Electricians installed aluminum wiring in new houses during the 1960s when there was a shortage of copper, but the practice was discontinued because aluminum overheats. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that homes built before 1972 with aluminum wiring are 55 percent more likely to have a fire than those with copper. Depending on your income, you may qualify for government assistance to upgrade your home wiring from aluminum to copper.
Dangers of Aluminum Wiring
The main hazard points in a house wired with aluminum cable are at the junctions of switches, receptacles and lights, or at the points where the wires connect to major appliances like dishwashers, dryers or your water heater. The hazard occurs because aluminum deteriorates over time, especially at places where the wire is exposed; the deterioration increases the resistance of the wire. Wire passing a current becomes hotter with increasing resistance; and at a certain point, aluminum wire can get hot enough to melt the fixtures to which it is attached — or set them on fire.
Replacing Aluminum Wiring
The CPSC recommends only two methods of retrofitting a house with aluminum wiring. The first is to re-wire the entire house with copper cable, and the second is to retrofit all electrical devices with copper wire and connect it to the aluminum cable with COPALUM connectors. A COPALUM connecter is essentially a cold weld that provides a permanent, low-resistance connection to aluminum wires.
While you can retrofit your own home, the installation of COPALUM connectors requires the services of an electrician with special tools and a license to do the work. In either case, the expense is likely to be considerable. The CPSC considers lower-cost options, such as using AlumiConn connectors or "CO/ALR" switches and receptacles, as temporary or emergency measures only.
If you have a very low income, own and occupy the home you are repairing and have an acceptable credit history, you may qualify for assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Section 504 Loan and Grant Program. The program makes funds available for repairs to dwellings, particularly those repairs that abate a safety hazard. Availability of funds under this program is dependent on where you live. The maximum loan available is $20,000, and the maximum grant is $7,500. Grants are available to persons 62 years of age or older.
To be considered for a grant under the Section 504 program, you must fulfill the eligibility requirements for a loan. These include having a household income that falls below the median for the area in which you live, a credit history and a stable source of income sufficient to repay the loan. You must also be a U.S. citizen or a legal resident. Moreover, the value of your property cannot exceed a threshold, calculated based on the area in which it is located. If you are 62 or older and demonstrate inability to repay a portion of the loan, you may qualify for the grant.
Chris Deziel has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. Besides having an abiding interest in popular science, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.