuts. This will protect your home from an electrical fire better than replacing the aluminum wire with copper.
I made sure not to explain everything that should be done when repairing aluminum wire because it is incredibly dangerous if you even miss one step, there are other critical things like years of experience of knowing how to splice or even pushing wires back inside a box. Always have an electrical contractor that is insured to repair your aluminum wire and ask if they will perform all these steps when repairing aluminum wire.