Aluminum Wiring: What’s the Problem?

By Scott Bowers,

Aluminum electrical wiring showing burning

Aluminum Wiring was used in the construction of roughly 1.5 million U.S. homes built between 1965 and 1973. According to a report published by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), homes wired with aluminum wire manufactured before 1972 (“old technology” aluminum wire) are 55 times more likely to have one or more connections reach Fire Hazard Conditions than is a home wired with copper. This problem only gets worse with time. The aluminum-wired connections that fail tend to progressively deteriorate at a slow rate, and after many years can reach very high temperature while still remaining electrically functional in the circuits. A large number of connection burnouts have occurred in aluminum-wired homes. Many fires have occurred some involving injury and death.

The Aluminum Industry Wins in Court

Initial investigations into hazards associated with aluminum wiring were spearheaded by the CPSC. The federal agency works very closely with manufacturers and testing organizations like the UL. Its findings are taken seriously due in part to its ability to impose industry standards.

In the mid-1970s, the CPSC began distributing information concerning the potential hazards of aluminum wiring. It also was working to seek relief for people with homes wired with aluminum. This resulted in a 1976 lawsuit filed by Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corporation against the CPSC, ending in 1979 with a federal appeals court ruling that deemed electrical distribution items not to be consumer products.

Since the CPSC has jurisdiction over consumer products, the area of electrical wiring falls outside of the CPSC.

Useful Resources (Supplied by Aluminum Wire Repair, Inc.)

Federal Pacific Service Panels

Insurance Considerations

Favorite Electrical Links

(Source: Aluminum Wire Repair, Inc.. No copyright infringement intended.)

What are Arc-Faults and Why are They Dangerous?

By Scott Bowers,

Leviton Electrical Fire Infographic

An arc-fault is an unintentional arcing condition in a circuit. Arcing creates high intensity heating at the point of the arc, resulting in burning particles that can exceed 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit and may over time ignite surrounding material such as wood framing or insulation. 

There are two types of potentially dangerous arcs – parallel arcs and series arcs. 

Source: Leviton

What Causes Arc-Faults?

Often unseen, arc faults can occur anywhere in the home’s electrical system including:

Within Walls

  • Within walls from nails, screws or staples inadvertently driven into wires.

Within Cords

  • Within electrical cords accidently damaged by furniture resting or pressing upon them.

Within Loose Connections

  • At loose electrical connections or cords damaged by doors closing on them.

Within Damaged Cords

  • Through old or cracked wires or cords as well as wires or cords damaged by heat, sunlight or humidity. 

Prevention and Consequences of Electrical Fires

Source: Leviton

Why Federal Pacific Electric Panels Are Deadly

By Scott Bowers,

Your circuit breaker panel protects your home from problems caused by external power surges, circuit overload, and short circuits. A breaker cuts off the power to a circuit by tripping when it detects a circuit overload. If your circuit breaker panel fails, the electrical wires can get so hot that they start a fire.

Unfortunately, this breaker failure happens every year in homes equipped with Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) Stab-Lok panels. Despite this information and the number of electricians and home inspectors who warn against this equipment, FPE Stab-Lok panels were never officially recalled.

HOW TO TELL IF YOU OWN A FEDERAL PACIFIC ELECTRIC STAB-LOK PANEL 

Millions of homes were built with FPE Stab-Lok panels between 1950 and 1990. If your home was constructed during this time frame, then it may contain a Federal Pacific Electrical panel labeled Stab-Lok.

Usually, Federal Pacific or FPE will be written on the box’s front cover. Inside the box, look for a label that says, Stab-Lok. The breakers will have a red stripe cross each switch.

Problems With Federal Pacific Electric “Stab-Lok” Panels

A CPSC Investigation

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) began an investigation in the early 1980s and hired electrical experts to test FPE Stab-Lok breakers installed in homes from 1960 to 1985, which did not fully comply with Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. requirements. Fifty-one percent of the tested breakers failed to trip.

Unfortunately, the CPSC ended its investigation in 1983, stating in a news release that, “Based on the Commission’s limited budget, the known hazards the Commission has identified and must address… and the uncertainty of the results of such a costly investigation, the Commission has decided not to commit further resources to its investigation of FPE’s circuit breakers.” The CPSC claimed that the data did not establish “that the circuit breakers pose a serious threat of injury to consumers.”

