Aluminum wiring is a controversial subject in the real estate world. I often have clients ask questions like, “Is aluminum wiring safe?” or “Does it need to be replaced?”. My short answer is yes it is safe, and no it does not need to be replaced. However, I need to elaborate on those answers, as aluminum wiring requires special considerations.
I often hear people say that aluminum wiring has been outlawed for use in residential construction. This is not true. It is still very much allowed when installed properly.
Traditionally, copper has been (and still is) the preferred conductor since electricity’s inception in the late 1800's. It wasn’t until the 1960's, at the height of the Vietnam War era, that aluminum wiring began to be used in American homes. Copper prices were sky high as it was being used to make munitions and other products for military use. Home builders had to find an affordable alternative. That alternative was aluminum.
Copper is Better
It is well known that copper is a better electrical conductor than aluminum. The manufacturers and rating agencies knew this and required aluminum wire be sized one gauge larger than copper wire to carry the same current. Where a branch circuit to a light fixture is traditionally ran with 14 gauge copper, it would have to be ran with 12 gauge aluminum. The smaller the the gauge, the larger the wire.
Problems began to arise a short time after aluminum wire became widely used. Issues included lights flickering, cover plates on switches and receptacles would be warm to the touch, and burnt wire insulation. These were all caused by the aluminum wire overheating for several reasons we will look at below.
Aluminum wire is softer that copper which made it much more susceptible to cuts and nicks when removing insulation to make connections. When an area of a wire is damaged, that place becomes a hot spot that will overheat.
When electricity passes through a wire, it heats up. When metal heats up, it expands, and, consequently. it contracts when it cools down. Aluminum has a higher expansion rate than copper. The expansion and contraction cycle due to heating and cooling would cause what is referred to as “creep.” When connected to outlets not approved for use with aluminum wire, the wire would literally creep out from under the terminal screw holding the wire down. This created a loose connection that would overheat.
As with any metal, aluminum will oxidize, more commonly known as rusting. The difference between copper and aluminum is that the rust formed on copper is still a good electrical conductor. The rust that forms on aluminum does not conduct electricity well at all. It creates resistance that will cause overheating.
The problems noted above all occurred at the connection points like those receptacles, switches, light fixtures and at the main panel. The way to prevent these issues was, and still is, to use special connectors approved for use with both copper and aluminum. There were receptacles, switches, wire nuts, breakers and other electrical devices designed for this purpose. They should be marked or labeled with one of three markings: CO/ALR, AL-CU, or CU-AL.
Building inspectors were not common at the time when aluminum wiring was being installed. As a result, aluminum wiring was installed in many homes without connectors approved for use with aluminum. This is where the problems occurred and are still occurring today.
Stay tuned for my next post in which I will discuss more issues associated with aluminum wiring, insurance companies, and what to do if your house has aluminum wiring.
You've just built the home of your dreams. You agonized for months over design options and finishes. You stopped by countless times to see the progress. The process you thought would never end is finally complete and you're wondering if you should have it privately inspected. The answer is a resounding yes!
A common misconception many people have is that newly constructed homes don't need to be inspected. This couldn't be further from the truth. You are making a lifetime investment in your new home and you need to be sure it is built to last a lifetime as well. I've encountered way too many problems when inspecting new construction homes to believe that there is such thing as a perfectly built home that doesn't need to be inspected.
One myth some builders will tell you is the home has been inspected and passed multiple times by the municipal inspector as part of the permit process, therefore a private inspection would be a waste of your money. Understand that municipal inspectors are often overworked to the point that they don't have time to thoroughly inspect every single aspect of your home. I am in no way saying municipal inspectors are not good at their jobs, they just simply don't have the time. They do a great job of ensuring that homes are built in accordance with current building codes. Keep in mind, however, that building codes are the minimum standards to which the home must conform to. There is a huge gray area between building codes, quality workmanship and best practices. Any reputable builder should welcome a private home inspection. Even the best builders can and do miss things during the construction process.
Another myth regarding new construction inspections is since it is brand new, there can't be any problems. While new homes don't have the same problems as existing homes (such as aging building components nearing the end of their lifespan), they come with their own set of problems, usually related to improper construction techniques. While the average homeowner may notice cosmetic issues, without the knowledge of building codes and proper construction methods or best practices, they may overlook more serious problems. Private home inspections are by no means a code compliance inspection, however, licensed new construction home inspectors understand current building code requirements and construction methods in order to be able to identify any major issues.
Below are a few photos of issues I have found during new construction inspections.
This roof had a large hole in it where conduit for planned overhead power supply had been removed.
This house had a broken window in the attic.
I often find loose wires that were forgotten.
Hopefully these pictures help reinforce my point; new construction homes need to be inspected too!
Without a doubt, one of the most common issues I see pertains to the dishwasher installation. The issue is that the dishwasher drain line does not make a high loop underneath the kitchen sink. In the diagram below, you can see that a high loop is just what it sounds like.
As you see, the dishwasher drain should make a high loop up to the bottom side of the countertop. The high loop is necessary for 2 reasons. The first is to ensure proper drainage of waste water during the drain cycle and prevent siphoning. The second is to prevent contaminated water from the garbage disposal or sink drain from backflowing into the dishwasher.
An alternative to the high loop would be an air gap that is installed through the countertop. An air gap device is used to create a siphon break for the same purposes as the high loop. As you can see in the photo below, it is a bit unsightly. For this reason most homeowners opt for the high loop.
Although all new dishwashers come with a high loop integrated into the unit itself, every installation manual I have read requires the high loop be installed under the sink as well. Luckily this is not a hard requirement to satisfy. A simple and inexpensive fix would require a piece of metal (or plastic) strapping and a screw (left), or for a few dollars more, you could purchase a u-bend bracket (right). Both of the options should be available at your local hardware store.
