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What Owners Need to Know About Wiring Dangers
By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
David Hannemann and his wife were aware when they bought their Ellicott City home
18 years ago that it had aluminum electrical wiring, a known fire hazard. But they
waited until this February to make the fix that has long been recommended by the
Consumer Product Safety Commission. It wasn't the safety consideration that made
them act. It was their belief that insurance companies will soon crack down on people
who own homes such as theirs, wired in part with aluminum rather than copper.
"My wife worked in insurance, and she suggested we'd better do it," said Hannemann,
a federal employee in Washington. The underwriter at his wife's former agency "told
her he wouldn't write the line anymore" unless a house had been repaired as the CPSC
recommends, Hannemann said.
About 2 million U.S. homes are believed to have been built with aluminum branchcircuit
wiring, which for three decades has been a widely publicized fire hazard. The
CPSC is more anxious than ever because Americans are loading up on high-tech
appliances and products that draw more current. That's exacerbating the basic
problem of overloaded circuits, which can result in overheated plugs and outlets that
Tens of thousands of houses in the Washington area have such wiring, according to
estimates by local home inspectors and real estate agents.
Insurers say they haven't moved industry-wide to limit coverage of aluminum-wired
houses or to require the recommended fixes. Some local real estate and insurance
agents say, however, that they're seeing signs that insurers are taking a harder look at
such houses, especially if other red flags pop up during home inspections and
Officials at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., State Farm Insurance Co. and Allstate
Insurance Co., for example, say aluminum wiring could trigger a requirement for an
electrical inspection before a policy is issued. Two local Nationwide agents last week
were blunter, saying they wouldn't write a policy on an aluminum-wired house unless
their underwriter cleared it based on additional information.
Those familiar with the issue here say houses with aluminum wiring are concentrated
in Bowie, Columbia, Rockville, Reston, Dale City, Woodbridge and Laurel, all
communities that were developed during the mid-1960s and early 1970s when
aluminum wiring briefly dominated the homebuilding market.
Local real estate agents say they have almost never heard of aluminum wiring being a
deal-breaker in a home sale. But they acknowledge that it can cause concern if it
comes up on the home inspection report. Some also said they worry that these days,
when people are increasingly waiving home inspections because of the competitive real
estate market, buyers don't even know about the potential hazard and the need for
Discovery Kills House Sale
The discovery of aluminum wiring during a recent home inspection played a
considerable role in killing one $800,000 sale in Bethesda, said W.C. & A.N. Miller
agent Liz Smith.
Her clients were already nervous about spending that much money, she said. When
the wiring was found during the home inspection and the would-be buyers learned that
replacing it would cost $15,000 to $25,000 while the CPSC-approved repair would cost
$5,000, they became more rattled. After phone calls to local insurance agents
suggested other possible hurdles, the buyers bolted.
Heather Mayeaux, a first-time buyer in Bowie who learned during a home inspection in
October that her dream house had aluminum wiring, also said she was taken aback by
the discovery and by the roughly $3,500 cost to make the repairs the CPSC
The sellers had not disclosed any electrical problems with the 37-year-old, threebedroom
rambler. The inspector indicated that about half of the wiring was aluminum.
"But what was more of a surprise was when the electrician really went in to do the
work," Mayeaux said. "With the extent of damage that was there, it was surprising that
the house had not burnt down.
"She said, "When I saw that, let's just say that I was really glad we had it addressed
right away." She and the sellers split the repair cost, Mayeaux said.
The CPSC has been warning since the ea
which two people died. Fire officials blamed the fire on a faulty aluminum wire
connector at an outlet.
Numerous complaints from homeowners about overheated outlets and switches led to
a commission research project. The research showed that homes wired with aluminum
wire made before 1972 are 55 times more likely to have one or more connections
reach "fire hazard conditions" than is a home wired with copper. Modified wire,
switches and outlets that were made after 1972 still didn't pass muster, according to
the federal agency.
Hazard Not Always Recognized
The problem, the researchers said, is not the wire itself or the insulating cable, but the
connections where the splices are. "That is where the burnouts occur," said Jesse
Aronstein, a longtime CPSC research consultant.
The CPSC tried to get the material recalled, but lost in court, Aronstein said. The
commission was able only to conduct a public-information campaign, warning
homeowners of potential danger.
The product, however, sank under the weight of the criticism, Aronstein said."By the
mid-'70s electricians would have had to be crazy or desperate to put it in" because of
the publicity, he said. "Basically it died by its own reputation.
"Agency officials say that what's upsetting is that many homeowners still don't
recognize the hazard. Although the agency estimates that "tens of thousands" of
homeowners have heeded its advice and installed a specific repair system called a
COPALUM crimp connector, many more have not.
"All fires are of concern to us, but electrical fires concern us more because they occur
behind the drywall and are hard to detect and to react to. When it comes through the
wall, it is a fully involved fire," said Scott Wolfson, an agency spokesman.
Statistics on fires caused by aluminum wiring aren't kept, but the possibility still
frightens federal officials and consumer advocates. An estimated 40,000 electrical fires
of all kinds occur in homes each year, causing about $2 billion in property damage and
killing three people each day, the agency said.
Wolfson said his agency's fears about consumer inaction have grown recently because
the COPALUM system's manufacturer had at one point indicated it might drop the
product at the end of this year.
