One of my favorite parts of my job is that I get to play an integral part in helping others make one of the largest (financially speaking, of course) decisions they will ever have to make. It is remarkable how moving it can be to see someone walk in to a house for the first time and know it needs to be their's. Warm fuzzies aside, I really like that each purchase (and sale) is different from the one before it. There is always something to learn. That being said, I recently had an encounter with aluminum wiring.
What is aluminum wiring and why is it a big deal?
In the mid to late 60's, copper prices spiked and home builders were looking for a less expensive alternative. Because it had the same conductivity (and was much cheaper), they shifted to aluminum wiring.
The problem with aluminum is that it expands and contracts (sometimes up to 30% of it's original size.) These shifts in size create loose connections between the wiring and outlets. As a result, the wires overheat, and electrical fires take place.
So, should I abandon a house if it has aluminum wiring?
Not necessarily. There are a couple reasons to stick it out. First, every home has aluminum wiring (for the most part), so that is a bit of a trick question. The wiring for most major appliance outlets and the main service wires is aluminum. Most of these are supplying 240 volts. The danger is in the 15 and 30 amp wiring running from outlets to your breaker box.
Second, it is fixable. Through a process called "pigtailing", the existing aluminum wiring is pigtailed with new copper wiring, providing a safer connection. The wires are connected, crimped with a special sleeve, and this can only be performed by a certified electrician. The new connections should be monitored by that same electrician going forward, but generally speaking, you should be good to go.
Is aluminum wiring dangerous? Sure it is. It is like driving in a car with no seat belt. Is it the safest way to travel? Absolutely not. If you drive to the store to get milk, are you positively going to get into a fiery accident? The odds are low. There are much safer forms of wiring a home than aluminum. Aluminum wiring represents an increased risk of fire. If properly addressed and monitored, aluminum wiring is manageable. However, each homeowner needs to decide for themselves how important it is to address. And remember: Your Realtor and home inspector (most likely) are not certified electricians. You really should speak with a certified electrician prior to making any sort of decision about the safety of your electrical system.