Imagine this. It's 2 a.m. and you are sound asleep. Suddenly you are awakened by the blaring sound of your smoke detector. Your house is on fire. You need to get out but the hallway outside your bedroom is blocked by flames. This is where the code compliant egress window that should be installed in your bedroom can save your life.
An egress window, referred to in the building code as an Emergency Egress & Rescue Opening, is one that opens directly to the exterior of the home. It is designed to allow occupants to exit the home in case of emergency, or, in a worst case scenario, allow firefighters a way to enter the bedroom to search for and rescue occupants who may be incapacitated. There are specific size requirements for a window to be considered an egress window.
According to the International Residential Code, egress window requirements are as follows:
The diagrams below illustrate these requirements.
During a home inspection, I look at bedroom windows to determine if they are safe. Sure, I could pull out my tape measure to make sure the window meets egress measurement requirements, but I believe it is much easier than that. In fact, I believe anyone could determine if a bedroom widow is safe or not. If you don't think you could reach and/or fit through the window opening with relative ease, then its probably not a safe egress window.
Egress window requirements were seen in building codes as early as 1970, though many jurisdictions didn't adopt these codes until years later. It is not uncommon to see homes with windows that are too small by today's standards, yet were perfectly acceptable when the home was built. If you have aging windows needing replacement that don't meet current egress requirements, have no fear. Most jurisdictions allow you to replace existing windows with energy efficient windows of the same size. Depending on the size of the window, another option would be to replace it with a casement window with egress hinges. This would give you an energy efficient window that also qualifies as an Emergency Escape & Rescue Opening.
Home inspectors should point out windows that are too small as safety hazards and recommend the issue be corrected. While correction would be the best option, it is not always feasible. In this case, another option would be to not use the room as a bedroom.
Have you ever looked at your gas furnace or gas water heater and wondered what the short piece of gas pipe going to nothing was for? Did the plumber possibly leave it in case you wanted to add to the line? It is actually a very useful component of the gas line known as a sediment trap.
Let's look at what the code says about sediment traps:
"Where a sediment trap is not incorporated as part if the appliance, a sediment trap shall be installed downstream of the appliance shutoff valve as close to the inlet of the appliance as practical."
We can see an example of this in the picture below.
The code also specifies some locations where sediment traps are not required: illuminating appliances (appliances that have a flame that is clearly visible during operation), ranges, clothes dryers, decorative vented appliances for installation in vented fireplaces, gas fireplaces and outdoor grills. The orientation of the sediment trap is also important. It must be vertical to function properly. We can see an improper horizontal installation below.
I frequently see appliances required to have sediment traps that aren't equipped with them. I find it odd since sediment traps have basically always been required. I even find them missing during new construction inspections. Apparently, not all installers and government inspectors are concerned with whether they are present or not. To be honest, I am not overly concerned with their presence either. However, I will note the lack of a sediment trap in the report.
If you look at your own appliances or a thorough home inspection report and see that there are missing sediment traps, don't be alarmed. Just consider having one installed the next time the unit is serviced or replaced. If you don't have the issue corrected, it isn't the end of the world. Think of a sediment trap as a cheap form of insurance for your gas appliances.
On a recent inspection, I came across an issue that I don't see often, yet it is one of the more potentially dangerous problems I see. The problem? Air conditioning ducts from the living space supplying air to the garage space. To understand the dangers of this issue, lets first look at what the building code says regarding garage HVAC systems:
IRC Section M1601.6- Furnaces and air-handling systems that supply air into living spaces shall not supply air to or return air from a garage.
This doesn't mean the garage space can't be heated and cooled. It is saying that the garage can't share an HVAC system with the rest of the home. The garage must have its own separate system. This makes sense when we think about it from a health and safety standpoint.
Think about all the things we typically store in our garages. Things such as lawn equipment, pesticides and herbicides, painting supplies, gas fired appliances such as water heaters, automobiles and much more. Let's focus on two of those things: items with combustion engines and gas fired appliances.
Combustion engines and gas fired appliances function by burning fossil fuels. This process results in products expelled as exhaust gases. Some of these products are inert, such as nitrogen, or harmless. such as water vapor. Exhaust gas also contains some products which can be extremely harmful to human health. one of those products is carbon monoxide.
Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas that displaces oxygen. It is an asphyxiant and is often referred to as the silent killer. The danger of carbon monoxide is that it binds to your blood cells just like oxygen does. Actually, carbon monoxide is 200 times more attractive to your blood cells than oxygen. Therefore, it will attach to the blood cell and block the oxygen from attaching. This will greatly inhibit the bloods ability to carry oxygen to the tissues.
When carbon monoxide poisoning occurs, the symptoms usually include headache and nausea. However, if the concentrations of carbon monoxide are high enough, you could become unconscious before you begin to notice any of the other symptoms. This is what makes carbon monoxide so dangerous.
When the ducts from the living space also extend to the garage, it provides a direct path for carbon monoxide to enter the home. If a car were left running in the garage (perhaps warming up on a cold morning) or if a gas fired appliance experienced a back draft situation, carbon monoxide could backfeed through the ducts into the home and create a potentially deadly situation. Your family's health and safety is my number one priority. It is for this reason that I will always call out ductwork shared between the living space and garage. I also recommend replacing (if one is already present) or installing a carbon monoxide detector upon moving into the home.
Colin is a Certified Professional Home Inspector as well as a licensed MS Residential Builder. He has been remodeling homes since he was 14 and even built his own house by hand from the ground up. Colin is also the owner of Wilson Home Inspections.
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