DOUBT SURROUNDING FPE STAB-LOK PANELS 

Even though the CPSC investigation closed, one member of the testing team, Jesse Aronstein, continues to speak out about the dangers of FPE Stab-Lok panels. An electrical engineer with a doctorate in materials science, Aronstein cowrote a peer-reviewed paper to illustrate the fire damage that those types of Federal Pacific Electrical panels cause. Based on information collected from fire reports, Aronstein and coauthor, Richard Lowry, estimate that FPE Stab-Lok panel failures result in as many as 2,800 fires, 13 deaths, and $40 million in property damage annually.

Reliance Electric Co., FPE’s parent company, provided additional information that leads one to doubt how safe these panels are. Reliance Electric Co. has stated that FPE obtained the Underwriters Laboratory seal of approval for its Stab-Lok breakers “through the use of deceptive and improper practices.”

It’s also worth noting that the CPSC issued a more recent statement in 2011 regarding their earlier investigation, stating that it was closed “without making a determination as to the safety of FPE circuit breakers or the accuracy of the manufacturer’s position on the matter.”

Is It Safe to Own an FPE Stab-Lok Panel?

The trouble with an FPE Stab-Lok panel is that it can function perfectly fine — until suddenly it doesn’t. It only takes one short circuit or overcurrent.

CPSC recommends getting this type of panel inspected by a qualified electrician “to look for any signs of overheating or malfunction among the circuit breakers.” However, after testing over 4,000 breakers, Aronstein states that you can only identify a defective Stab-Lok breaker by first removing it and then testing it. This process can be more expensive than installing a new, less risky Federal Pacific Electrical panel or any other brand. In many cases, it makes more sense to replace an FPE Stab-Lok panel.

How to Tell If You Own a Federal Pacific Electric “Stab-Lok” Panel

Millions of homes were built with FPE Stab-Lok panels between 1950 and 1990. If your home was constructed during this time frame, then it may contain one of these panels.

Photo by: “Repeater-Reclaim”. Used under Creative Commons License.

Usually, “Federal Pacific” or “FPE” will be written on the box’s front cover. Inside the box, look for a label that says, “Stab-Lok.” The breakers will have a red stripe cross each switch.

Unsure if your circuit breaker panel is safe for your home?

Contact Main Street Electric Company to set up an appointment for an electrician to visit your home or business. We have the manpower, experience, and training necessary to assist you with the highest standards of safety, quality, integrity, and value.

(Source: www.allelectric.com)

FOR SAFETY’S SAKE: THE GREAT AFCI DEBATE

By Scott Bowers,

While AFCI debates continue, more can be done to increase safety by broadening their use

(Article originally published on Eaton.com and features the opinions of Thomas Domitrovich, P.E., LEED AP, vice president, technical sales.)

AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) protection is essential to reducing the likelihood of electrical fires and the primary reason the National Electrical Code (NEC) first sought to provide this protection in new homes in 1999. The NEC 2020 code cycle continues the journey of AFCI protection for all 15- and 20-amp branch circuits. In my opinion, while the expanded requirements will significantly increase safety, some in the industry seek to impede this code advancement as they believe the code does little to affect fire dangers associated with arcing conductors.

The great AFCI debate: four points to consider

AFCIs were created to detect conductor arcing and sparking that can cause fires. By shutting power off to damaged circuits, the devices reduce the likelihood of electrical fires in new and existing homes, dormitory units, guest rooms and suites. As with many new technologies in our industry, debate ensues, with individuals and sometimes organizations speaking against these installation requirements. Four points are at the crux of the debate: cost, unwanted tripping, technological advancement and the impact of fire statistics.


Point 1: Cost to the housing market

Some in the industry claim that any cost increase of a dwelling will prevent potential home buyers from making purchases. Financials can be greatly exaggerated to the point of absurdity. I’ve been a part of discussions, for example, where it was claimed that AFCI devices add $4,000 to the price of a 1,500 square-foot home. In reality, the cost is around $200. Considering that a home is often the most substantial investment people make in their lifetime, the cost of an AFCI device is pennies a month when rolled into a 30-year mortgage. In short, AFCI costs pale in comparison to ensuring a safer home.

I’ve been a part of discussions, for example, where it was claimed that AFCI devices add $4,000 to the price of a 1,500 square-foot home. In reality, the cost is around $200.

Thomas Domitrovich, P.E.

Point 2: Unwanted tripping of devices

AFCI technology has been on the market for well over a decade. And, like Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) technology, it’s unforgiving in detecting circuit problems. Many times when an AFCI or GFCI detects a problem, we mistakenly blame the device without realizing it’s just doing its job.

