Giving Aluminum Wiring a Fresh Look

While many know of the travails suffered by the owners of buildings 
wired with aluminum conductors back in the 1950s and 1960s, far fewer 
understand just how much improved today’s aluminum wiring products are 
from those used five decades ago. While the older offerings were not 
designed for building applications, today’s aluminum wire features 
alloys designed specifically for use in local distribution systems. In 
fact, in some cases aluminum wire can be a better option than 
traditional copper conductors in both cost and performance. Southwire

Chuck Ross

While many know of the travails suffered by the owners of buildings wired with aluminum conductors back in the 1950s and 1960s, far fewer understand just how much improved today’s aluminum wiring products are from those used five decades ago. While the older offerings were not designed for building applications, today’s aluminum wire features alloys designed specifically for use in local distribution systems. In fact, in some cases aluminum wire can be a better option than traditional copper conductors in both cost and performance.

Aluminum’s woes as a wiring material grew out of a copper shortage during the housing boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Manufacturers turned to the lighter metal, which long had been used in utility-scale transmission projects, as a less-expensive copper alternative. Also during this time, steel electrical screws became a popular substitute for brass connectors, as the electrical industry faced a brass shortage, as well. This replacement added to safety problems, thanks to unrecognized compatibility problems between steel and aluminum.

Over time, connections between the utility-grade aluminum wiring and steel screws began to loosen because the two materials feature different rates of thermal expansion. The loose connections led to high-resistance conditions and, as a result, a number of residential fires. Across the United States, homeowners raced to replace aluminum wiring with copper, and aluminum gained a highly negative reputation as a wiring material.

Since that time, however, manufacturers have created new alloys that have led to the development of AA-8000 series conductors. These conductors, along with related UL testing standards, allow aluminum products – especially those from trusted U.S. manufacturers –  to be used safely in many residential and commercial applications. And in larger gauges, aluminum’s lighter weight can make these products preferable to copper wiring, resulting in both easier installation and fewer potential injuries. So, electrical contractors who have been put off by events of 40 years ago could benefit from taking a new look at aluminum options with their next project bid.


Photo courtesy of Southwire

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