Couple warn of dangers of aluminum wiring

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A local couple wants to warn the public about the potential fire hazards posed by aluminum electrical wiring.

Aiden and Maura McGarrigle were alerted the danger of aluminum wiring when an electrician found burnt fixtures in their house.

The McGarrigles were having trouble with the light fixture over their sink. Sometimes the light would work, while other times it would not turn on at all. They changed the switch for the fixture and although it worked for a short time, it eventually went back to working sporadically.

They called an electrician to inspect the situation and he found the inside of the fixture had black burn marks from the connection overheating.

“He (the electrician) said it was very, very lucky that the house didn’t go up,” Maura said.

Aluminum wiring was used from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s in many new or renovated homes. It was used after the price of copper jumped significantly and aluminum became a cheaper alternative.

It became apparent that the aluminum wiring posed a danger in the ’70s after there were many residential fires due to complications from the wiring. No new construction was done with the wiring but it was left up to homeowners to inspect their homes and make changes to any existing aluminum wiring.

St. Albert Fire Chief Ray Richards said that although he hasn’t responded to a call relating to aluminum wiring that he knows of in at least 10 years, he says that many people may be at risk for an electrical fire and not know it.

The McGarrigle’s house in Grandin was built around 1975. They have lived in the house for 35 years and didn’t know they were in any danger.

“We never were really aware that there was a problem,” Maura said. “ We didn’t know that there was aluminum wiring.”

Eric Gould, an electrician from Proline Electric, said that the McGarrigles are one of the many families who do not know they have dangerous electrical connections in their home.

Gould said that he runs into a very dangerous situation around once a month when he is working in residential properties, and a potentially dangerous situation every couple of weeks.

While it may seem like a home with aluminum wiring is safe because it hasn’t cause a problem yet, Gould says that is a very dangerous misconception.

“Because of some of the physical properties of the aluminum wires, the longer they do sit the worse and more frequent the problems can become,” Gould said.

The aluminum wiring itself isn’t the problem; it gets dangerous where the wires connect with the fixtures. The aluminum expands and contracts at twice the rate of copper wires, so it loosens the connections to the outlets and switches.

Another issue is that the aluminum wires will oxidize. When the aluminum is exposed to oxygen in air, a layer of aluminum oxide, which looks like white bathroom scum, can build up on the wire and cause resistance where the wires are joined together.

When the connections are compromised it can cause fixtures to work only intermittently – like the McGarrigles – or when the electrical cord is wiggled. This is because the wire is only connected some of the time. Other signs that you may have aluminum wire connections are walls or fixtures feeling hot, the smell of melting or burning coming from walls or the yellowish-brown discoloration of light fixtures.

The fix is not to replace all the wiring in the entire house but to have a certified electrician come in and attach a piece of copper, or a ‘pigtail’ to the wire to connect with the fixtures. Some homes can have up to 500 fixtures in their house that need to be replaced.

The McGarrigles had to replace 90 fixtures in their house.

Although the fix is not cheap, Gould said it could potentially save a life.

If you think your home may have aluminum wiring, call a certified electrician for an inspection. Many electricians will come have a look at the wiring at no cost or for a small fee to determine if your home may be in danger.

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Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2016. She writes about municipal, provincial and federal politics; court and crime; general news and features.