In my opinion, AFCI technology took a path of acceptance similar to the GFCIs brought to market in the 1970s. GFCIs saw compatibility issues due to installation practices and because general appliances permitted high levels of leakage current that tripped GFCI-protected circuits. Over time, the industry changed by updating and communicating installation practices and, in some cases, worked with manufacturers to reduce products’ leakage current. One could argue that the introduction of GFCIs significantly improved installation practices and also appliance manufacturing and construction.

Similar to GFCIs, AFCIs saw challenges with connected loads and installation practices when first introduced, but over the past 15+ years significant improvements have been made. I believe today’s AFCI technology is highly dependable and, with that, the tripping of AFCI safety devices must not be ignored. Contractors in the field should work to understand why a trip occurs. Today’s advancements in both AFCI and GFCI technologies are such that tripping issues, although sometimes difficult to resolve, are likely not due to incompatibilities but rather to problems that must be addressed.

Point 3: Technological advancement is a constant

As more solutions enter the market featuring the level of protection the NEC seeks, manufacturers of any one technology may feel their solution use is threatened. The NEC is providing more options than ever to provide protection for both new and existing homes. These new technologies are customer options and will impact the consumer buying decision. Though new technologies may impact the sale of some products, manufacturers should refrain from impeding the progress of safety.

GFCI receptacle manufacturers and sellers are naturally concerned about the threat to their businesses. While no one wants to see businesses struggle, I believe competition is a catalyst for better solutions. The current requirements of the NEC provide protection of the entire branch circuit. In my opinion, there’s no reason to reduce the level of protection — especially for the sake of the sale. As technology progresses, it is quite possible that new ways of providing protection could require innovation in GFCI technologies to stay competitive. I firmly believe we should not acquiesce for financial gain.

There’s no reason to reduce the level of protection — especially for the sake of the sale.

Thomas Domitrovich, P.E.

Point 4: Fire statistics are misleading

Some call for the removal of the AFCI requirement altogether, arguing that there hasn’t been a significant impact to fire statistics since AFCIs came on the market in the early 2000s.

This claim is correct on its surface. Fire statistics haven’t changed much, but for a good reason. Most of today’s homes were built before the NEC required AFCIs in 2002, which only stipulated bedroom-circuit protection at that time. Add to that the slow expansion progress of AFCI protection: in 2001, the NEC called for an average of two circuit breakers in new homes; in 2014, only a handful more was added.

In short, fire statistics can be misleading because we don’t have a sample size large enough to affect the numbers in either direction. It’s going to take time to increase the number of AFCIs installed to impact statistical relevance. Over time, as older homes are demolished or updated to meet new code requirements, we should begin to see a change in the numbers.

Contractors and homeowners should make changes now

Overall, I believe we’re heading in the right direction for new home construction. As with any electrical technology, change is a slow process. It’s up to us all to understand the safety benefits of AFCIs and do more to increase safety. That starts with fact-based, honest conversations about NEC requirements.

I encourage all contractors and homeowners to consider going above and beyond the bare minimum requirements of the NEC and to look at installing AFCI technology in existing homes. Doing so will increase safety and will positively impact the industry thanks to additional information garnered from the entire housing inventory.

(SOURCE: Eaton. No copyright infringement intended)

How Safe is Aluminum Wire?

By Scott Bowers,

Aluminum wire is still approved by the N.E.C. But this on the assumption that everything will be done perfect. Having said that i would like to give a little advice on using aluminum wire when you are building a new home. For the sake of saving a few dollars, it is not worth the safety hazard you face when using this wire. This is not only my opinion but the opinion of many others in the trade. Many times i have been called to repair corroded connections using this wire. Most of the time the aluminum wire had to be replaced with copper. One other piece of advice, before you consider buying a home with aluminum wire you might want to check with the insurance company. Some of them may refuse to insure a house with aluminum wire.

There are a lot of homes that have been wired with aluminum wiring and it would not be financially possible to rewire the entire house or service. There are a few things you can do to make sure that the wiring is not becoming a problem. You should be on the lookout for devices or lighting going on and off. Breakers or outlets overheating. Have the main panel checked for corrosion or loose connections. When adding copper devices or wire to aluminum, make sure this work is done by someone who knows the proper procedure for this type of wiring. A little preventative maintenance can go a long way in preventing future safety hazards.

To get answers to more questions about your electrical system see: Master Electric FAQs