March, 2003
You Tell Us
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



Hogwash

EDITED BY ASHI STAFF

To the editor,

I am writing in response to Lisa Doherty’s article in the January issue entitled “Common Reasons for Claims Explained.” Ms. Doherty says that home inspectors should “recommend further professional attention” whenever they observe any crack. Hogwash. Most masonry structural components in most buildings have insignificant cracks that are the result of normal shrinkage or thermal movement. While every significant crack started out at a small size, one can’t recommend the client hire a structural engineer to investigate every crack. Home inspectors are paid to make judgments about the conditions they observe. Most of the time they are right. Sometimes they are wrong. That’s why they buy insurance.

I agree that the lack of a pre-inspection agreement is indefensible.

Mark Cramer, ASHI Member
Mark Cramer Inspection Service, Inc.
Indian Rocks Beach, Fla.

Rebuttal

To:  The ASHI Reporter
Re: “Aluminum branch circuit wiring, then and now”

With respectful regret we wish to warn our fellow readers that the Reporter’s recent article (January, 03) on aluminum wiring contained several errors and omissions, and we urge that readers disregard it entirely. “Old technology” aluminum wiring is a real hazard that has resulted in fires and deaths, and accurate information is essential when discussing such an issue. The article misstates the historical development of aluminum wire, the types of wire, the failure mechanism, the role of testing laboratories, and the role of home inspectors. We shall attempt to correct the record here.

The article incorrectly implies that all aluminum wiring is the same. While aluminum wiring has been used in buildings since the 1920s, the product that gained notoriety as a cause of fires was the aluminum “Romex®” first introduced in 1964. The article incorrectly stated the time frame as late 1950s through the mid 1970s. The aluminum industry itself began addressing the problem through development of superior alloys that were introduced in 1972, hence the distinction drawn by the CPSC between “old technology” aluminum and modern aluminum. Today, multi-strand AA8000 alloy aluminum wiring is commonly used for service entrance conductors, feeders, and for larger branch circuits. The aluminum that is the greatest cause for concern is the solid conductor cable in sizes 12 through 8 AWG. Aluminum wiring has been required to be a specialized alloy since the 1981 edition of the National Electrical Code. The article failed to draw any distinction between the different types of aluminum conductors that are present in homes. Regardless of the alloy type, solid wire aluminum has not been manufactured for residential branch circuits since the 1970s, and insurers might fail to make any distinction regarding type of alloy when assessing a fire risk.

The article incorrectly stated that there are “two types of silver-colored wiring” for branch circuits, and went on to coin the term “copper-tinned.” This term appears to describe coated copper wires that are clad with lead, tin, or nickel to protect the copper from rubber insulation. It was common until the early 1950s, and is no longer made. Its purpose was to prevent formation of copper oxide. The article stated that copper oxide is a good conductor. Visible oxidation on copper indicates a failure of the material. There also was no mention of copper clad aluminum, a product made in the 1970s. Copper clad aluminum does not have the termination issues of solid aluminum, though the ampacity is the same as aluminum.  

The article stated that the problem is “not the aluminum wiring itself, but rather what type of receptacles and switches are used.”  We disagree. Old technology aluminum has numerous failure modes, including hot spots that develop in the wire in areas other than the terminations. The old technology wire is much more problematic than post 1972 alloys. In addition to termination issues, it’s extremely brittle, which makes the possibility of repair more problematic.

The article did not discuss solutions for aluminum oxide (referred to in the article as “insulating film”) including removal of the oxide and the use of anti-oxidant paste. Further, the article goes on to imply that “CO/ALR” devices are a suitable repair for old technology wiring, and does not mention the CPSC’s findings that such repairs are prone to failure.

The article goes on to advise home inspectors that problems can only be determined by opening a sample of outlets and switches. An on-site visual inspection of outlets and switches is unreliable as a diagnostic method for this problem. A true analysis of the condition of aluminum wiring involves instruments and procedures beyond the scope of a home inspection. Further, the purpose of investigating how connections are made, per the article, is to make specific repair recommendations, which we feel are well beyond the scope of a home inspection. The procedures recommended by the article could lead to a “false negative” finding. The first fatality with aluminum wire occurred because someone followed the procedure of repairing just one outlet, without fully investigating the system. The article mentions several repair methods, but notably omits the option to completely rewire a house that has old technology aluminum wiring. In some cases, rewiring is the only practical solution.

The article goes on to discuss the use of Ideal 65™ connectors as a repair method, stating that it is the only listed copper to aluminum twist-on wire connector, and implicitly endorsing it because the manufacturer states there “has never been a lawsuit” regarding the product. The role of testing laboratories is misstated in this portion of the article. Underwriters Laboratory is NOT charged with doing forensic investigation of technologies that are no longer manufactured. They do list splicing devices for compatibility with currently available products. Three methods for the connection of aluminum to copper are listed by UL. These are split-bolt devices, Ideal 65 connectors, and the Amp Industries COPALUM connector. A CPSC review of Ideal’s own test data for the Ideal 65 “Twister” was followed by the CPSC re-stating its position that this device was not included among its recommended repair methods. The article gives inadequate mention of the COPALUM connector, despite the fact that it is the only method endorsed by the CPSC for old-technology aluminum other than complete rewiring.

The article further misstates the role of home inspectors by stating that they “report on generally accepted practices including manufacturer’s installation requirements and UL listing.” Such items are well beyond the scope and means of home inspections.

In summary, the article contains misinformation. Persons attempting repairs under the prescribed methods in the article could actually do more harm than good. We urge ASHI members to view its content with utmost caution and to seek other more expert advice regarding this topic. Old technology aluminum wire is a serious issue. Though newer aluminum alloys perform better at terminals, they also show high failure rates when used with twist-on connectors. The ASHI Standards of Practice require inspectors to identify the presence of solid conductor aluminum wiring in homes and to inform the client of the safety hazards involved. We feel that home inspectors encountering solid-conductor aluminum wiring should refer this issue to specialists. The scope of a home inspection does not include intrusive investigation or detailed repair specifications. Inspectors who go beyond informing the client of the risks and recommending that they address it with a specialist will unnecessarily increase their liability.

A large library of information on this subject is available at www.inspect-ny.com/aluminum and from the CPSC.

Respectfully submitted by

Daniel Friedman, ASHI Member
American Home Service Co.
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Douglas Hansen, ASHI Retired Member

Code Check
Palo Alto, Calif.