A press release issued by the CPSC in May 2003 praised Tyco Electronics Corp. for
agreeing to continue production of the device and to continue licensing and training of
installers until at least 2005. Tyco bought the original manufacturer, AMP Inc., in 1999.
Over the past year, Wolfson said, the agency "has been trying to get the word out to
consumers about COPALUM, to let them know that there is this excellent resource out
there before it is too late.
"Last week, however, Tyco representative Paul Lavenberg said, "The intention right
now is not to discontinue in 2005. . . . We expect it will continue on indefinitely.
"Wolfson said the agency is pleased with that, but still encourages homeowners to act
quickly to prevent fires.While electricians over the years have recommended different
devices to address the problem, Wolfson said the COPALUM system remains the only
repair CPSC endorses.
The system sounds like a combination of copper and aluminum -- and it is. Its
proponents, however, contend it's a much stronger combination than other
connectors.The Tyco product attaches a copper wire to the aluminum wire leading to
each junction box using a crimping power tool that applies about 10,000 pounds of
The "cold weld" that's formed as a result is "a permanent bond that eliminates
electrical arcing or glowing connections and creates a safer electrical connection at
outlets, switches, lights, circuit breakers and panelboard terminals," the CPSC said.
Other connectors and devices made by other manufacturers are cheaper, but the CPSC
says they're not as reliable. That includes "pigtailing" repairs that use twist-on
connectors and CO/ALR switches and outlets marketed specifically to handle aluminum
"Some 'pigtailing' repairs made with twist-on connectors may be even more prone to
failure than the original wire connection," the CPSC's consumer booklet says.
The CO/ALR products, which are specifically listed by Underwriters Laboratories Inc. for
use with aluminum wire, do "perform better with aluminum wire when installed
carefully and according to best electrical practices" than the original switches and
outlets, says the booklet. But because the connectors aren't available for all parts of
the wiring system, the agency advisory says the device is "an incomplete repair." It
notes that CO/ALR devices have also failed in lab tests.
Because of the cost, some electricians and home inspectors contacted recently said
they recommend the cheaper alternatives despite the consumer agency's insistence on
COPALUM. Others back the COPALUM recommendation. "The CPSC says the only fix
that they . . . [recommend] is the COPALUM system, and as home inspectors we go
with the most authoritative source," said Mark Dewey, home inspector at HomePro
Services Inc. in Falls Church.
Inspector J.D. Grewell of J.D. Grewell & Associates in Silver Spring also advocates the
COPALUM repair. Some electricians "will say that pigtailing is as good as a COPALUM
splice, but it makes it worse," he said.
Seeing Is Believing
Ellicott City homeowner Hannemann, who just made the repairs after 18 years, said
the cost put him off for a long time. "People are funny about this kind of thing," he
said. "It's a lot of money to spend on something you can't see.
"When he finally saw some of the burnt wire nuts, he said, he thought the six-day
retrofit was time and money well spent.
The COPALUM connectors, which have to be installed at every junction box in a house,
cost about $35 to $62 per junction, according to local authorized installers. The
average single-family house has about 100 junction boxes.
The CPSC would be happiest if homeowners eliminated all the aluminum wiring and
replaced it with copper. But the regulators recognize that the cost of doing so is
considered prohibitive in most cases.
Because the national electrical code requires that aluminum wire be stapled every few
feet inside the drywall, it can't just be pulled out and replaced, said Brian Smith, owner
of All Things Electric in Dickerson. Replacing the wiring means not only a hefty price
tag for the electrical work but also thousands more for new drywall.
Rewiring might work in houses where major renovations are already planned or where
the wires are easily accessible, local electricians said.
"If you have a rambler with an unfinished basement, for instance, that would be ideal
to rewire," said Jeff Smith of Electrical Wiring Limited in Kensington, a COPALUM
installer. But he said most homes don't have that kind of access.
"A lot of times people ask me for an estimate on rewiring," said Bob Krebs, vice
president of Hawkins Electric Services in Hyattsville, another authorized COPALUM
installer. "But I won't even give them one 'cause you might as well tear the whole
"Not all homes built during the period when aluminum was used are automatic
candidates for a problem, said home inspector Stephanie Bowman of HouseMaster Inc.
of Rockville. Some builders never abandoned copper.
"I've seen it the most in Bowie," Bowman said of aluminum wire. "There's like a 50-50
chance that we'll see it there" when the company inspects houses built in that time
Bowman said most homebuyers are surprised when she mentions the aluminum
wiring, and some seem to be interested in remediation. But she thinks "quite a few
just live with it, and every couple years have it reinspected to see if the connections
"Joe Huff, an agent with Llewellyn Realtors in Rockville, said some of the
neighborhoods where he works are also filled with aluminum-wired houses. When a
home inspector finds the wiring, he said, the sellers will usually pay to fix the problem
as the CPSC has urged. If they balk, Huff said he tells them that it might smooth the
way to quick settlement, particularly because the issue, now that it has been identified,
would have to be disclosed to any other potential buyer.
Sellers might insist on splitting the cost or on making the buyer pay for the repairs,
but "generally I have persuaded my sellers that it's a pretty small price to pay to make
sure a deal goes through," Huff said. The CPSC's booklet, which includes information
on the repair it recommends, is available via the Internet at What Owners Need to
Know AboutWiring Dangers or from the commission's toll-free hotline at 800-638-
CPSC; TTY 800-638-8270; Maryland TTY
800-492-8104.© The Washington Post Company