Aluminum wiring requires care

Q. The TV program "20/20" on April 3 reported that houses with aluminum electrical wiring had a 500 percent greater chance of a fire than if conventional copper wire were used.We plan to buy a house with aluminum wiring. What can be doen to correct this potential danger? Should we buy this house? A reader Woodbury, N.J.

A. Residential aluminum electrical wiring is approved by many building codes. Aluminum conducts electricity adequately. Copper is a tried-and-true wiring material that is more acceptable in the building trades by professionals. Aluminum costs less than copper as wire.

Fire from overheated aluminum wiring sometimes occurs in improperly wired systems. Such "shorts" usually occur in terminals at the panel or at outlet or switch boxes.

Aluminum wire stretches more than copper, is somewhat brittle, and is more difficult to tie and to keep tied than copper. Hence, good workmanship is more important when using aluminum.

Electricians generally shy away from using aluminum wire. It places extra responsibility or liability on their business shoulders.

One chief building inspector says that aluminum wiring must be installed in a most workmanlike manner to avoid terminal disconnections, which can cause "shorts." He says that even nearby heavy-traffic vibrations can cause mischief with poorly made aluminum connections.

If I were buying that New Jersey house with aluminum wiring, I'd get in touch with the original general and electrical contractors for their written certification that the electrical systems were properly installed and now are safe. Further, I'd ask for an inspection and recommendation of the electrical system by a city building inspector.

One veteran electrical supplier declares he would not buy a house with aluminum wiring under any circumstances. He says the only correction he would accept would be to rewire the copper.

In some cities there are professional firms that inspect houses listed for sale to determine and report on the condition of not only the wiring, but also the mechanical, structural, and other important building components.

Before buying, I'd rather hire such a firm to render a written report to the condition of the entire building.

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